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State officials conduct research cruise to study red tide bloom in the Gulf


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— While keeping a close eye on a red tide bloom zone in a region south of the Panhandle, state wildlife officials and environmental researchers headed out for a three-day exploratory trip in the Gulf of Mexico Sunday to take water and fish samples from areas west of Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties.

Last week officials of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported that thousands of dead or dying reef fish like grouper, hogfish and snapper as well as sea turtles and crabs were found in an area of the Gulf about 80 miles long and 50 miles wide starting north near Dixie County, which is located in the southern section of an area commonly referred to as the state’s “Big Bend” region. Traces extended south to northern Pasco County.

As a proactive measure, scientists and researchers charted a map of 24 locations where they will collect fish and water samples to measure toxin levels to determine whether the red tide organism Karenia brevis is present. They will also attempt to detect the progress and path of the harmful algae-bloom.

The area where samples will be drawn extends 70 miles offshore and covers a 2,000-square-mile region west of Pinellas, Pasco, and Hernando counties.

Samples will be transported to the FWC lab in St. Petersburg where they will be further analyzed for more detailed information, like nutrient concentrations and toxins. Researchers hope the information will improve their ability to forecast the path of the red tide bloom and will provide a better understanding of the conditions that cause and accelerates the growth and spread of the Karenia brevis organism.

Crews and researchers boarded the R/V Bellows, a research vessel of the Florida Institute of Oceanography, typically docked in St. Petersburg. The 71-foot ship has worked along the state’s coastlines and estuaries as a floating laboratory for scientists and students. It also played a critical role gathering data along the Florida coast to compare future impact from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

Red tide is a high concentration of naturally occurring, harmful microscopic algae that typically form miles offshore. Often it drifts toward shore and can devastate marine wildlife and affect respiratory systems of human beach-goers.

Officials from the wildlife conservation commission will release its findings on Friday. To check the status, go online at myfwc.com/redtidestatus.

jane@clearwatergazette.com

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