Understanding Blue-Green Algae

The team at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute decodes blue-green algae, red tides, and our waters

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A Harbor Branch team out testing the water. Photo courtesy Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute
A Harbor Branch team out testing the water. Photo courtesy Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute

It has become a predictable summer scourge…. One day the ocean waves are blue and the rivers clear, and the next our beautiful waters are murky and unenticing. The culprit: floating algae.

We hear about harmful algal blooms (HABS) often, but what are they really? And are they safe to swim in? We asked James Sullivan, executive director of Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and an expert on algae and HABS, to fill us in.

According to Sullivan, HABS occur when algae—plant-like organisms that live in fresh water as well as the ocean—grow out of control and produce damaging toxins that are unhealthy for both marine life and humans. “The blue-green algae Floridians mostly worry about is freshwater algae that comes from ponds, lakes, and reservoirs like Lake Okeechobee and enters salt water through runoff,” says Sullivan. “When the algae get mixed into high-salinity water, they will essentially die and burst, releasing toxins into the water.”

James Sullivan. Photo courtesy Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute
James Sullivan. Photo courtesy Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute

When masses of algae die and release toxins, it depletes the oxygen in water, in turn killing off animal species or forcing them to leave the affected waters. These toxins can also aerosolize, creating a microcystin, which carries an odor and can adhere to humans’ nasal passages. 

For humans, the effects of exposure are still not clear. “We need more research to understand what the low-level chronic effects of being exposed are,” says Sullivan, who also serves on Florida’s Blue-Green Algae Task Force. “Exposure doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get sick, but you should still avoid the water when a bloom is happening.” Pets should stay away from the water too, he notes.

Red tides, which you’ve probably also heard about, are more prevalent on Florida’s west coast. The naturally occurring algae that create red tides mostly come from the Gulf of Mexico and tend to stay on that side of the state, explains Sullivan. “It’s been blooming in Florida waters for hundreds of years,” he says.

Blue-green algal bloom in the St. Lucie Estuary. Photo courtesy Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute
Blue-green algal bloom in the St. Lucie Estuary. Photo courtesy Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute

The Good Fight

What is the Blue-Green Algae Task Force?

The task force created by Governor Ron DeSantis a few years ago aids the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in protecting, conserving, and managing the state’s natural resources. Its main goal is to restore Florida’s water bodies that have been adversely affected by blue-green algal blooms. The group works on identifying algae, nutrient reduction, and remediation efforts and are tasked with providing the DEP with recommendations for both preventing harmful blooms and cleaning them up. “We on the task force always harp on the fact that communication is key,” says member James Sullivan. “People need to know what’s going on in their neighborhood and water.” 

To keep up with the latest findings and more, visit protectingfloridatogether.gov, an online portal that offers transparent data on current water quality, blue-green algae, and red tides.

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