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Ties Between Mote and Mosaic Warrant Skepticism

Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium is an independent, not-for-profit, marine research organization on City Island in Sarasota. For nearly 60 years, it has been the leading marine science and education facility in our area, supporting conservation and sustainable use of marine resources. However, environmentalists have expressed grave concern over its financial relationship with the Mosaic Company and whether that may have influenced the position Mote has taken on red tide.

Karenia brevis is a microscopic, single-celled, photosynthetic organism commonly found in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Red tide is the common name for the algal blooms it causes in saltwater bodies. The toxic algae essentially suffocates fish and contaminates shellfish, which can then pass a neurotoxin on to other animals and even humans who consume them. The aerosolized brevetoxins that occur during a bloom, cause respiratory irritation, coughing, wheezing and other symptoms, which can be particularly dangerous for people with conditions like chronic lung disease or asthma.

Experiencing your first red tide event can be a jarring experience, as dead fish tend to wash up on shore in droves for weeks on end, rotting in the Florida sun. The sight of such a post-apocalyptic scene, combined with the noxious, malodorous air is as toxic to Florida’s tourism-driven economy as the blooms are to the sea-life. The fact that the blooms have become more numerous and persistent in recent years and concentrations have increased almost exponentially from a historical perspective has everyone looking for answers as to how we can combat the phenomenon.

It has been established that red tide is a naturally occurring event. Spanish explorers described witnessing the phenomenon in Florida as early as the 16th century, and the first scientifically-documented bloom was near Panama City in 1844, with a massive bloom on record in the 1880s. Scientists at Mote have promoted the theory that because red tide blooms originate up to 40 miles offshore, human impact is minimal.

Dr. Larry E. Brand, a professor of marine biology and ecology at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, presented his lecture "Red Tide and Blue/Green Algae, Causes, Human Impacts and Health Consequences" at Suncoast Waterkeeper's annual Brunch for the Bay fundraiser on March 3 at the Bradenton Yacht Club. Brand’s research contradicts that theory, and he said he’s met with much resistance to his findings.

During his lecture, Brand said that Mote sent a team to attempt to redirect his research. He also accused state agencies of manipulating statistics in an attempt to prove there was no correlation between human activity and red tide. Dr. Brand's conclusions about the cyanobacteria blooms in Florida Bay refuted those findings, and his NOAA and EPA grants were rescinded shortly thereafter.

Brand, an expert in the ecology of algae and phytoplankton, holds a Ph.D. jointly from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and MIT. His 2007 study links long-term red tide increases along the southwest Florida coast to human-influenced nitrogen runoff carried to the west coast from Lake Okeechobee via the Caloosahatchee River. From livestock waste to fertilizer runoff from Big Sugar and other agricultural operations, as well as increased runoff from lawn and landscaping fertilizers owed to heavy central Florida development, the increased accumulation of nitrogen-rich water that is discharged to the naturally phosphate-rich waters of the Gulf has created a perfect environment for red tide blooms to thrive.

This is where things get tricky.

The source for most of that nitrogen runoff is phosphate-based fertilizers. Florida is a phosphate-rich state, and the phosphate mining industry has long been a powerful political lobby. These days, phosphate mining is pretty much synonymous with Mosaic, a Fortune 500 company based in Plymouth, Minnesota that mines phosphate and potash, and is the largest U.S. producer of potash and phosphate fertilizers.

Manatee County residents know just how effective Mosaic has been at getting its way when it comes to mining permits. Mosaic doesn’t just make political contributions, however. The $19 billion corporation throws a lot of money around in an effort to promote a green, eco-friendly image, despite operating in an industry that ravages the land and depletes groundwater stores, in addition to a host of other environmental consequences.

This includes a seven-figure advertising budget for the Tampa Bay market, which means a lot of news outlets experience potential conflicts of interests when reporting and opining on the controversial permit applications of one of their big-ticket clients. Mosaic also spends money on things like the naming rights for the City of Bradenton’s riverfront amphitheater and funding for various groups with eco-positive images.

One of the groups who has benefited from Mosaic’s largesse is Mote. The full scope of their contributions is not public, but Mote has acknowledged the company’s contributions toward a wide array of endeavors, including a $125,000 grant for its Snook Enhancement Program. Mote also lists Mosaic as one of its corporate benefactors.

Obviously, Mosaic has an interest in state agencies and venerable organizations like Mote promoting a theory that runoff from nitrogen-based fertilizers have a minimal role in increased occurrences or intensity of red tide blooms. Mote has said that because the company does not directly fund any of its red-tide research, there is no conflict of interest in accepting its money for other purposes.

Dr. Michael Crosby, Mote's president & CEO, was very clear that the organization is in growth mode when he appeared before the Manatee County Commission this week, asking for $15 million in taxpayer funding to aid in the construction of a planned aquarium in Sarasota County at Benderson Park. On more than one occasion, Crosby invoked red tide in his appeal to commissioners in making his bid.

In the wake of the horrific 2018 bloom, and following backlash for former Governor Rick Scott having cut funding for red tide research, our officials in Tallahassee have eagerly looked for ways to show Floridians that they are doing something, and Mote has been well positioned to benefit. Bill Galvano, currently President of the Florida Senate, has been a long time, enthusiastic supporter of Mote and is listed by the organization as an honorary trustee. Having Senator Galvano and other local politicians in their corner certainly couldn't hurt as the state looked to fund red-tide related projects to fund.

Last September, Mote received nearly $2.2 million, in part to expand its experimental ozone treatment system to combat the blooms. A bill filed this session would give Mote an additional $15 million over five years to continue developing new technologies for combating red tide blooms in the Gulf. In that sense, Mote's position that red tide is not caused by nitrogen runoff and can be best mitigated by yet-unproven technologies that would combat it at sea has proven lucrative.

This is not to say that Mote scientists don’t believe what they say, that the organization shouldn’t play a major role in Florida’s efforts to develop long-term solutions to a very serious problem, or that seeking to develop innovative and dynamic technologies should not be part of the equation. It just seems like Mote is very quickly ascending to the very top of the pyramid, and taxpayers are justified in wondering whether that is for political reasons as much as merit-based ones.

As it stands, Dr. Brand’s research represents the latest and best data on the subject, and he offers a sound theory based on hard science that seems the most plausible. The idea that his voice might be deliberately drowned out should be concerning, especially when one considers all of the potential political factors at play. Any way you look at it, the idea that an organization with Mote’s political and corporate ties that is currently seeking to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in public and private funding looks like it’s becoming the only show in town when it comes to red tide research, sends up red flags.

For politicians, choosing to focus spending on new technologies to combat the persistent blooms rather than ways to prevent them in the first place provides an opportunity to claim that they are doing something without upsetting the politically powerful interests who would stand to lose if we were to focus on reducing that nitrogen-rich runoff. These include not only Big Phosphate but Big Sugar, Big Agra, and Big Development. In this sense, even if Mote’s approach is not driven by self-interest, they could still be benefiting indirectly because their theory is the one that allows for the focus to be taken off of the special interest groups. Their association with Mosaic, however, doesn’t help when it comes to those optics.

Funding research across a diverse array of competing theories and proposed solutions is the path most likely to yield the best results. Floridians would be better served if so much of our red tide resources weren’t being placed in one organization’s coffers and guided by a single theory, especially when a more plausible, data-backed counter-theory exists. I'm all for developing new technologies that may someday tame red tide blooms, but let’s also take a harder look at how we can sustainably plan development, farm and raise livestock without dumping so much nitrogen-rich runoff into the gulf where Brand’s research shows it can supercharge red tide blooms, making them more persistent and costly.

Editor's note: this article has been updated to correct information about Dr. Brand's degree and published studies.

A video of Dr. Brand's lecture is available at our Facebook Page.

Dennis Maley is an editor and columnist for The Bradenton Times. With over two decades of experience as a journalist, he has covered Manatee County governmentsince 2010. He is a graduate of Shippensburg University, where he earned a degree in Government. He later served as a Captain in the U.S. Army. Clickherefor his bio. Dennis's latest novel, Sacred Hearts, is availablehere.


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