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Date of Issue: March 30, 2005

Sandscript

Bad news on the manatee, red tide, Everglades fronts

Thirty-three manatees have died so far this March, the apparent victims of the lingering red tide outbreak off Southwest Florida.

One of the dead sea cows was found off Anna Maria Island, the rest lining the beaches from St. Petersburg to Naples.

Red tide is a naturally occurring phenomenon. The microorganisms are found in sea water all the time, but upon occasion they multiply or bloom. In bloom, the tiny "critters" emit a toxin that causes respiratory irritation in all mammals. For manatees, living virtually at snout level with the toxin, the results can be deadly.

Scientists at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute have performed necropsies on most of the 33 and found their deaths appeared to be caused by the red tide organism, which has lingered off the coast for several months.

And researchers have pointed out that the death toll of manatees is rivaling the record set in 1996, when 149 manatees died from a red tide outbreak that lasted for more than a year.

As of Friday, red tide reports from Tampa Bay and offshore of Manatee County were low to moderate, with high readings found off New Pass and elsewhere in Sarasota County waters. There are also sea birds suffering from the airborne toxins in Sarasota County.

Red tide culprit?

Just what triggers a red tide bloom has been the topic of lively debate for decades. Warmer than usual water? Cooler than usual water? Excessive nutrients in the water?

The latter is gaining more credence, at least among some scientists, according to the Naples Daily News.

Larry Brand with the University of Miami said last week that he suspects that stormwater runoff carrying nutrients from farms or phosphate mines may serve to spur the red tide into bloom.

"There's no obvious smoking gun, but we're constantly pumping more and more nutrients into the Gulf," Brand told the News. "(But) the percentage of time you find large red tide blooms has gone up 25-fold in some areas."

Brand has done research on the microorganism in Florida Bay and near Flamingo, the southernmost town on Florida's Southwest coast. He found high levels of phosphorous from mining operations plus lots of nitrogen from the sugar farms entering Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

There have also been more red tide outbreaks concurrent with the excess runoff.

Cleanup conundrum

So the solution to solving the red tide puzzle seems to be limiting pollution-choking runoff, right? And if the Everglades and surrounding sugar industry is to blame, the ongoing Everglades cleanup project should slow the flow and stop the problem, right?

Hardly.

Five years into the cleanup of the Everglades, an estimated $14 billion project, almost nothing substantive has been done. A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers official told the St. Petersburg Times that "we haven't built a single project during the first five years. We've missed almost every milestone." And a computer model run on the proposed projects has indicated that instead of fixing the runoff dilemma, it may have actually worsened flooding in west Miami.

The Everglades restoration effort was planned for a 50-50 split between the feds and the state. To date, the state has spent about $1 billion; the federal share so far has been $230,000. One spokesperson from the Miccosukkee Tribe of Indians suggested the feds have "spent more money on hotel meeting rooms than on moving Everglades restoration forward."

The federal spin on the matter is that they've needed five years to work out the strategy to handle the on-the-ground construction effort.

However, the delays are costly. The whole plan originally was supposed to cost about $8 billion — publicly, that was the figure announced. Privately, the experts said it would take closer to $14 billion and now, with the lack of speed offered through federal channels, an additional $1 billion cost overrun is being projected by some experts.

The Everglades restoration plan is supposed to both bring the Glades back to a natural state as well as provide enough drinking water for South Florida's population to double.

Right.

Even more bad news

Big, lumbering manatees apparently have china-doll bones, according to researchers at the University of Florida.

Manatee bones are dense and surprisingly heavy compared to other mammals, but it's because they don't have any marrow. It's the denseness that makes them fragile, similar to porcelain or ceramic.

The easily broken bones therefore lead to more disastrous results as the sea cows interact with boats.

In the past 30 years, more than 5,300 manatee deaths have been reported in Florida. More than 1,100 of those fatalities were caused by boat collisions.

It's estimated that there are 3,000 to 4,000 manatees swimming in Florida waters today.

How big was it?

Although some fishers state that the size of any fish caught is the distance between their outstretched arms, the issue of just how big a fish is has always been something less than hard-and-fast science.

Sure, weight is always certain, but all Florida fishing regulations rely on length to determine if it's a keeper or not.

So the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is going to take the fish-length matter in hand, literally, in April to clarify and standardize the measuring process.

"FWC's saltwater fishing rules express size limits of marine fish in either fork length or total length," an FWC spokesman said. "Size-limit measurements for fish expressed in fork length, such as Spanish mackerel, pompano, and cobia, are considered to be easily understood by fishermen and do not need further clarification beyond ‘from the tip of the snout to the rear center edge of the tail.'

"However, FWC rules do not clearly specify how to measure fish that have total length size limits, such as red drum, spotted seatrout and snook, subjecting the measurement of total length to interpretation by anglers and law enforcement officers."

FWC has come up with a measuring rule change that would have the fish's length determined as from the snout with mouth closed to the end of the tail which is squeezed.

The matter will be debated April 15 in Tallahassee. If you're still confused, clarification is available at myfwc.com/marine/Fishing_Measurement.htm.

Mystery writers conference coming in May

A group has been working for months to put together a mystery writers conference May 19-21, including yours truly, and we're up and ready to go.

"Florida Mystery: A conference to die for" will be held at the Holiday Inn Airport and Marina in Sarasota.

Authors scheduled to appear to date include James O. Born ("Walking Money," "Shock Wave"), Tom Corcoran (Alex Rutledge mysteries), Tim Dorsey ("Torpedo Juice," "Stingray Shuffle"), Leslie Glass (April Woo novels), Jonathon King ("The Blue Edge of Midnight," "A Killing Night"), Jeff Lindsay ("Darkly Dreaming Dexter," Deeply Devoted Dexter"),  Barbara Parker ("Suspicion of Rage," "Suspicion of Innocence"), Les Standiford ("Raw Deal," "Bone Key"), James Swain (Tony Valentine novels), and Diane Vogt (Judge Wilhemina Carson series).

Local authors include Wayne Barcomb ("Blood Tide," "All Are Naked"), Don Bruns ("Barbados Heart," "Jamaica Blue"), Peter King (Gourmet Detective and culinary mysteries), and Joanne Meyer ("Fortune Cookie," (Heavenly Detour").

There will also be some forensic talk with the local folks who do DNA profiling.

And Cal Branch, noted John D. MacDonald expert, will discuss the influence of MacDonald on the mystery genre and today's authors.

Registration is available through the Sarasota County Film Commission at 955-0991. Conference registration is $99 and includes all panels and discussions, two continental breakfasts, a boxed lunch and an opening night reception. Sponsorships are also available.

Sandscript factoid

Although most of the manatees found in the United States are off Florida's coasts, sea cows have been spotted as far north as Virginia and as far west as Texas.

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