Mote researchers from a host of different disciplines come together to investigate natural and man-made environmental toxins — particularly Florida's red tide. Their goal is to understand how red tide blooms form, how they dissipate into the environment and what effects they have on humans and marine animals.

Karenia brevis, the phytoplankton responsible for Florida's red tide.

Red Tide Research 

Mote's red tide research involves everything from understanding how humans are affected when they're exposed to airborne red tide toxins to discovering how and why red tide blooms form and why they eventually break down. Mote red tide research is often conducted in partnership with other nongovernmental and governmental agencies in order to maximize research funding. 

This research has led to the creation of new technologies that help identify and monitor toxic substances in the environment and a better understanding of the organisms that produce them. It has also led to new strategies to help humans deal with negative impacts caused by these toxins.

About Red Tide

A red tide, or harmful algal bloom, is a higher-than-normal concentration of a microscopic alga (plant-like organism). In Florida and the Gulf of Mexico, the species that causes most red tides is Karenia brevis, often abbreviated as K. brevis. To distinguish K. brevis blooms from red tides caused by other species of algae, researchers in Florida call it “Florida red tide.”

Mote Marine Laboratory and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) work together to continuously monitor Southwest Florida waters for the organism that causes Florida red tide, often in conjunction with local county-level partners like Sarasota County Environmental Services and the Sarasota County Health Department. 

Monitoring includes researchers taking waters samples along beaches and from boats in nearshore and offshore waters. It also includes autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), also known as underwater robots, that can be equipped with a special red tide detector (called a BreveBuster) that was developed by Mote. Once equipped with these red tide detectors, the underwater robots can be programmed for a mission to patrol area waters looking for K. brevis. They send continuous, real-time readings of their findings back to Mote's command center, where scientists analyze the data and determine whether K. brevis is being seen. 

Mote also developed the Beach Conditions Reports to tell interested members of the public what's happening on 26 Gulf Coast beaches in Florida. The Beach Conditions Reports are updated twice daily, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Conditions can vary greatly from one beach to another, so the goal is to provide residents and Florida visitors with the most up-to-date information possible so they are aware of what's happening on the beach they want to visit that day.

In addition to these programs, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shares satellite imagery of the Gulf, which can provide early indications of possible areas to watch for possible blooms.

Click here to learn more.

Red Tide and Human Health

Some people experience respiratory irritation (coughing, sneezing, tearing and an itchy throat) when the Florida red tide organism, K. brevis, is present and winds blow onshore. Offshore winds usually keep respiratory effects experienced by those on the shore to a minimum. The Florida Department of Health advises people with severe or chronic respiratory conditions, such as emphysema or asthma, to avoid red tide areas. 

Swimming is safe for most people. However, the Florida red tide can cause some people to suffer skin irritation and burning eyes. People with respiratory illness may also experience respiratory irritation in the water. Use common sense. If you are particularly susceptible to irritation from plant products, avoid an area with a red tide bloom. If you experience irritation, get out of the water and thoroughly wash off. Do not swim among dead fish because they can be associated with harmful bacteria.

Associated Research Programs

Environmental Laboratory of Forensics: These scientists investigate how chemical contaminants impact marine mammals and other marine organisms. They also focus on using biomarkers to detect the long-term and short-term effects of contaminants. Biomarkers are biochemical signals in the animals' chemistry that can indicate health, illness or reproductive impairment.

Chemical Fate and Effects: Scientists investigate the sources of toxins, routes of exposure, bioaccumulation and how toxins persist in affected organisms like the oysters that humans eat. We also study how toxins move through the food web and identify relationships between exposure and health to reduce public risk.

Environmental Health: Scientists in this program study how airborne biotoxins affect people who live, work and play along our beaches and seek to find ways to reduce these impacts through better public education and outreach programs and through unique medical treatments.
Phytoplankton Ecology: These scientists seek a better understanding of Karenia brevis, the phytoplankton that causes Florida's red tide, and other species of phytoplankton. Understanding how these plant-like organisms behave and how they interact with other species, could help lessen their impact on humans. This research has led to new state-of-the-art sensors to detect K. brevis in the wild and monitor its movements in the ocean.

More Information about Red Tide

Sarasota County beach conditions: call 941-BEACHES.Press 1 for Sarasota County.
For biweekly red tide monitoring reports from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: 
Florida Department of Health:
Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services:
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA):
Health-related information/reporting of illnesses from exposure to red tide: call toll-free 24/7 Florida Poison Control Information Center at 1-888-232-8635.