dr. heather o'leary

Dr. Heather O’Leary

Anthropology Professor Participating in Study to Uncover the True Cost of Florida’s Red Tide

(April 29, 2020) – Across the U.S., the seafood, restaurant and tourism industries are estimated to suffer millions of dollars in economic losses from harmful algal blooms (HABs) — losses played out in communities from California to New England, and Ohio to Florida. But the true economic losses caused by these toxic blooms, commonly referred to as red tide, are unknown.

Now, the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System (GCOOS) and NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) have awarded $556,000 to fund two new studies to uncover that full cost, one of which is being co-conducted by Heather O’Leary, assistant professor of Anthropology at USF’s St. Petersburg campus.

The studies are designed to analyze the effects to numerous sectors — from tourism and seafood to industries where impacts are less visible, such as healthcare and construction.

As a state that relies heavily on these sectors, Florida is especially vulnerable to the socioeconomic damages of toxic blooms. This was apparent during the prolonged red tide that began in 2017 and lasted through early 2019, causing the state’s governor to declare a state of emergency.

There are thousands of species of algae — or phytoplankton — in fresh and marine waters. They are essential to life, forming the basis of the food web and providing an important source of oxygen. While most species are harmless to humans and animals, some, like the Karenia brevis that causes Florida’s red tide, are toxic. When these species multiply, they can wreak havoc on human and marine animal health, contaminate seafood and devastate local economies.

Working with Sergio Alvarez, assistant professor at the Rosen College of Hospitality Management and the Sustainable Coastal Systems Cluster at the University of Central Florida, O’Leary will conduct a two-year study titled, “From Bloom to Bust: Estimating Economic Losses and Impacts of Florida Red Tide.”

Alvarez and O’Leary were awarded $277,122 to examine the economic impacts of red tide events across 80 different sectors, based on varied bloom occurrence and intensity. Understanding the true costs of HABs is key to developing effective response and adaptation strategies that meet the needs of impacted communities in Florida and around the country.

“We know that harmful algal blooms drive people away from the waterfront,” Alvarez said. “With this project, we will identify how Florida’s red tide has been impacting the economy in terms of reduced sales from different economic sectors. But we are also testing the idea that information from social media could be more of a driver in these impacts than so-called objective measures, like water sampling data.”

Added O’Leary: “When everyday people make the small-scale and large-scale decisions that ultimately impact Florida’s economy, they’re not necessarily checking biophysical monitoring or formal economic metrics. They’re more likely making those decisions by checking with friends and colleagues on social media. By keeping one eye on social media and the other on economic metrics, we’re able to get a better sense of how these interact to make HABs worse, or to lessen their impact.”

The second study will be conducted by Christa Court, Xiang Bi, Jin Won Kim, Angie Lindsey, Stephen Morgan, Andrew Ropicki and Ricky Telg from the University of Florida and David Yoskowitz from the Harte Research Institute at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi.

This two-year project will comprehensively quantify and qualify the short- and long-term socioeconomic impacts of the 2017-2019 Karenia brevis event in Florida and develop a framework to help inform national-scale efforts focused on quantifying and measuring community vulnerability and resiliency.

“We know that in Florida and across the U.S., HAB events are becoming more frequent, more toxic, longer lasting and more widespread,” said Barbara Kirkpatrick, executive director of GCOOS. “While we can’t eliminate blooms, having a better understanding of their mechanics as well as their negative consequences can help resource managers lessen their impacts on communities. That’s why these new studies are so important.”

Aerial view of red tide along Florida’s gulf coast

Aerial view of red tide along Florida’s gulf coast