As Florida struggles with 'red tide' algae blooms on the west coast and blue-green algae in inland waterways, a federal program to help communities deal with harmful algae outbreaks is set to lose its Congressional authorization at the end of September.
The Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act enables NOAA and an inter-agency task force to do things like monitor algae blooms, research their causes and give grants to communities trying to cope. It was authorized in 1998 but is set to expire on Sept. 30. That wouldn't eliminate the program, but it would make it less likely that Congress would continue to fund it.
"If we can't reauthorize that program in the middle of an algae crisis, that's not a good sign," said Jeff Watters, director of government relations at the Washington D.C.-based non-profit Ocean Conservancy. Watters recently visited the Fort Myers area, where hundreds of manatees and thousands of fish have died because of the red tide.
"Once you see it and experience it personally, you can't get the image out of your eyes. You can't get it out of your mind, and you can't get the smell out of your nostrils," he said. "When you walk along the beach, you see just dead creatures everywhere. I mean, every kind of fish, every kind of animal that should be in the water is sitting there dead along the sand."
Both the red tide and blue-green algae can cause respiratory irritation in humans.
Not much is known about why sometimes algae blooms get so out of control, although scientists say they are potentially exacerbated by pollution and the warming of oceans due to climate change.
Watters says the NOAA program is critical to learning more about causes of and solutions to algal outbreaks.