Over the past week, a growing concern for algae blooms in South Florida’s coastal waters has produced a variety of questions and concerns from the public and a recent disaster declaration from Florida Governor Rick Scott for Lee, Martin, St. Lucie and Palm Beach counties.

As South Florida’s most advanced sea turtle hospital and ocean conservation hub, Loggerhead Marinelife Center stands ready to respond to any sea turtles that may become impacted by the recent blooms.

LMC welcomes more than 300,000 guests every year, providing interactive educational opportunities about South Florida’s unique fresh water and ocean ecosystems every day. In light of the recent local blooms, Jack Lighton, president and CEO of LMC recommitted his team’s dedication to the protection of Florida’ sea turtle population and their ocean home.

“LMC is dedicated to conservation and the protection of our local ecosystems,” said Lighton. “As environmental threats develop, protecting our world ocean will continue to be at the forefront of our mission.”

Cyanobacteria, sometimes called blue-green algae, are aquatic bacteria that obtain their energy from the sun through photosynthesis. In certain conditions, when light, temperature and nutrient levels are optimal, blue-green algae can bloom and cause a potential toxic threat to humans and marine life. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers an exceptional resource for understanding cyanobacteria on their website.

Although not all algae blooms impact wildlife, we await further information from recent algae tests from our partners at the Department of Environmental Protection, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and South Florida Water Management in order to better understand the local blooms’ impact on marine life. Additionally, FWC decides the location for sea turtle releases by LMC. Sea turtles can easily move offshore away from the algae.

“In some cases cyanobacteria will release toxins that can cause harm to aquatic life,” said Dr. Charles Manire, LMC’s director of research and rehabilitation. “Different species of cyanobacteria may release different toxins and some may not release any toxins at all. Most cyanobacteria blooms occur in fresh water lakes; it’s rare to see cyanobacteria blooms in the ocean along Florida’s coast.”

If blue-green algae release neuro-toxins, the toxins can can affect sea turtles’ nervous systems, causing symptoms such as loss of muscle control and possible seizures. Although LMC hospital staff members have not yet seen turtles with symptoms indicating a reaction to the algae, we remain on high alert and are ready to accept any patients that might be affected.

The sea turtle hospital at Loggerhead Marinelife Center is also currently working with researchers from Florida Atlantic University testing a new treatment to “detox” sea turtles impacted by neuro-toxins. LMC staff will continue to closely monitor our local environmental conditions and stand ready to assist our state and federal partners as necessary.

Additionally, LMC is currently seeking interested members of the public to participate in our citizen science-powered Water Quality Lab, which aims to better monitor the quality of our local aquatic ecosystems, including areas alongside LMC’s daily-monitored 9.5-mile stretch of beach – one of the most densely-populated sea turtle nesting beaches in Florida.

The water quality samples collected by citizen scientists and Palm Beach County school teachers will allow LMC to create a comprehensive data set for future water quality studies. Currently, the data shows general water quality parameters such as pH balance, temperature and salinity. We look forward to eventually testing for bacteria – such as blue-green algae – and collecting sediment samples in the near future.

Members of the public who want to assist in our water quality sampling efforts are encouraged to contact Kerri Allen, LMC’s education manager, at kallen@marinelife.org.