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Nancy Smith

About that Panel of Algae Scientists: How Did Brian Lapointe Get Left Behind?

July 22, 2019 - 9:45am
Brian Lapointe during a Florida Senate presentation.
Brian Lapointe during a Florida Senate presentation.

Brian Lapointe is almost everywhere. 

Note, I said almost

In the past week I've seen the Florida Atlantic University/Harbor Branch Oceanographic research professor and biologist on CNN, heard him on National Public Radio, read his just-published 30-year study of coral degradation off Looe Key, and looked over a July paper following the massive movement of Sargassum seaweed from Africa to the beaches of South Florida. With all this, Lapointe is still advising legislators, still explaining nitrogen's effect on algal blooms, still helping South Florida communities with septic-to-sewer conversions.

So, why do I say almost everywhere? Because the only place I haven't seen him is the one place you would think he'd be found: On the governor's five-member task force of scientists looking to find a fix to algae problems.

But no, his name isn't on the list. To my knowledge, he was never approached, never invited, never seriously considered.

Said Gov. Ron DeSantis during his panel announcement, "We’re getting resources, financial resources to bear on the problem and making good choices, we want to make sure that those choices are informed by the best science and the best research available.”

Seems to me, Lapointe -- author of more than 90 publications in the field of algal physiology, biochemistry and ecology, and internationally recognized for his work -- is like 8-year-old Kevin McCallister in the Christmas classic, "Home Alone." He should have been in Paris with his family but ... he was naughty and somehow got left behind.

Only, Kevin's parents left him behind accidentally. Lapointe was left behind deliberately. Why? Because water czar Eric Eikenberg, head of the Everglades Foundation, doesn't like him. Apparently, if you put this particular scientist on a state committee, you risk giving him a megaphone.

Snubbing Lapointe isn't just mean-spirited. Frankly, it speaks volumes about the sincerity of Congressman Brian Mast and Eikenberg, whom the governor entrusted to help him find a solutions-driven panel to fix the state's algae woes. 

And by the way, I'm not saying I think Lapointe should be leading the charge on this issue. Neither am I disparaging any of the scientists among the appointments.  But no biologist has taken more samples of water off Florida's 1,100 miles of coastline, including the Indian River Lagoon and St. Lucie estuary than Brian Lapointe. Why would he be deliberately left behind, a marine biologist whose research interests include biological oceanography, algal physiology and biochemistry, seagrass and coral reef ecology, marine pollution, and remote sensing? Why wasn't someone saying, "Let's use that experience ..."? Read about Lapointe here and you tell me.   

If you're wondering why Lapointe is such a thorn in Eikenberg's side, here it is: 

Working under water
Working under water
First, Lapointe keeps talking about the importance of nitrogen from fertilizers and particularly sewage feeding algal blooms. Septic tanks and sewage spills are the last things Eikenberg wants to talk about -- 'lest, God forbid, the state begin spending a larger share of conservation money fixing leaking sewage pipes and enabling septic-to-sewer conversions. Eikenberg wants concentration on the Foundation's top priority south of the lake -- keeping their eyes on the prize, making sure the public swallows the importance of a larger EAA reservoir footprint. 

Second, for three decades Lapointe tried to show scientists at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary that their theory on what was killing coral, seagrass and fish in Florida Bay wasn't, as they insisted, hypersalinity -- too much salt water. Lapointe admits it was rough going trying to have a conversation with them. The Sanctuary and the Everglades Foundation bought into each other's theories.

"Scientists often disagree," Lapointe told me in a 2015 telephone interview. "That's good, because that's how advances are made. But this was different. Their scientists, Jay Zieman and Ron Jones, the Foundation, the Sanctuary and the Keys Nature Conservancy -- they all circled the wagons and went overboard to discredit everything I was saying, even as I was presenting papers to show I had the evidence and other scientists were corroborating my work."

In December 1994, after a New York Times Magazine piece by William K. Stevens, "Will Remedy Worsen a Sick Bay?" -- a story questioning Florida's hypersalinity/just-pump-more-fresh-water theory for saving Florida Bay -- the Times received a letter to the editor from John H. Ryther, scientist emeritus at the prestigious Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

Public education: Brian Lapointe works with the Florida Chamber 


"There is no question that the Bay is suffering from a bad case of eutrophication (excessive growth of algae) that has turned its once crystal clear waters to pea soup. It is the imputed cause of the eutrophication that I take issue with. The latter is not just wrong, it is completely backwards. The method proposed to correct the situation (pumping more fresh water in the bay) would almost certainly make it much worse."

What Lapointe had discovered some 25 years ago, and what was corroborated by other algal scientists in scientific journals and in in-depth newspaper stories was that the missing quotient in the Zieman-Jones hypothesis was nitrogen -- the chemical that primarily comes from agricultural runoff and sewage.

"Zieman and Jones were only worried about phosphorus," Lapointe explained. "They knew wetlands can clean up phosphorus. So they insisted the bay only needed more fresh water flowing through the 'Glades and into the bay to heal the reefs, get the coating of slime off them. But fresh water wasn't the problem. The problem was, wetlands don't clean nitrogen."

Nitrogen works in combination with phosphorus to create eutrophication.It's eutrophication -- or over-enrichment by nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and silica -- the chemicals that come from sewage outfalls, industrial and agricultural runoff -- that create sheets and blooms of algae that degrade and ultimately destroy life-giving coral reefs.

In fact, in 2007 investigative reporter Ken Weiss, reporter Usha Lee McFarling, and photographer Rick Loomis of the Los Angeles Times won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting for their series, "The Rise of Slime." The series covered research in the Florida Bay/Florida Keys region and based much of the breakthroughs on Lapointe's hypothesis.

But Zieman and Jones had become so invested in their hypothesis that the bay needed more fresh water flowing south, pumped from canals in the Everglades Agricultural Area, that they couldn't -- or wouldn't -- turn back even when they realized they should.

"Between 1991 and 1995, when the South Florida Water Management District was sending the greatest deluge of water south -- as they want to again -- the effect was horrific," Lapointe told me. "Because wetlands can't deal with such concentrations of nitrogen, the volume of water was sending literally thousands of tons of nitrogen into Florida Bay, and then, combined with the phosphorus ... algal blooms are nitrogen-limited, so it was like we were feeding the algae with Miracle Gro."

Said Lapointe, "How bad was this wrong hypothesis? Some 40 percent of Florida Bay's coral reefs were lost in the blink of an eye. It was one of the worst environmental disasters in modern history."

If you haven't already, read Bob Malloy and Will Bourne's 1996 manuscript written for the New York Times Magazine, but never published. I've written about it before. It's a real eye-opener. Call it up in the blue "Download" attachment immediately below this story.

It was George Barley, co-founder of the Everglades Foundation with Paul Tudor Jones, who officially brought Zieman and Jones aboard the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fledgling Keys Marine Sanctuary. Barley was a respected Central Florida multimillionaire who, like his friend Paul Tudor Jones, bought a home in Islamorada and became active in environmental matters in the Everglades and the Keys. Zieman and Jones morphed into the scientists for the Everglades Foundation, too.

The Everglades Foundation is still underplaying the role of heavy nitrogen content in the health of Florida Bay, its goal is still to run fresh water down into Florida Bay as "the answer," and Brian Lapointe still calls their their thinking so much "balloon juice." 

But the bottom line is, we've got a massive challenge here and Lapointe has a wealth of data on algal blooms. Spite and dissension shouldn't keep an international authority  off a team of scientists working together for answers to Florida's greatest environmental disaster in recent times.

Reach Nancy Smith at or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith

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