Tuesday, July 5, 2022

From the Magazine: Protecting Neverland

Brian LaPointe, of FAU’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, has been
researching Florida’s waters for decades

Few Floridians understand the value and beauty of Florida’s waters like Brian LaPointe. Far fewer understand the extent to which those waters are under siege.

Currently a research professor with FAU’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, where he has worked since 1983, LaPointe’s research focuses on the study of nutrient pollution that leads to Harmful Algal Blooms—or HABs—which cause phenomena including red tides and coral death.

For LaPointe, the work is personal. He grew up in Palm Beach County, has been a resident of the Florida Keys since the early 1980s, and takes seriously the fact that his work could help to restore and protect some of Florida’s most cherished ecological landmarks. What began as a desire to return to the landscape of his youth has since blossomed into a decades-long career.

“My interest in all this was always in the field work,” he says of his career beginnings. “And now, what started as a two-year post-doc has evolved into almost a 40-year career, studying coral reefs and tropical seagrass meadows. And I actually built a home on Big Pine Key.”

Brian LaPointe scuba diving

He persevered through funding struggles early in his career to continue the work. “I just realized how fortunate I was to be able to really live in a kind of a natural classroom. To have those shallow waters right in my front yard in Big Pine Key. … I just thought, ‘this is really a dream job, and I’m not going to just walk away from this.’”

Nearly four decades later, LaPointe hasn’t walked away from it. His research has played a major role in combating the effects of HABs to protect Florida’s dwindling population of coral and reverse pollution that causes algal tides throughout the state. Though it’s not the most glamorous topic, much of LaPointe’s recent research has been in the area of wastewater and how it’s driven much of the ecological damage to Florida’s water over the past few decades.

Brian Lapointe holding dead seagrass

“Sewage or wastewater is the primary driver of the harmful algal blooms that we’re seeing in the Indian River Lagoon in the past 10 years,” he says. “That has led to the catastrophic loss of seagrass, and just as importantly the ongoing, unusual decline of the manatee population, due in large part to starvation because the seagrasses they eat and depend upon are simply no longer there. It’s really a crisis … and I think in the near future we’re going to be seeing a major effort to develop a wastewater master plan to begin the cleanup.

“The problem, of course, is that in Florida, we have a lot of sunshine and warm temperatures that combine with the nutrients from septic tanks to create a lot of harmful algal blooms like bright red tides and blue-green algae tides. They’re being driven to a large extent by human wastewater.”

Brian LaPointe scuba diving near bleached coral

The hope is that this research can assist in developing measures to combat these issues and encourage Florida’s politicians to take a stand. Strides are already being made to do just that. LaPointe spoke effusively of new wastewater treatment technology that is remarkably effective at filtering out harmful nutrients and is in the early stages of being rolled out statewide. Of the advancements, he says, “I’ve never been so excited, and I never thought I’d really see the day that we would have this kind of technology.”

Further promising news is that Floridians—residents and politicians alike—have opened their eyes to the importance of protecting our waters from these interloping nutrients and algae. We’ve come a long way from the shortsightedness of the 20th century, in which government entities sought to “get rid of” coral reefs, and pumped fresh water from Lake Okeechobee into the Florida Bay.

“I do believe all of us in Florida know these resources and what we’ve lost,” he says. “We all feel the same way. How do we get back to Neverland, and can we get back to Neverland? And we may never get back to what we had in the ‘60s or ‘70s, but we can certainly improve the water quality through these projects, such as improving stormwater and wastewater treatment, and implementing best management practices for agriculture. All these things can turn this problem around. … I believe we can do this, by taking these steps and having a future generation of scientists continue to monitor the waters.”

As for the future of his research, LaPointe is quick to assure that the field is in good hands. “I’m seeing a glimmer of hope,” he says, ”in some of the papers I’m reviewing these days by younger scientists who seem to be picking up on these themes that I’ve been working on. They seem to be in a good place to carry them forward for future generations. … I would like to just inspire young scientists to get that fire in the belly to help protect the treasures we have here in Florida.”

This story is from the February 2022 issue of Boca magazine. For more like this, click here to subscribe to the magazine.

James Biagiotti
James Biagiotti is a native of Boca Raton, a marketing professional in South Florida, and the former Web Editor of Boca Raton magazine. He is an avid music fan who spends far too much time listening to, dissecting, and traveling to see his favorite bands. He is also, unfortunately, a devoted Miami Dolphins fan.

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