Focus on Health & Well Being

Southwest Florida’s aquatic environment sustains recreationally and economically important living things.

But there’s also some very unpleasant and unhealthy stuff in our waters, including toxic algae that can kill marine life and make people sick. Understanding how our waters – and water problems – affect human health is a key focus of The Water School.

“We started doing some red tide research years ago,” says Greg Tolley, Ph.D., professor of marine sciences and chair of the Department of Marine and Ecological Sciences. “The human health aspect of that has been widely reported. Ciguatera is an emerging field, and Mike Parsons [professor of marine science and director of the Vester Field Station] is doing a bang-up job looking at this. It’s an organism that’s related to red tide. It creates toxins, much like the red tide organism.” Those toxins accumulate in a number of popular fish people eat.

Parsons recently received a $5.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop a new model that can predict where ciguatera toxins might occur in commercial fisheries to better protect people from ciguatera poisoning’s harmful impacts.

“The idea is to put together predictive models that will keep people from getting sick,” Parsons says. “So, if you know that the environmental conditions are proper or appropriate for triggering a ciguatoxin bloom, you can steer fishers away from that or tell local fishmongers not to buy fish from that area.”

Mercury poisoning is such an important health issue that the Florida Department of Health publishes guidelines for fish consumption. “In Southwest Florida, mercury is huge,” Tolley says.

Darren Rumbold, professor of marine science, has done considerable work on mercury in fish, including sharks. But he’s also looking at mercury in pythons in the Florida Everglades.

Human health and ecological systems health are interconnected — if our environment isn’t healthy, people get sick.

– Darren Rumbold, Ph.D.,

Professor of Marine Science