Scientists team up to predict harmful algal blooms
Toxic algae events are more frequent and deadly than at any time in recorded history. Researchers try to stem the "red tide."
Tuesday, September 21, 2010 - 14:29
SAVE THE SEA LIONS: Marine mammals are at risk for domoic acid poisoning from toxic algae off the California coast. (Photo: roadman22/Flickr)
Public interest in the health of U.S. coastal waters spiked with the recent Gulf oil spill. It's been dreadful to see images of affected ocean life and tar balls washing ashore on Southern states' beaches, and hearing how residents who work in the fishing and oil industries are losing their livelihoods is devastating. The spill has highlighted both our need for the ocean to remain healthy and the potentially huge negative impact human activities can have on its complex ecosystem.
Off the California coast, another season of harmful algal blooms (HAB) this year in waters near Santa Barbara got me looking into the history of such occurrences and what they signal about the health of our oceans.
Algae blooms come in many forms, not all of them toxic. In this August's Santa Barbara HAB, the culprit algae are pseudo-nitzschia, which produce the neurotoxin domoic acid (DA). In slight cases of DA poisoning, symptoms are unpleasant: nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and so forth. If larger amounts are ingested, things get more serious, with headaches, hallucinations and short-term memory loss.
For aquatic life, though, exposure is often deadly. Because they consume such large quantities of fish and shellfish containing DA during an HAB event, seabirds and marine mammals suffer seizures, permanent brain damage and other effects that render them unable to survive. Often, sea lions, otters and seals suffering from DA poisoning will beach themselves in an attempt to rest and breathe. For the past few years during the peak HAB season, which goes from early spring to late summer, it's not unusual for California coastal communities to find their beaches covered with the bodies of seabirds and sea lions.
The effort to predict harmful algal blooms
In August it was announced that a consortium of researchers is starting work on a three-year project to develop a model that will predict HABs, funded by a grant from the Ocean Protection Council. UC Santa Cruz Professor of ocean sciences Raphael Kudela, who is at the head of the research group, says, "We are at a point now where we'd like to take these research projects and turn them into something that's useful for the state and the public."
Kudela and his colleagues hope that predictive models will give state agencies and wildlife managers "a heads-up so they know what to expect and how to prioritize their monitoring efforts." This doesn't prevent poisoning of wildlife, though it could give marine rescue groups, like IBRRC in San Pedro, some lead time to prepare for a greater influx of sickened animals.
Incidence of HABs has grown in coastal areas around the world over the past few decades. This could be for a number of reasons, including more monitoring and recording of such events. It's no coincidence, though, that the HAB proliferation mirrors an increase in the human population, in fishing activities and in pollution produced by humans, a lot of which finds its way to the sea.
In 2006, The Los Angeles Times produced the Pulitzer Prize-winning series, Altered Oceans, which explores the subject of our changing marine ecosystem and the reasons behind those changes. In it, Jeremy Jackson from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography tells LA Times reporters that "by taking everything we want out of the ocean, and dumping in what we don't want, we are changing the ocean's contents, composition and chemistry." Jackson has hope, but also shares some dire visions about what the future could hold for ocean life, and our relationship to it, saying, "I can imagine an ocean that would be a continuous dead zone along all the coasts. People won't want to live in places like Malibu. They'll want to live in places like Kansas or South Dakota, to be away from the ocean instead of next to it."
The future need not be so bleak, but we'd be wise to heed the red flags of the increasing incidence of "red tide."