The Pacific coast is under attack by a legion of tiny organisms. Algae are blooming like crazy in the waters out west and wreaking havoc on marine life and fisheries.
Algae blooms happen every year around May, but this one is ridiculously large and long lasting.
“The bloom is laced with some toxic species that have had far-reaching consequences for sea life and regional and local economies,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Part of the reason this bloom is worse than usual is because of a mysteriously large mass of warm water off the Pacific coast. The warmer the water, the more algae grow.
“It’s just lurking there,” Vera Trainer, research oceanographer with the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Washington state, told Reuters. “It’s the longest lasting, highest toxicity, and densest bloom that we’ve ever seen.”
As you can see in the map below, the algae bloom stretches all the way from Alaska to California:
While not all of an algae species in the bloom are dangerous, some of them produce a toxic chemical called domoic acid that can kill or make animals sick — and can even impact human health. Domoic acid is a neurotoxin produced by the algae Pseudo-nitzchia. When an animal, say a clam, eats this algae, it also injects the domoic acid, which can build up inside it. Any bigger animal that comes along and eats it — including humans — can get sick too if they taken in enough toxin.
This year’s bloom is so bad we are seeing lots of animal deaths. At least nine fin whales were found dead in the waters off Alaska in June, according to Alaska Dispatch News, and in July reports of dead or dying whales, seals, birds, and fish have been rolling in according to NOAA. It’s difficult to pin these deaths on the algae specifically, but signs are pointing to these toxins as the cause.
And to prevent any human illnesses, Washington and Oregon have closed recreational razor back clam fisheries, Washington also closed commercial dungeoness crab fisheries, and California has closed sardine fisheries and put warnings out about eating local mussels, clams, and crabs.
“Ongoing testing shows that crab in these waters have domoic acid levels that exceed health-safety standards,” Dan Ayres, coastal shellfish manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said in a press release. “We’ve been closely watching toxin levels in crab since closing beaches to razor-clam digging in May.”
If a person eats too much fish or shellfish contaminated with demoic acid they could get symptoms ranging from vomiting, headaches and dizziness to, in severe cases, breathing trouble, seizures, and could fall into a coma and die, according to the California Department of Public Health.
The algae doesn’t just poison sea creatures, they also poison the water and create dead zones when they die. The decomposing algae use up all of the water’s oxygen, making it unlivable for the majority of sea life. There’s nothing we can do to stop this process, and it seems like it will keep getting worse as climate change makes oceans warmer, creating more dangerous algae blooms.
Luckily, a research division of NOAA is in the midst of a five year long monitoring program to develop an early alert detection system for algae blooms and their effects.
They send researchers out to harmful algae blooms to examine the toxicity of the bloom, what type of species are blooming, and under what conditions the algae is growing.
With the project expected to conclude in 2016 hopefully we will have a better understanding of these blooms — and what we can do about them — in the near future.
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