NOAA steps up efforts to track West Coast toxic algae

A nice haul of blue crabs.
Toxin-producing algae is threatening West Coast fisheries.

Grant funding to help pinpoint cause of outbreak

Staff Report

FRISCO — After sending extra scientists to help track the spread of toxin-producing algae along the West Coast, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration this month said it will help fund more monitoring and research. The agency is committing $88,000 in grant and event response funding for Washington state.

According to NOAA, the money will go to supporting researchers and state and tribal managers in collecting and analyzing additional samples to test for abundance and concentrations of toxins. The information, along with analysis of ocean and weather conditions, will help identify factors contributing to the outbreak and its severity.

During large blooms such as this, the algae, Pseudo-nitzschia, can produce a potent toxin that can be harmful to people, fish, and marine mammals. Blooms of Pseudo-nitzschia have been occurring along the entire West Coast from southern California to Alaska since May 2015, prompting public health concerns.

The strong neurotoxin, domoic acid, accumulates in filter-feeding fish, such as anchovies, and shellfish, and can affect marine mammals such as sea lions. Seafood contaminated with domoic acid can cause amnesic shellfish poisoning, a severe illness that can cause permanent short-term memory loss, brain damage, or death, in severe cases. When domoic acid exceeds regulatory limits, state officials close shellfish beds and certain fishing areas.

The algae bloom has already shut down the  razor clam fishery closed resulting in an estimated $9.2 million in lost income. The state’s commercial crab fishery, worth roughly $84 million annually, has also been affected.

 “Providing communities in Washington with early warnings is essential to helping them plan for something like this,” said Mary Erickson, director of NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, which is providing funding for the event response. “Improved understanding of the causes of this event will lead to better bloom prediction, which is part of a larger NOAA effort to develop on-going ecological forecast.”

Event response funds will also support a pilot harmful algal bloom alert which will be issued to state and tribal management agencies prior to planned razor clam digs later this summer and fall.

NOAA officials emphasize that state and tribal agencies rigorously monitor toxin levels in shellfish so that commercially available seafood is safe to eat. Residents and visitors to the region should check the Washington Department of Health website for current closures.

The data collected may also answer questions about why the massive blooms have occurred, said Zdenka Willis, director of NOAA’s U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System program office.

“Oceanographic observations at multiple locations, and over multiple time periods, will show if the region has seen a drastic change in conditions, such as water temperature, that could recur and signal future blooms.”

Project partners in the new NOAA response effort include the NWFSC, the University of Washington, including the Olympic Natural Resources Center’s Olympic Regional HAB Partnership Partnership, Washington State Department of Health, Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, Quileute Tribe, Quinault Indian Nation, and Makah Tribe, Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, and NANOOS, which is the Pacific Northwest regional component of the NOAA-led U.S. IOOS.

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