NOAA Awards Funds to Improve Toxic Algal Bloom Predictions in the Western Gulf of Mexico

September 30, 2009

Developing harmful algal bloom detection tools and forecasting models can lessen the effects on human health and coastal economies.

Developing harmful algal bloom detection tools and forecasting models can lessen the effects on human health and coastal economies.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

NOAA is awarding $178,358 for the first year of a project to improve predictions of toxic algal blooms in the western Gulf of Mexico as part of an evolving national ecological forecasting capability. NOAA anticipates a nearly $1 million investment in this large-scale regional project over the next four years. The project is funded by the interagency Ecology and Oceanography of Harmful Algal Blooms, or ECOHAB, program.

Funded partners in this project include Texas A&M University, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and NOAA’s Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment.

The toxin producing the alga Karenia brevis is the most prevalent harmful algal bloom, or HAB, species in the Gulf of Mexico. K. brevis blooms have significant impacts on human health, and cause mass mortality of fish and protected species, such as manatees, dolphins and turtles, which have major economic ramifications.

“This project meets a critical need in the Gulf, and is specifically targeted in our Gulf of Mexico Governor’s Alliance Action Plan,” said William Walker, Ph.D., executive director of the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources and chair of the Gulf of Mexico Alliance Management Team. “The Gulf Alliance aims to ensure that coastal managers from all the Gulf states and Mexico are made aware of these HAB predictions that will help to protect the health and economies of coastal communities.”

Public warning signs like these appear in areas that have been closed due to high levels of toxin in shellfish.

Public warning signs like these appear in areas that have been closed due to high levels of toxin in shellfish.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

In 2000, a K. brevis outbreak in Texas waters caused widespread fish kills and shellfish harvest closures to protect human consumers from neurotoxic shellfish poisoning. Estimated economic impacts were $9.9 million in Galveston County alone due to commercial oyster fishery closures, lost tourism and costs of beach cleanup.

“Presently there is no model for bloom prediction in Texas. A major goal of this project is the development of new approaches for the detection, monitoring, prediction, control, and mitigation of harmful algae and their impacts in Texas coastal waters,” said lead Texas A&M University investigator Lisa Campbell. “Our project directly addresses this goal and will provide critical data on the mechanism of bloom formation.”

Developing better HAB detection tools and forecasting models can reduce the impacts on human health and coastal economies by allowing state resource and public health managers to identify and quantify K. brevis in coastal waters at an earlier stage and to predict bloom formation.

Specifically, this multi-investigator, interdisciplinary project seeks to determine how blooms form in the western Gulf and uses a computer model to develop predictions based on wind and current conditions, which can concentrate Karenia cells.

NOAA understands and predicts changes in the Earth's environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and conserves and manages our coastal and marine resources.