NOAA awards $88,000 in grant funding to respond to West Coast harmful algal bloom outbreak

Toxic blooms affecting fisheries, coastal residents

July 23, 2015

Clam diggers along the Washington state coast (Credit: NOAA).

Clam diggers along the Washington state coast (Credit: NOAA).

NOAA announced today that it is committing $88,000 in grant and event response funding for Washington state to monitor and analyze an unusually large bloom of toxic algae off its coast.  

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. So far this year, the presence of the toxin in Washington state water’s has resulted in fishery closures, which can have tremendous economic and ecological effects. In May, 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.

Blooms of Pseudo-nitzschia have been occurring along the entire West Coast from southern California to Alaska since May 2015, prompting public health concerns. Some species of Pseudo-nitzschia create a strong neurotoxin, domoic acid, which accumulates in filter-feeding fish, such as anchovies, and shellfish, and can affect marine mammals such as sea lions. Also, 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.

Razor Clam digging area closure sign along Washington state coast (Credit: Washington State Department of Health).

Razor Clam digging area closure sign along Washington state coast (Credit: Washington State Department of Health).

A $75,000 grant will be awarded to the Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems for monitoring and analysis of the bloom in Washington state. An additional $13,000 to support data collection efforts will be distributed among multiple partners. Matching funds and services of approximately $100,000 will come from partners in support of the effort.

“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.”

The $13,000 in event response funding will support researchers and state and tribal managers in collecting and analyzing additional samples for Pseudo-nitzschia abundance and toxin concentrations from beaches and offshore of Washington state. These data, together with analysis of the oceanographic and meteorological conditions, will help identify factors contributing to the outbreak and its severity. The information will also help researchers predict whether the algal bloom will continue throughout the remainder of the year, or recur in future years.

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.

This response supplements other NOAA efforts to understand the West Coast Pseudo-nitzschia that has triggered numerous closures of shellfish fisheries in Washington, Oregon and California. In June, the NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center mobilized additional scientists to join a seasonal fisheries survey from the Mexican border to the Gulf of Alaska looking for “hot spots” where Pseudo-nitzschia blooms originate.

Cellular look at Pseudo-nitzschia, a harmful algal bloom that is threatening health of humans, marine mammals by creating toxins in filter feeding fish and shellfish. (Credit: NOAA).

Cellular look at Pseudo-nitzschia, a harmful algal bloom that is threatening health of humans, marine mammals by creating toxins in filter feeding fish and shellfish (Credit: NOAA).

In addition, a NOAA Ecology of Oceanography and Harmful Algal Bloom (ECOHAB) project is investigating what triggers “hot spots” along the central and northern California coasts, involving scientists at the University of California Santa Cruz, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, University of California Los Angeles, University of Southern California, Southern California Coastal Water Research Project, the Central and Northern California Ocean Observing System and the Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System.

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.

The National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science delivers ecosystem science solutions for NOAA’s National Ocean Service and its partners, bringing research, scientific information and tools to help balance the nation’s ecological, social and economic goals. Visit our website for more about NCCOS research.

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