Northwest Fisheries Science Center

NOAA Fisheries mobilizes to gauge unprecedented West Coast toxic algal bloom

Offshore survey will measure extent and severity of largest harmful algal bloom in more than a decade June 2015 Contributed by Michael Milstein

The NWFSC has mobilized extra scientists to join a fisheries survey along the West Coast to chart an extensive harmful algal bloom that spans much of the West Coast and has triggered numerous closures of important shellfish fisheries in Washington, Oregon and California.

The bloom stretches from the Central California Coast north to Washington and possibly Alaska, and involves some of the highest concentrations of the natural toxin domoic acid ever observed in The next link/button will exit from NWFSC web site Monterey Bay and off the Central Oregon Coast. In early June elevated toxin levels led shellfish managers to The next link/button will exit from NWFSC web site close the southern Washington Coast to Dungeness crab fishing, the largest-ever closure of Washington’s multi-million-dollar crab fishery.

“We’re taking advantage of our active surveys to focus research on a serious concern for coastal communities and the seafood industry,” said Eileen Sobeck, assistant administrator for NOAA fisheries. “The better we understand what’s happening out on the water, the better we can address the impacts.”

While localized blooms of marine algae that naturally produce domoic acid are common in spring, the bloom that began earlier this year has grown into the largest and most severe in more than a decade. Sardines, anchovy and other fish that feed on the algae and other microorganisms known as plankton can accumulate the toxin, in turn poisoning birds and sea lions that feed on them.

“This is unprecedented in terms of the extent and magnitude of this harmful algal bloom and the warm water conditions we’re seeing offshore,” said Vera Trainer, a team lead for Marine Biotoxins Program at the Marine Microbes and Toxins Program at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center (NWFSC) in Seattle. “Whether they’re related we can’t really say yet, but this survey gives us the opportunity to put these pieces together.”

State agencies monitor toxin levels closely and impose harvest closures where necessary to ensure that all commercial seafood remains safe to eat. NOAA Fisheries and others are also developing advanced robotic systems and The next link/button will exit from NWFSC web site models to better detect and forecast harmful algal blooms. See state agency websites linked d below for the latest details on closures in The next link/button will exit from NWFSC web site California, The next link/button will exit from NWFSC web site Oregon and The next link/button will exit from NWFSC web site Washington.

The NWFSC’s Marine Microbes and Toxins Program is working closely with the University of California Santa Cruz, University of Washington, Quileute Nation and Makah Tribe to add scientists to an already scheduled fisheries survey leaving today (June 15) from Newport, Ore., aboard the The next link/button will exit from NWFSC web site NOAA research ship Bell M. Shimada. The survey is a partnership between the NWFSC in Seattle and the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, Calif., to assess sardine and hake populations on the West Coast. The additional scientists will examine levels of marine toxins and the organisms that produce them.

The researchers will collect samples of water, the microscopic diatoms that produce domoic acid and another form of marine microorganism called dinoflagellates that produce another type of toxin called paralytic shellfish toxins (PSTs) that have also been detected in some shellfish. Domoic acid and PSTs are rarely found in shellfish at the same time, but they have been this year.

The scientists will also sample plankton-feeding fish such as anchovies and sardines that concentrate the toxins and transfer them to other marine animals.

Research during previous harmful algal blooms found “hot spots” of toxin-producing organisms along the West Coast, Trainer said, and the survey will search for similar concentrations this year.

The The next link/button will exit from NWFSC web site Ecology and Oceanography of Harmful Algal Blooms (ECOHAB) Research Program is completing a study of one such The next link/button will exit from NWFSC web site hot spot in California’s Monterey Bay and provides funding for UC Santa Cruz to analyze samples that will be collected during the survey. The results will help investigate connections between the current bloom and unusually warm ocean temperatures that have dominated the West Coast since last year, which may offer a preview of ocean conditions likely to become more common with climate change.

California officials have warned against consuming recreationally harvested mussels and clams, commercially or recreationally caught anchovy and sardines, or the internal organs of commercially or recreationally caught crab taken from Monterey and Santa Cruz counties.

Officials in Oregon have halted all shellfish harvesting from the Columbia River south to Tillamook Head and closed the entire state coastline to razor clamming because of elevated levels of domoic acid. High levels of PSTs have led to the closure of mussel harvesting along the Oregon Coast north of Gold Beach.

All coastal Washington beaches have also been closed to razor clamming, at an estimated loss of more than $9 million in revenue for coastal communities in the last month alone.

Background: Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act
The next link/button will exit from NWFSC web site http://coastalscience.noaa.gov/research/habs/habhrca/

Current closures in California
The next link/button will exit from NWFSC web site http://www.dfg.ca.gov/marine/healthadvisory.asp

Current closures in Oregon
The next link/button will exit from NWFSC web site http://www.oregon.gov/oda/programs/foodsafety/shellfish/pages/shellfishclosures.aspx

Current closures in Washington
The next link/button will exit from NWFSC web site https://fortress.wa.gov/doh/eh/maps/biotoxin/biotoxin.html

Washington coastal domoic acid levels
The next link/button will exit from NWFSC web site http://wdfw.wa.gov/fishing/shellfish/razorclams/domoic_levels.html



Multimedia

  • This map shows the domoic acid concentrations at hot spots along the US west coast during cruises in 1998.  The italicized text shows the species of Pseudo-nitzschia, the organism that can produce the toxin, domoic acid, that were dominant at each of the hot spot sites, including (from N to S), Juan de Fuca eddy, Heceta Bank, Monterey Bay and Santa Barbara Channel.  One of the goals of the upcoming SaKe cruise is to determine whether domoic acid is found at these same hotspot sites, or is distributed more extensively along the west coast.
    View images.