PORTLAND, Ore. – Scientists and policymakers are holding a three-day summit in Portland to analyze the effects of harmful algal blooms along the West Coast and to discuss ways to develop a more effective monitoring process for Oregon, Washington and California.
The West Coast Regional Harmful Algal Bloom Summit, which runs from Feb. 10-12 at the Marriott in downtown Portland, was instigated by the West Coast Governors’ Agreement on Ocean Health and sponsored by NOAA and other organizations.
A free public session will be held on Thursday, Feb. 12, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Marriott, during which a panel of national experts will discuss with the public and news media the effects of harmful algal blooms on coastal communities and present their plans for a harmful algal bloom monitoring network and forecasting system for the West Coast.
Harmful algal blooms are increasing worldwide and are of significant concern to coastal communities, organizers say. Though phytoplankton blooms are critical for ocean production, some of them produce toxins that accumulate in razor clams and other shellfish, poisoning those who consume them and closing clam, oyster and mussel beds to commercial and recreational harvests.
These harmful blooms are not only a public health threat, they can have a significant economic impact, according to Peter Strutton, an Oregon State University oceanographer and one of the coordinators of the summit.
One such bloom in 2002-03 caused razor clam and Dungeness crab closures in Washington that resulted in losses of more than $10 million, and a closure of the razor clam fishery in Clatsop County cost local communities an estimated $4.8 million. Toxic algae also have been blamed for 14,000 sick or dead seals, sea lions, sea otters, dolphins, birds and gray whales along the West Coast.”
Phytoplankton blooms are normal ocean phenomena occurring along the West Coast after spring and summer winds bring to the surface cold, deep, nutrient-rich water in a process called “upwelling.” When that water is exposed to sunlight, it creates blooms of phytoplankton. These tiny plants are a source of food for zooplankton and other marine creatures, which in turn are feasted upon by larger animals.
But certain species of phytoplankton have the ability to produce toxins that can be harmful to humans, according to Strutton. One called Pseudo-nitzschia produces domoic acid, which bio-accumulates in the tissues of razor clams, mussels and oysters and causes a syndrome known as amnesic shellfish poisoning in humans. Another species, Alexandrium, produces saxitoxin, which can lead to paralytic shellfish poisoning if ingested.
Of course, not all phytoplankton blooms are toxic, Strutton pointed out, and even the species that are potentially toxic don’t always produce toxins.
“We’re not sure what causes phytoplankton to suddenly become toxic,” Strutton said said. “Some scientists believe it may be stress from a lack of nutrients. But one thing that is critical is to develop a coordinated approach to monitoring, responding to, and forecast these blooms – and we hope that will result from this summit.”