CORVALLIS, Ore. – A federally funded program that has provided Oregon with an early warning system for harmful algal blooms will end next month.
For the past five years, researchers at Oregon State University and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (with collaborators from the University of Oregon) have monitored phytoplankton blooms off the Oregon coast, and conducted toxin analyses of the different species. When toxin levels rose, they could alert the Oregon Department of Agriculture, which stepped up its sampling of clams and mussels to protect the public from domoic acid and paralytic shellfish poisoning.
Begun in 2007, the five-year grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration runs out at the end of August. The Oregon Department of Agriculture will continue sampling clams, mussels and other shellfish for bioaccumulation of toxins, but the early warning system will be gone.
“The Oregon Department of Agriculture does an excellent job of analyzing shellfish for toxins, but the concern is there is no way to know that we have a problem until the toxins are already in the clams and mussels,” said Angelicque “Angel” White, an OSU oceanographer and principal investigator on the grant. “It is a shame to close beaches after Oregonians have already harvested and eaten their catch.”
On July 6, the Oregon Department of Agriculture closed much of the central Oregon coast to mussel harvests due to elevated levels of paralytic shellfish toxins. The closure was based on an alert from phytoplankton monitoring funded by the NOAA grant.
The NOAA grant was aimed at creating a model of predicting harmful algal blooms and developing a program to alert local authorities. “The NOAA mission is to fund such programs for a period of time, find something that works, and then turn it over to the state,” White said. None of the state agencies, however, have stepped up to support early monitoring efforts based on phytoplankton counts.
White, who is a faculty member in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, said the phytoplankton monitoring could continue with a trained person working half-time, with a modest amount of equipment. “It amounts to little more than a microscope, a bucket, time and a bit of experience so that you know what you’re looking for,” she said.
“For a state that values tourism and recreation – and the dollars they bring – this really seems like low-hanging fruit,” White added.
Marc Suddleson, a NOAA harmful algal bloom program manager, said his agency provides funding to pilot “innovative harmful algal bloom solutions such as the Oregon early warning program” because HAB problems are affecting every United States coastal region, and to aid state agencies that are financially constrained. But state funding is needed to sustain the monitoring improvements, Suddleson said.
“The Oregon team has repeatedly demonstrated that better monitoring can give state and local officials an early warning, but the challenging budget climate facing Oregon state agencies makes its future uncertain,” Suddleson said.
Phytoplankton blooms are a normal ocean process, critical to maintaining a productive marine food web off the Oregon coast. Spring and summer winds bring deep, nutrient-rich water to the surface - a process called “upwelling.” When that water is exposed to sunlight, it creates phytoplankton blooms, tiny plants that are a food source for zooplankton and other creatures, which in turn become prey for larger animals.
But certain species of phytoplankton have the ability to produce toxins that can be harmful to humans. One called Pseudo-nitzschia produces domoic acid, which bio-accumulates in the tissues of razor clams and mussels and can cause illness, and even death in humans. Another species, Alexandrium, produces saxitoxin, which can lead to paralytic shellfish poisoning if ingested.
“Pseudo-nitzschia is harder to predict and is involved in all kinds of biological witchcraft,” White said. “Some cells are toxic and some are not – even in the same patch of water. We don’t yet understand what turns them on or off. But we can tell when they become toxic at a dangerous level.
“Alexandrium, on the other hand, is a charismatic little dinoflagellate that likes warmer, calmer water,” she added. “They usually make up a small percentage of the total plankton population, but they’re reliably toxic. So if you scoop some ocean water into a bucket, and you actually see increases in their cell numbers, you can be pretty sure the chances for paralytic shellfish poisoning go up.
“That’s as cheap, easy and reliable an early warning system as you could ask for.”