Toxic Algae Increasing Due to Warmer Waters

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Red tide off the coast of San Diego, California (Photo Credit: Wikipedia, Intersofia)

By Taylor Schaefer, Staff Writer for Save The Water™ | December 14, 2015

Unusually warm ocean water has caused a huge algae bloom along the west coast of the United States. Also known as “Red Tide” or harmful algae blooms (HABs), Domoic acid has severely impacted marine life, shutting down most of California’s crab fisheries.

Raphael M. Kudela, Ph.D., a phytoplankton expert and professor of Ocean Sciences UCSC, stated that, “This year’s bloom was incredibly toxic and is the largest we’ve ever seen on the West Coast” (Steingrube 2015).

The California coast is not the only region to experience an increase in toxic algae blooms. Globally, harmful algae has changed course over the last several decades. The number of toxic blooms, economic losses, the types of resources affected, and the number of toxins and toxic species have all increased dramatically (Wang 2008).

What makes this outbreak different is that it is on a much larger scale and was most likely set off by the El Nino. However, harmful algae blooms like this are happening more often worldwide as oceans get warmer and pollution increases.This increase is due storms, currents and other natural phenomena, but human activities are also a great attribute. Adding pollutants such as sewage, pesticides and fertilizer to the oceans creates an environment more conducive to algae blooms (Anderson 2009).

When toxins are present at low levels, there is little to no environmental or human side effects. However, adverse side effects occur when they are present in high density and are ingested by shellfish, plankton, and fish. Toxins are then accumulated in these organisms and transition through the food chain (Wang 2008).

Shellfish and fish that consume Domoic acid appear healthy and physical symptoms are subtle. However, the toxin goes straight to the brain when consumed by humans, attacking nerve signal transmission. Domoic acid is fat-soluble, accumulating in the fat tissue of the crabs. This means the neurotoxin is present in the meat, so when a human eats the meat, they are directly ingesting Domoic acid (Herbaugh 2015). It is reported that algal toxins result in more than 50,000–500,000 intoxication incidents per year (Wang 2008).

While this neurotoxin can be fatal when consumed by humans at high doses, it is more detrimental to marine mammals and birds that feed on small fish and shellfish for survival.

There are multiple strategies to deal with the increasing problem of HAB toxins in marine environments. Since the knowledge about why HABs occur in many areas is often not available, it is difficult to regulate or control. Many countries are implementing sewage reduction strategies, which is a useful way of reducing algal blooms (Anderson 2009).

Another strategy includes mechanical control by the removal of HAB cells from the water by dispersing clay over the water surface. The clay particles aggregate with each other and with HAB cells, removing those cells through sedimentation. However, there is difficulty obtaining permits, environmental clearances and funds to test this method on a larger scale (Sengco et al 2001).

A variety of organisms could also be used to control HABs, but biological control can cause many problems.  There is still considerable opposition to the concept of releasing one organism to control another in the ocean (Anderson et al 2001). Similarly, introducing an exotic organism to the area has also been considered. However, genetically engineering species introduced to alter the environmental tolerances can be problematic. The issues surrounding this type of control strategy are similar in many ways to those associated with biological control—concerns about the possible negative impacts of introducing a non-indigenous organism to an area (Hokkanen et al 1995).

As “red tide” proves to be an increasing problem faced by countries around the world, it is imperative that we work towards implementing more preventative measures. Natural occurrences such as the current El Nino will continue to be an instigator, however, it is possible to ameliorate HABs by reducing the amount of chemicals released into marine environments.

SaveTheWater is an organization that conducts research to identify and remove harmful chemicals from the water and improve water quality and human health. This research is applied to the education of present and future generations. When complete, the STW™ Laboratory will have state-of-the-art technology and equipment that will be able to assist in solving contamination issues like HABs. Tests on water and other sample extractions will be performed with continued research to learn more about how to reduce toxicity in the environment. Fertilizer consumption, sewage, pesticides and countless other pollutants are being dumped into the oceans everyday. Innovation and new technology must be used to mitigate and prevent new outbreaks in order to save marine life as well as human lives.



Anderson DM, Andersen P, Bricelj VM, Cullen JJ, Rensel JE. (2001)  “Monitoring and

management strategies for harmful algal blooms in coastal waters.” Paris: Asia Pacific Economic Program, Singapore, and Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission; 268 pp.

Anderson, D. (2009). “Approaches to monitoring, control and management of harmful algal

blooms (HABs).” Ocean Coast Manag. 52(7): 342.

Hokkanen HMT, Lynch JM. (1995). “Biological control: benefits and risks.” Cambridge:

Cambridge Univ. Press; 304 pp.

Sengco MR, Li A, Tugend K, Kulis D, Anderson DM. (2001) “Removal of red- and brown-tide

cells using clay flocculation.” I. Laboratory culture experiments with Gymnodinium breve and Aureococcus anophagefferens. Marine Ecology Progress Series. 210:41–53.

Steingrube, A. (2015). “Algae Doom.” Good Times. November 18.

Wang, D. (2008).“Neurotoxins from Marine Dinoflagellates: A Brief Review.” Marine Drugs.

6(2), 349-371

Herbaugh, A.(2015). “Toxic algae bloom closes commercial crab harvesting.” The Orion.

December 4.

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