Harmful algal blooms; the monster in the shallows

By Alex Steeples

Many of us will have been there, sat on a sunny beach unable to go into the sea, due to the presence of a polite sign warning you of toxic algae. To many this seems illogical; what harm can some floating green specks or tangle of sea weedy mush do? Especially when there are great white sharks and box jellyfish lurking in the deep.

Harmful algal bloom (HAB) is a non-specific term used to refer to any sudden increase in the amount of algae that is deemed to be detrimental to the environment. This harm can be either through the production of harmful toxins, primarily neurotoxins such as brevetoxin and domoic acid; or through the large increase in algal biomass reducing water oxygen content and affecting the food web.

HABs occur due to a sudden increase in the nutrient content of the water, which allows for rapid growth. These increases, particularly in nitrogen and phosphorous, are often associated with specific seasonal changes, meaning many areas suffer from repeated periodic algal blooms.

Neurotoxin producing algal species such as Karenia brevis, primarily show their effects through the killing of large quantities of fish, which later wash up on shore. Higher mammals may also be killed, or suffer severe illness, if they ingest toxins via a vector such as fish or sea grass. The consumption of contaminated fish was associated with death of over 100 bottlenose dolphins off the coast of Florida in 2004. In the case of humans, whilst fatalities are rare, shellfish poisoning often occurs. This results from the ingestion of shellfish, primarily mussels and clams, which accumulate the toxin.

Although HABs have a wide ranging ecological impact, they also have important socio-economic effects. HABs can cause the closure of fisheries, and sea side resorts for the duration of the bloom, leading to loss of income and, in some cases, livelihood.

So next time you see that sign warning you of algae, pay attention. After all, not all dangers lurk in the deep.

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