Harmful Algal Blooms – Part 1: Who Cares About Harmful Algal Blooms?

It’s a beautiful day in Virginia. The sun is shining, the birds are singing and the water is a beautiful shade of brownish green…

Harmful Algal Bloom
Source: Chesapeake Bay Foundation

The “lovely” color of the water is a harmful algal bloom. An algal bloom is an overgrowth of phytoplankton –  tiny, photosynthetic organisms that live in the water. A harmful algal bloom or HAB is an algal bloom that has some kind of negative effect on other organisms.

In Virginia, harmful algal blooms occur between May and September when the water is warm and full of nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen – the same nutrients used to fertilize plants. Some of these nutrients come from industry and sewage treatment, but many nutrients are washed into the water when rain falls on farms and yards.  Warm, wet summers are great for plants and for harmful algal blooms.

Algal blooms discolor the water and produce noxious odors. They also block the sunlight that is needed by underwater plants and keep filter feeders like oyster from being able to obtain food. When the phytoplankton die and decompose, they remove large quantities of dissolved oxygen from the water and create anoxic dead zones. The result is massive fish kills because fish, oysters, clams, crabs, and other organisms can’t get the oxygen they need.

Source: Chesapeake Bay Foundaton
Source: Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Scientists in Virginia are especially concerned about two species: Cochlodinium polykrikoides and Alexandrium monilatum. Cochlodinium polykrikoides is native to Virginia. Alexandrium monilatum is an invasive species that wasn’t found north of Florida until 2007. It now occurs regularly in Virginia’s rivers.

Both these species produce red tides, like the bloom in the picture below. They also produce toxins that can kill fish and cause birth defects in shellfish. These toxins may also cause illness in humans.

Image from Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS)
Source: Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS)

HABs are a public health problem. They are also an economic problem because a large bloom can have a big impact on Virginia’s fishing industry and tourist industry. So, Virginia has a Harmful Algal Bloom Task Force. The task force includes representatives from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), the Marine Resource Commission, the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), Old Dominion University (ODU) and the Virginia Department of Health. These agencies work together to monitor Virginia’s waters for harmful algal blooms and to respond to bloom events. VIMS and ODU do research on harmful algal bloom species and the biological and environmental conditions that contribute to bloom growth.

HABmap
Virginia Harmful Algal Bloom Surveillance Map 

But, harmful algal blooms aren’t unique to Virginia. Large blooms and dead zones have also been recorded in the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico, the St. Lawrence Estuary, the Oregon Coast, Monterey Bay, the Baltic Sea and Florida. The total economic impact of harmful algal blooms in the U.S. is estimated at $100 million per year.

Last year, Congress reauthorized and expanded the Harmful Algal Blooms and Hypoxia Research and Control Act of 1998. This act provides funding for the study and monitoring of HABs in U.S. waters.

As climate change causes waters to warm, harmful algal blooms are expected to increase in both frequency and severity. More and more water will be affected. So, who cares about harmful algal blooms? We all should care.

Next week: Harmful Algal Blooms – Part 2: Monitoring Harmful Algal Blooms

Edited on 11/20 to add map.

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