A vast bloom of toxic algae off the West Coast is denser, more widespread and deeper than scientists feared even weeks ago, according to surveyors aboard a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research vessel.
This coastal ribbon of microscopic algae, up to 64 kilometres wide and 198 metres deep in places, is flourishing amid unusually warm Pacific Ocean temperatures. It now stretches from at least California to Alaska and has shut down lucrative fisheries.
Shellfish managers on Tuesday doubled the area off Washington's coast that is closed to Dungeness crab fishing, after finding elevated levels of marine toxins in tested crab meat.
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So-called "red tides" are cyclical and have happened many times before, but ocean researchers say this one is much larger and persisting much longer, with higher levels of neurotoxins bringing severe consequences for the Pacific seafood industry, coastal tourism and marine ecosystems.
Dan Ayres, coastal shellfish manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the area now closed to crab fishing includes more than half the state's 253-kilometre-long coast, and likely will bring a premature end to this year's crab season.
"We think it's just sitting and lingering out there," said Anthony Odell, a University of Washington research analyst who is part of the U.S.'s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association-led team surveying the harmful algae bloom, which was first detected in May. "It's farther offshore, but it's still there."
Could 'the blob' be the culprit?
"The question on everyone's mind is whether this is related to global climate change. The simple answer is that it could be, but at this point it's hard to separate the variations in these cycles," said Donald Boesch, professor of marine science at the University of Maryland who is not involved in the survey. "Maybe the cycles are more extreme in the changing climate."
Researchers headed to B.C.
Odell recently completed the first leg of the survey, mostly in California waters. On Wednesday, researchers plan to continue monitoring the sea between Newport, Oregon, and Seattle. The vessel will then go to Vancouver Island, wrapping up in early September.
The brownish bloom was particularly thick off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, and Odell said it was unusually dominated by one type of algae called Pseudo-nitzschia, which can produce the neurotoxin domoic acid.
Trainer said this bloom is the worst she's seen in 20 years of studying them. Harmful algal blooms have usually been limited to one area of the ocean or another, and have disappeared after a few weeks. This one has grown for months, waxing and waning but never going away.
The current bloom also involves some of the highest concentrations of domoic acid yet observed in Monterey Bay and other areas of the West Coast.
"It's really working its way into the food web and we're definitely seeing the impacts of that," Kudela said, noting that sea lions are getting sick and pelicans are being exposed. And now that the Pacific is experiencing its periodic ocean warming known as El Nino, it may come back even stronger next year, he said.
No reports of related human illnesses
Domoic acid is harmful to people, fish and marine life. It accumulates in anchovies, sardines and other small fish as well as shellfish that eat the algae. Marine mammals and fish-eating birds in turn can get sick from eating the contaminated fish. In people, it can trigger amnesic shellfish poisoning, which can cause permanent loss of short-term memory in severe cases.
California public health officials have warned against eating recreationally harvested mussels and clams, or any anchovy, sardines or crabs caught in waters off Monterey, Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara counties. Other shellfish harvests are shut down along Oregon's coast.
"This is really unprecedented territory for us," said Ayres.