UW News

July 29, 2015

NOAA funds UW, partners to investigate West Coast harmful algal bloom

UW News

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced last week it is committing $88,000 in event-response funding for our state to monitor and analyze an unusually large and long-lived bloom of toxic algae that has been affecting shellfish in the region.

UW-based Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems, or NANOOS, was awarded $75,000 of the grant money to monitor and analyze the bloom in Washington state waters.

spiky molecules on blue background

Water collected off the Washington coast in May showed evidence of the Pseudo-nitzschia, prompting closure of all razor clam beaches.A. Odell / UW

“This is a response to an event, and we’ve got a good network of partners to be able to do it,” said Jan Newton, an oceanographer with the UW Applied Physics Laboratory. “We’re working together to better understand the bloom, in terms of getting more data, and to better communicate the situation to managers and the public.”

Newton directs NANOOS, an observing system with a data portal that combines ocean observations from federal, state and other agencies and provides that data in real time. It will use the new funds to help partners collect more data on harmful algae, display that information online in real time and in late summer distribute a UW-NOAA bulletin on harmful algal conditions.

Newton will discuss current conditions and recent trends at a Puget Sound media event Thursday, July 30 at Shilshole Marina.

Certain species of Pseudo-nitzschia produce a neurotoxin, domoic acid, that accumulates in anchovies and shellfish. Eating seafood contaminated with domoic acid can cause amnesic shellfish poisoning, a severe illness whose effects on humans include permanent short-term memory loss, brain damage or death.

An additional $13,000 in event-response funding will further support researchers and state and tribal managers to collect and analyze more water samples for Pseudo-nitzschia populations and toxin concentration in Washington waters. Scientists will get an easy-to-use test kit to see if the algae in the waters contain the domic acid toxin. Vera Trainer, a NOAA scientist and and UW affiliate professor of aquatic and fisheries sciences, will manage the sampling strategy and deploy the kits on scheduled voyages to areas of interest.

The funds will also support a periodic Pacific Northwest general bulletin and scientific report. Barbara Hickey, a UW professor of oceanography, and Ryan McCabe, a research scientist at the UW’s Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean, will collaborate with NOAA scientists to create a bulletin with more details on the extent of the bloom; current conditions in the ocean, rivers and air; and likelihood that those conditions will continue. The bulletins will be provided via NANOOS to managers and the public in time for the late summer and fall razor clam seasons.

During a toxic algal bloom, certain species of the tiny drifting algae Pseudo-nitzschia produce a toxin that can be harmful to marine life and to humans who eat contaminated shellfish. Since May, when the harmful algae first appeared, Washington’s razor clamming has remained closed and commercial crab fishing has been cancelled on the southern coast.

The large bloom affected the entire West Coast, from Southern California to Alaska. Better understanding of the current bloom may help answer questions such as whether the algal bloom will continue through the summer and whether it is likely to recur in future years.

In June, UW research analyst Anthony Odell joined a NOAA research vessel traveling north from southern California up along West Coast. Odell collected and analyzed water samples to learn the extent of the bloom and try to pinpoint hot spots where the toxic algal cells first originate. A separate NOAA project is further investigating what is triggering harmful algal hot spots along the central and northern California coasts.

Partners in the Pacific Northwest event-response effort include NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, the UW’s Olympic Natural Resources Center and its Olympic Regional HAB Partnership, Washington State Department of Health, Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, Quileute Tribe, Quinault Indian Nation, Makah Tribe, Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, and UW-based NANOOS, the regional component of the NOAA-led U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System.

State and tribal agencies already monitor toxin levels to ensure that commercially available seafood is safe to eat. Check the Washington Department of Health website for current closures.


For more information, contact Newton at 206-543-9152 or newton@apl.washington.edu and Hickey at 206 543-4737 or bhickey@uw.edu. See a full list of UW experts on harmful algal blooms.