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Something in the Water

news_birdsUCSC scientists win grant to study toxic algae blooms along California coast
A curious event happened in the summer of 1961.  One foggy night, birds began acting confused, suicidal, even violent. Hundreds of sooty shearwaters are said to have crashed into buildings and power lines across Capitola in the middle of the night. Residents who ventured from their homes found themselves attacked by some of the birds who seemed drawn by their flashlights. The next morning streets and rooftops were found littered with the bodies of the birds, and those avian creatures that survived the night filled the streets, noticeably confused and disoriented.

At the same time, a successful filmmaker living in the hills near Scotts Valley caught wind of the event and requested a copy of the Santa Cruz Sentinel story for “research.” Two years later, Alfred Hitchcock released his landmark thriller The Birds.

At the time, scientists blamed the dense layer of fog that evening for the crashes and confusion, claiming the light emitted from houses and street lamps served as beacons for the unsuspecting shearwaters. New theories suggest a biological culprit: a neurotoxin released during large blooms of the algae pseudo-nitzchia that works its way up the food chain. New research is under way to better understand and predict the outbreaks of the hazardous toxin.

Raphael Kudela, an oceanographer at UC Santa Cruz, is leading a team of researchers that just received a $792,000 grant from the Ocean Protection Council and California Sea Grant to develop a computer model to forecast the periodic blooms of the toxic algae across the California coast. The hope is that public health agencies will be able to use the models to better predict when the harmful algae blooms (HAB) will occur, and make the necessary closures to protect the public.

“We’ve been looking at pseudo-nitzchia which produces domoic acid here in California, for about 10 years,” says Kudela. “There’s been a lot of research and we’ve found out a lot of interesting things but we haven’t really gotten to the point until recently where we could actually start translating that into something useful for managers and for the public.”

When a HAB occurs, mussels and clams become infected with domoic acid and pass the harmful neurotoxin onto whatever, or whoever, eats them. The worst case of this poisoning for humans, and the event that drew attention to its study, occurred in Prince Edward Island in Canada when 100 people became sick after eating infected mussels and clams, resulting in seven deaths.

Since that event, scientific and public health diligence has kept anyone from getting sick within California, says Kudela, but the blooms can still pose a risk. “In California there has never been a confirmed case where a human has gotten sick enough to go to the hospital and that’s primarily because California has a really excellent monitoring program,” he says.

Much of that has to do with a six-month closure for recreational harvesting of mussels and clams and constant testing of commercial shellfish. But HABs can have major negative impacts beyond health concerns. A recent conservative assessment estimates that HABs occurring in marine waters alone have an average annual impact of $82 million dollars to local economies in the United States.

While HABs do occur naturally, Kudela says they appear to be happening more and more frequently over the last 10 years and moving to areas they weren’t seen before. “Before the year 2000 you could read the scientific papers and they all said domoic acid is simply not a problem in Southern California,” says Kudela.

But over the last decade, a shift has been occurring that has seen some of the largest and most toxic blooms around Santa Barbara and even further south. “Now it really seems like it’s spreading and coming up pretty strongly in Southern California,” says Kudela.

While HABs occur naturally, human activities appear to be contributing to the increase and movement of the blooms. Nutrient loadings and pollution from rivers (like the Pajaro River), alterations in the food web and water flow modifications have all been linked to the increased occurrence of some HABs.

In light of budget crises across the state, Kudela says he’s grateful for the opportunity the grant provides and says it brings attention to the importance of the issue.

“We’re really thrilled the Ocean Protection Council and Sea Grant have elected to fund this,” he says. “In the past, most of this research has been funded by the federal government. The State of California has really recognized that this is an issue and that this is something that we can actually make some headway on.”

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