Glenda Anderson, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
An explosion of toxic algae along the West Coast has launched an expansive seagoing research project aimed at uncovering the roots of the growth, which contaminates shellfish and small fin fish with a poison that can kill the marine mammals, birds and people who eat them.
The current outbreak is the worst toxic algal bloom in more than a decade, stretching from California’s Central Coast to Washington, and possibly to Alaska, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The algae is producing toxins in unprecedented amounts in some “hot spots” along the coast, officials say.
“Researchers in both the Monterey Bay and the Central Oregon Coast have found some of the highest concentrations of domoic acid that they’ve ever seen,” NOAA Fisheries spokesman Michael Milstein said.
Scientists are hoping that a three-month ocean expedition, launched Monday, to monitor and collect samples of the single-celled marine plants producing toxins along the West Coast will help answer why their numbers have skyrocketed.
Unlike the algal blooms that have plagued freshwater bodies like Clear Lake, the microscopic algae — also called phytoplankton — are not visible to the naked eye. But when their numbers are large, the water takes on a brownish-green hue. Some types turn the water a red color, leading to a common moniker for the outbreaks — “red tides.”