Algae blooms’ sudden spread stumps scientists

Posted on SFGate: November 27, 2011 — Peter Fimrite, Chronicle Staff Writer


Mark Costantini / The Chronicle — Red algae in a tidepool at the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve in Moss Beach, Calif. on Wednesday, November 26 2008.

 Marine scientists are trying to find out why previously unknown blooms of toxic algae are suddenly proliferating along the California coast, killing wildlife and increasing the risk of human sickness.

The mysterious blooms have recently been bigger and have occurred more frequently than ever before, an alarming trend that a team of scientists led by UC Santa Cruz is attempting to figure out.

“It is a huge problem for wildlife,” said Raphael Kudela, a professor of ocean sciences at UC Santa Cruz and the lead scientist for the study, which began last week. “We’ve seen a lot more of what we consider unusual events. It’s not always the same organism, but new things keep cropping up. The million-dollar question is: What exactly is the change in the environment that these things are linked to?”

The danger was disturbingly apparent starting in August when a deadly red tide killed tens of thousands of abalone, sea urchins and other mollusks along the coast in Sonoma and Mendocino counties.

Scientists will deploy an array of sophisticated ocean-monitoring technology, including robotic gliders, a network of underwater sensors and satellite observations, during the five-year, $4.3 million study. The project shoved off using an $800,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Research focus

The researchers will look at the rare species found in the red tide, known as Gonyaulax spinifera, which creates a biotoxin that kills shellfish.

But the primary focus will be on a separate single-celled diatom known as Pseudo-nitzschia. This algae, which was not part of the recent red tide, produces domoic acid, which Kudela said has rapidly become the single biggest biological threat along the California coast.



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