Measuring Murk

slugreportSLUG REPORT > UCSC-led research team to study toxic algae blooms

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Ecology and Oceanography of Harmful Algal Blooms (ECOHAB) program has awarded a UC Santa Cruz-led team of scientist more than $4 million dollars to help fund research pertaining to the blooming of toxic algae along the Californian Coast.

UCSC professor of ocean sciences Raphael Kudela was, interestingly enough, in Texas attending a “U.S. Harmful Algal Bloom” meeting at the time of his  interview with GT.  He explained, over the phone, how the original proposal for the grant was sent in 2009, but despite the two year gap, the group is still “pretty excited” about the project.

“This is something that traditionally we all hear about when there’s some big bloom event and Californian sea lions or pelicans are being poisoned,” says Kudela. “We haven’t really had enough opportunity to look at what actually causes a bloom to appear in the first place”

UCSC is leading the group of scientists, yet they are also working alongside the University of Southern California, UCLA, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institue, the Southern California Coastal Research Project, and the NOAA’s ECOHAB toward the same goal. The project is funded for five years, and according to Kudela the group will mainly focus on the single celled algae Pseudo-nitzschia, which produces a toxin called domoic acid. The group will secondarily focus upon Alexandrium, another single celled algae, which can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning.

“The domoic acid mostly affects wildlife, there is currently a really good shellfish monitoring program, so there haven’t been any illnesses in humans,” says Kudela. “Paralytic shellfish poisoning can also affect wildlife, but it causes lots of problems, particularly up in Alaska, with humans getting sick from it.”

The group will be comparing two environmentally different places in California: the Monterey Bay, along the Central Coast, and the San Pedro Shelf area in Southern California. Both are considered “hot beds” of toxic bloom activity. Kudela notes that both places harbor “a lot of the same organisms, just not necessarily at the same time.” The Monterey Bay experiences seasonal upwelling, and is considered to be “clean and pristine” by Kudela, while the San Pedro Shelf is “basically surrounded” by the greater part of Los Angeles and deals with a larger “nutrient input” from outside sources.

“That’s what we’re excited to look at, can we link these blooms back to humans, how much of it is related to what humans are doing and how much is related to just environmental variability,” says Kudela.

From buoys that are “basically laboratories…measuring toxins, and doing some molecular biology to see what organisms are there” to what is “essentially an unmanned torpedoe that can glide through the ocean and stay out there for three months at a time sending data,” state of the art technology is being used to help the researchers towards their goals.

“It’s one of the first times on the West Coast, in California at least, that we’ve tried to use these automated robots to tell us about what’s going on in the environment, respond to it, and then go out and see what’s actually happening,” says Kudela. “We’re pretty confident that probably within, maybe two years, we’ll be able to start making these predictions about when you’re going to see blooms and what’s causing them. We’re hoping that since we’re working with the state, that in a fairly short time scale we can start producing these real-time predictions.”


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