By the Santa Barbara Channelkeeper
An algae bloom off California’s coast is currently causing distressed marine wildlife experiencing domoic acid toxicity to come ashore. In the past two weeks, wildlife rescue teams have responded to an unprecedented number of strandings throughout Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, treating as many as twenty-one animals in one day.
Domoic acid is a potent neurotoxin naturally produced in phytoplankton by the algal diatom genus Pseudo-nitzschia. An overabundance of this phytoplankton is sometimes referred to as a “harmful algal bloom” or “red tide.”
In the coming days, growth of the toxic algae Pseudo-nitzschia is expected to continue, according to forecasts from the California Harmful Algae Risk Mapping (C-HARM) system.
Red tides are naturally occurring, however human inputs of nitrogen to the ocean, as well as warming ocean waters and other potential factors, may contribute to larger, longer, and more frequent blooms.
Large blooms of toxin-producing algae can be harmful, threatening the health of marine mammals and seabirds and affecting humans through exposure via the food web. When wildlife consumes filter-feeding bivalves or fish that feed on the toxic algae, domoic acid transfers to larger marine creatures up the food web. As the toxin transfers to predators such as seals, sea lions, and birds, it can cause seizures, brain damage, and sometimes death.
An essential part of managing harmful algae blooms is better understanding them. On September 1st, Channelkeeper coordinated with experts from the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project, the Southern California Ocean Observing System, and the University of Southern California to support research activities in the Santa Barbara Channel. Ph.D. candidate Kyla Kelly collected plankton and biotoxin samples onboard the RV Channelkeeper to help inform her research on how climate change stressors may impact harmful algal blooms.
Channelkeeper was honored to contribute to research surrounding this critical issue affecting marine mammals in the Santa Barbara Channel and the local impacts of climate change.