Nonprofit organization outlines strategies to protect human health, wildlife and businesses
The Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System Regional Association (GCOOS-RA) has released a new plan that, when fully implemented, “will help protect humans and marine life from the negative impacts caused by harmful algal blooms, or HABs,” the association has announced.
The goal of the Harmful Algal Bloom Integrated Observing System (HABIOS) Plan is to establish a sustained observation program as part of the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS®), “to support and enhance HAB management and monitoring and reduce and mitigate the negative impacts that HABs have on human health, marine organisms and coastal communities,” a news release says.
“At normal levels, marine algae support healthy ecosystems by forming the base of the food web and producing oxygen,” the release explains. “Most species are beneficial to the ecosystem and to humans. However, there are some algal species that produce toxins,” it continues. When they bloom — meaning they reproduce or accumulate far beyond their normal levels — “their toxins can harm humans, other animals and the environment,” the release points out.
“HAB outbreaks in coastal U.S. waters have resulted in staggering economic losses to recreational and commercial fisheries, recreation and tourism,” the release continues. They have been known to send people to hospitals; cause massive fish kills; and kill or sicken protected or endangered sea turtles, sea birds, dolphins and manatees, resulting in increased costs for coastal managers dealing with the effects, the release points out.
“The Gulf of Mexico has multiple existing systems that monitor and forecast the development and movement of HABs,” said Dr. Barbara Kirkpatrick, executive director of GCOOS-RA, in the release.
Kirkpatrick is also co-chair of the National Harmful Algal Bloom Committee.
“The systems are operated by state, federal and local agencies and research universities and laboratories, and they tend to operate independently of each other — meaning that we’re not taking full advantage of the capabilities we currently have Gulf-wide,” she added in the release.
“In the Gulf of Mexico, it’s impossible to control where and when blooms will develop, how long they will last or to stop them once they develop,” Kirkpatrick noted in the release. “But by developing a comprehensive plan to better deploy the tools we currently have, know where we need to add tools, continue to develop new technologies and methods to identify the causes and effects of harmful algal blooms and develop standardized reporting methods, we can help people stay healthy and help coastal communities be better prepared for red tide impacts. That’s what HABIOS will do when it’s fully operational.”
The Gulf’s most well known species of harmful algae is Karenia brevis, which causes red tides in Florida, Texas and other Gulf states, the release points out. That algae recently affected central and southwest coastal areas in Florida — including parts of Sarasota County — as well as communities in the Panhandle, the release adds.
Climate change is also expected to increase the frequency and severity of HAB outbreaks, as well as bring outbreaks of additional harmful species such as Dinophysis, the release notes.
“Dinophysis can cause diarrhetic shellfish poisoning in humans,” the release explains. For the first time, in 2008, it was identified in Texas by the Imaging Flow CytoBot (IFCB); it is considered an emerging threat, the release explains.
The IFCB, “developed by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, maintained by Texas A & M University and housed at the University of Texas, combines high-resolution video and a flow cytometer to capture images of plankton species and identify harmful varieties,” the release continues. By feeding real-time information to the GCOOS data portal, the release says, “the IFCB has provided an early warning for numerous toxic blooms since 2008.”
“[Use of the instrument allowed] us to temporarily close oyster harvesting and keep affected oysters out of the marketplace,” Kirk Wiles, manager of the Seafood & Aquatic Life Group at the Texas Department of State Health Services, pointed out in the release. “It’s a valuable public health tool that has absolutely stopped illness outbreaks.”
The HABIOS plan was developed following several workshops “attended by hundreds of stakeholders and system managers and sponsored by GCOOS and the Gulf of Mexico Alliance,” the release notes. During those sessions, participants “identified critical deficiencies” that can be improved through the development of a more comprehensive and integrated approach to detecting HABs faster and providing more accurate and timely predictions of potential impacts, the release says.
“Harmful algal blooms can wreak havoc on coastal communities and coastal economies,” notes Zdenka Willis, IOOS director, in the release. “We have limited funding nationally to develop and implement new systems to protect residents and deal with the effects of HABs on the environment. Working together under the framework laid out in the HABIOS plan, we will address this issue through collaboration, data sharing, public outreach and education among all agencies and organizations,” she adds in the release.
To read the plan, click here.
“The Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System Regional Association is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization responsible for developing a network of business leaders, marine scientists, resource managers, non-governmental organizations and other stakeholder groups that combine their data to provide timely information about our oceans — similar to the information gathered by the National Weather Service to develop weather forecasts,” the release explains.