Rick Stumpf, from the NOAA Center for Coastal Monitoring
and Assessment, gives a presentation on harmful algal
bloom observing systems. Photo by Lisa Tossey
The descriptions can be deceiving – marine blooms, mahogany tides, and blue-green algae all sound picturesque. But for aquatic ecosystems, they may spell trouble. These large outbreaks of algae, known as harmful algal blooms, or HABs, have increasingly affected marine and freshwater coastal areas throughout the country, causing broad health, environmental, and economic impacts.
Challenges presented by these outbreaks in the mid-Atlantic region brought together over 60 researchers, educators, and resource managers from throughout Delmarva and beyond to attend the Harmful Algal Blooms in the Mid-Atlantic Forum on April 28 at the University of Delaware’s Hugh R. Sharp Campus in Lewes, Del.
The daylong forum, which was hosted by the University of Delaware and Delaware Sea Grant College Program, with support from the Center for Inland Bays and DNREC Division of Water Resources, featured national experts on HAB species and trends in mid-Atlantic estuaries.
Speakers joined the discussion by teleconference from as far away as Georgia and Florida, sharing the latest information on HAB monitoring and response programs, impacts on human health, and emerging technologies that are being used to predict HAB outbreaks.
“The point is, we have a wide array of toxic species present throughout the mid-Atlantic estuaries,” said Pat Glibert, a professor and researcher at University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science Horn Point Laboratory, pointing out the mid-Atlantic region was classified as the most impaired coastline in the U.S. by a 2007 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) study on nutrient pollution. “We know the pressures of population growth and climate change will increase and the pressures on the mid-Atlantic will remain intense in the coming years.”
Other speakers echoed Glibert’s concern about the pressures of growth on Delmarva, and explained how increased runoff from impervious surfaces and agriculture can lead to higher levels of nutrients like nitrogen in local waterways.
Aquatic algae thrive on the nutrients, and their increased growth leads to the formation of dense mats of the microscopic plants, which block light needed by underwater plants that serve as vital habitat for fish, crabs, and other creatures. As the algae begin to die, bacteria that aid in their decomposition use up dissolved oxygen in the water, suffocating fish and other aquatic organisms that need the oxygen to breathe.
Some types of algae, like Karenia brevis, which forms a bloom called red tide, can also cause respiratory and skin irritation in people.
An outbreak of red tide was seen in Delaware waters last fall, and Ed Whereat, program coordinator for the University of Delaware Citizen Monitoring Program, said the algae is just one of a “dirty dozen” of harmful organisms that have caused fish kills, shellfish contamination, and health problems for people, livestock, and domestic animals in the state.
Whereat explained that ongoing research on HABs is leading to a better understanding of the organisms involved, which in turn, will improve monitoring and response efforts.
Marc Suddleson, from the NOAA Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research, agreed, pointing out that early detection and intervention is key to reducing HAB impacts.
“This has become an issue of national importance. Many different species are causing serious ecological, economical, and human health impacts,” he said. “They require a rapid, coordinated response.”
Suddleson said that NOAA is currently supporting research in the region’s estuaries to develop new ecological forecasting capabilities, including molecular probes to identify multiple HAB species and automated, real-time sensors to detect nutrients.
Rick Stumpf, from the NOAA Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment, shared that his group is also working on observing systems that can work in tandem with environmental data to better predict HAB events.
“One of the tools we use is the blending of environmental information with satellite technology,” he said. “We try to put it together to tell a story – multiple data types are necessary and must be integrated.”
“There’s a lot of cooperation in this field,” said Joe Farrell, forum coordinator, as he closed the event. “Now we hope we can have better communication too.”
To view speaker presentations, visit the forum web page.
To learn more about the Delaware Sea Grant College Program, visit www.deseagrant.org. For more about CMES, visit www.ocean.udel.edu.