By Peter N. Spotts, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
Armed with sample jars, microscopes, and new federal grants, marine scientists are embarking on the most ambitious effort in US history to turn the tide against harmful algae blooms along the nation's coasts.
Sudden explosions in the number of tiny plankton - sometimes visible as "red" or "brown" tides - kill or contaminate fish and shellfish by the millions, undermining ocean-based economies and posing public-health risks.
Around the world, researchers have been trying to curb the spread of harmful blooms using everything from powdered clay to algae-eating clams. Now the US is joining the effort with a $15-million research effort that will utilize such things as satellites and sophisticated computer models. Led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the program represents the federal government's first major attempt to tackle a problem that many marine biologists say is getting worse. The objective is to learn as much as possible about the factors that give rise to harmful algae blooms. Ultimately, researchers hope to develop quick means of identifying, forecasting, and dissipating blooms. "There's pretty good evidence that blooms are spreading," says Percy Donaghay, a senior marine-research scientist at the University of Rhode Island's Graduate School of Oceanography. THE scientific assault comes at a time of heightened congressional interest in the ocean's microscopic malefactors. This summer, blooms of a relatively new species of plankton - Pfisteria piscicida - triggered a substantial fish kill in Chesapeake Bay, one of Washington's favorite playgrounds. Tomorrow, the House Subcommittee on Wildlife and Oceans is scheduled to hold hearings on the outbreak. Marine scientists note that the Chesapeake Bay outbreak has highlighted the significance of a recurring problem that stretches from the Gulf of Maine to the Gulf of Alaska and beyond. In some cases, blooms of harmful algae are increasing. In many others, researchers are discovering additional species that are toxic. "We're starting to define the boundaries of the problem much better, and they're big boundaries," says Don Anderson, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass. Initially, the new research effort is focusing on three targets: the Gulf of Maine, Florida's Gulf coast, and waters off Long Island, according to Leon Cammen, with NOAA's National Sea Grant Program Office. …