Ecology and Oceanography of Harmful Algal Blooms

Environmental Health Perspectives, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Ecology and Oceanography of Harmful Algal Blooms


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as part of its Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program, and its interagency partners, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA), and the Office of Naval Research (ONR), are seeking applications proposing targeted research projects of up to 3 years duration and, depending on appropriations, multidisciplinary regional studies for 3-5 years for the Ecology and Oceanography of Harmful Algal Blooms (ECOHAB) program. This program supports research on algal species whose populations may cause or result in deleterious effects on ecosystems and human health. Studies of the causes of such blooms, their detection, effects, mitigation, and control in U.S. coastal waters (including estuaries and Great Lakes) are solicited.

Harmful algal blooms (HABs) are caused by a diverse group of organisms, including toxic and noxious phytoplankton, some protists, cyanobacteria, benthic algae, and macroalgae. While some HABs occur naturally, others may be stimulated by human activities. Blooms can extend over large geographic areas, be composed of more than one harmful or toxic species, and cause significant impacts on fisheries, recreation, human health, and the ecology of both marine and fresh water bodies. HABs are now a recurrent and serious problem in many areas of the United States, and evidence suggests that the frequency and distribution of HABs is also increasing globally, impacting many countries that have commercial and recreational activities in the coastal ocean.

HAB impacts on public health and local/regional economies are also dramatic and increasing. In a recent study, average annual economic losses in the United States from HABs were approximated at $49 million, with costs attributable to maintenance of toxin monitoring programs; closures of shellfish beds; marine mammal stranding networks; collapse of some fisheries; mortality of fish, shellfish, turtles, birds, and mammals; disruptions in tourism; threats to public and coastal resource health; publication of watershed, health, and seafood advisories; and medical treatments (Anderson et al. 2000, available at http://www.whoi. edu/redtide/pertinentinfo/Economics_report.pdf). Despite greater public awareness and advisories of bloom events, human illnesses and even fatalities continue to be reported. Additionally, some toxins may cause only a few documented illnesses but result in serious public reaction and temporary aversion to local seafood products and activities (e.g., $46 million in lost revenue from; the 1997 Maryland fish health/Pfiesteria events; Anderson et al. 2000). These deleterious impacts have increased public awareness and demand for intervention to reduce or eliminate bloom impacts on coastal resources, local economies, and threats to public health.

Over the course of the last decade, numerous national and agency reports have described the magnitude of the HAB problem and outlined research plans to systematically address the issue. The ECOHAB Program was initiated a decade ago as an interagency, scientific program designed to increase the understanding of the fundamental processes underlying the impacts and population dynamics of HABs (ECOHAB 1995). Three major research themes encompassing the priorities of issues of national importance on the HAB phenomenon were identified: 1) organisms, with a goal towards determining the physiological, biochemical, and behavioral features that influence bloom dynamics; 2) environmental regulation, with a goal toward determining and parameterizing the factors that govern the initiation, growth, and maintenance of these blooms; and 3) food web and community interactions, with a goal toward determining the extent to which food webs and trophic structure affect and are affected by the dynamics of HABs. …

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