Toxic Algae: An opportunity for scientific outreach?

Last week, National Geographic reported some startling news from the Pacific Northwest.  Numerous, large-scale blooms of a toxic marine phytoplankton (a type of algae known as a dinoflagellate; Akashiwo sp.) have been producing a soapy-like substance.  Although seemingly harmless to the naked eye, this foam has been blamed for a high number of seabird deaths along the Oregon and Washington coasts over the past few months.  When the bird feathers become coated in this substance, the seabirds cannot dry themselves.  If not assisted by wildlife rescue volunteers, the birds suffer from hypothermia and death.

The increased presence of toxic algae along the coasts in the Pacific Northwest has been attributed to changes in large-scale oceanographic processes due to warming waters.  An increase in coastal water temperatures may alter nutrient delivery to the coast affecting the base of the food web, the phytoplankton.  Although the majority of marine phytoplankton are not toxic, when harmful algal blooms (HABs) respond to changes in their environment, the results can be drastic.  Some species may be toxic to animals such as seabirds (ex. Akashiwo sp.) while others may be toxic to humans.

The recent seabird deaths are upsetting, but they also provide an important opportunity for effective scientific communication.  These events have devastating ecosystem-wide impacts beginning at the base of the food chain with marine phytoplankton and extending up through the seabird community.  Ultimately, what occurs in our marine waters affects humans, too.  This problem provides an intersection for marine science, public health, and environmental policy and it begs for cooperation among the three disciplines.  Furthermore, it enables public communicators to show how a problem can begin on a small-scale (with microscopic algae) and rapidly progress through the food chain.

Several organizations (see below) have been working to address this problem; however, there is still a need for increasing public awareness.  With the graphic images associated with seabird sickness and death, how do we communicate the urgency of this issue without startling beach-goers?  Furthermore, how do we organize multiple disciplines under one umbrella to address this issue in a timely fashion?  It will certainly be interesting to track the fate of seabirds over the next few months and to hear more from local organizations and volunteers who are working around the clock to save the sick seabirds.

References and additional information:

The NOAA Oceans and Human Health Initiative (http://www.eol.ucar.edu/projects/ohhi/).

International Bird Research Rescue Center (http://www.ibrrc.org/algae-slime-response-2009.html)

National Geographic  (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/10/)

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