Microscopic algae in our oceans do much of the hard work that makes life on Earth possible. These tiny plants feed our oceans, clean our atmosphere and provide half of the oxygen we breathe. We simply wouldn’t be here without them.
Yet, hundreds of species of algae also produce toxins that are harmful to people and the environment. When large numbers of these species grow, or bloom, toxins can move up the food web and have costly effects on wildlife, human health, seafood industries and tourism. I spent a decade studying harmful algae in Florida and saw firsthand the devastation that blooms can cause to the environment, the economy and the psyche of a region.
The water conditions and physics of the Gulf of Mexico make it naturally prone to harmful algal blooms. Human activities, however, have arguably made these blooms much worse over time. Nitrogen-rich runoff from the land can act as fertilizer in the ocean and cause toxic algae to multiply. When ocean currents concentrate these cells, the algae can start killing fish. This releases more of the normally scarce nitrogen into the ocean, further fertilizing the blooms and creating a self-perpetuating cycle.
The current “red tide” in Florida illustrates the need for consistent, sound science to manage harmful algal blooms. Monitoring, prediction and education are critical, yet the funds for these activities are scarce. Only about half of the years in the past decade saw federal funding for new research into the ecology and oceanography of harmful algal blooms. This is not enough, especially considering the major changes and challenges affecting our oceans.
The combined effects of climate change, wastewater treatment, fertilizer runoff and coastal development have compromised the resiliency of the Gulf of Mexico. While much of the Maine coast sharply contrasts the highly developed coast of Florida, climate change is causing the Gulf of Maine to rapidly warm and acidify. This has introduced a lot of uncertainty about what the future looks like and made it clear that the past is no longer a useful guide. While we don’t yet know what the long-term impact of climate change will be on Gulf of Maine algae, we do know it is already changing the species, frequency, timing and magnitude of harmful blooms.
Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences helps the Maine Department of Marine Resources monitor shellfish for the toxins created by harmful algal species, informing decisions on how to manage fisheries. This careful monitoring ensures that the seafood you buy at the store or order at a restaurant is safe to eat, but temporary fishery closures can have significant economic impacts on shellfish farmers and harvesters.
We must continue to protect people’s health and the environment while developing new methods that better protect our coastal economy and the livelihoods of the many Mainers who rely on it. There is great potential in expanding use of the data from Maine’s monitoring programs to forecast blooms. Genetic surveys of seawater could help reveal what is happening with these harmful algae, and there are effective autonomous monitoring solutions that could be deployed throughout the Gulf of Maine to provide an early warning system. Bigelow scientists are also helping develop easy-to-use genetic testing methods for harmful species and contributing to citizen science efforts for monitoring and public education.
Moving these efforts forward at the pace required to keep up with the rate of environmental change will require federal agencies to increase funding, and voters to elect representatives who understand the importance of scientific research. We have an opportunity in Maine to mitigate the threat of increased harmful algal blooms before it grows to be the size of the problem facing Florida.