I’m sure most of you heard about the largest-ever harmful algal bloom that occurred in the Pacific Ocean during the summer 2015, causing closures of razor clam, Dungeness crab and rock crab fisheries. Many of the reports in the media led us to believe that the Bloom and the Blob were the same thing or that the Blob was feeding the Bloom, like the alien amoeba in the 1958 science fiction movie starring Steve McQueen called “The Blob.” That movie gave me nightmares when I was a kid.
Well, we know that this combo platter of modern-day nightmares, the anomalously warm ocean waters and the associated harmful algal bloom are related but not the same thing. The Blob did not “feed” the Bloom, but the single-celled microscopic organism, called Pseudo-nitzschia, that can form harmful algal blooms (HABs), is an incredibly resilient cell that survived within the warm Blob waters that spanned the entire U.S. west coast in the late spring and summer of 2015. When these cells were transported up against the coast by winds and currents in late April, they met up with a rich source of nutrients and CO2 from coastal upwelling and SHIBANG! THEY BLOOMED!
These blooms, dense numbers of Pseudo-nitzschia, can produce a toxin, called domoic acid, which causes memory loss, seizures and even death in marine mammals. When shellfish and fish, like sardines and anchovies, eat these toxic cells, they can accumulate domoic acid and transfer the toxin up the food chain to marine animals and humans. The Pseudo-nitzschia cells were so numerous and toxic last year that domoic acid was measured even in some finfish, like salmon and halibut. Domoic acid also contributed to the death of a record number of marine mammals that ate these toxin-laced fish.
OK, but it’s time to wake up from the nightmare. The good news is that scientists aboard the ship are doing experiments to help us better understand why Pseudo-nitzschia is so successful. Brian Bill from NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center and Chris Ikeda of the Romberg Tiburon Center (RTC) of the San Francisco State University will collect water containing Pseudo-nitzschia cells and expose them to a series of environmental conditions to mimic what they experienced last summer. Brian and Chris, together with their land-based mentors, Dr. William Cochlan (RTC) and Dr. Vera Trainer (NWFSC), will research the perfect set of conditions that make the bloom most toxic – including temperature, salinity, nutrients and ocean acidity. The reason why their work is so important, and so unique, is that scientists usually do these experiments in the lab with cultures of Pseudo-nitzschia. But we all know that experiments with lab rats are not always representative of what happens in the real world. Chris and Brian’s studies on the ship will help us understand and characterize Pseudo-nitzschia’s behavior, its ability to succeed and thrive when other cells don’t, in real-time, right now, with water samples freshly collected from the Pacific Ocean.
I sit here on land, while Chris and Brian are out at sea doing all the hard work, day and night. (Although I imagine there is some time for them to watch movies and hey, they don’t have to cook for themselves!) It makes me appreciate the rich collaboration of scientists on the ship and what they have sacrificed by spending a month at sea. Their work is vital because researchers never will be able to do on land what is possible with
freshly-collected water from the ocean on the ship, our floating laboratory. Hopefully their work will help us better understand our future ocean nightmares, the Blooms and the Blobs, allowing scientists to predict when they might happen and perhaps even learn how to control them, so that we can all continue to enjoy safe seafood on our dinner plates.
Written by: Vera Trainer