NOAA and the National Science Foundation have awarded $824,225 in competitive funds for the first year of an anticipated four-year $2.8 million project to develop early warning forecast models for toxic harmful algal blooms, or HABs, on Pacific Northwest beaches. Funds were awarded to the University of Washington and the University of California at Santa Cruz through the interagency Ecology and Oceanography of Harmful Algal Blooms (ECOHAB) program.
Pseudo-nitzschia algae occur along the Washington coast and produce toxins that can accumulate in shellfish, particularly razor clams and Dungeness crabs. People who eat these can become sick or even die.
"Better information about where HABs generate and how they are transported to coastal areas is very important," said Joe Schumacker, marine resource scientist for the Quinault Department of Fisheries. "Frankly we didn't know much about the effect coastal processes have on HABs until the ECOHAB program had begun in this region."
ECOHAB has been operating since it was first authorized by the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act in 1998.
Rigorous state and tribal monitoring and closure of shellfish harvesting protect human health, but closures of beaches and coastal waters result in economic losses and sociocultural impacts. For example, preventing recreational harvests of razor clams on Washington coastal beaches in 2002-2003 resulted in $10.4 million in lost revenue and loss of a recreational activity in which up to 24,000 people participate during a single weekend.
"As we try to predict the arrival of these blooms and other HABs on coastal beaches, we're missing the link that explains how the Columbia River estuary plume may influence movement of toxic patches inshore and along the coast," said Barbara Hickey, Ph.D., professor of oceanography at the University of Washington and lead project investigator. "This funding will enable us to add that critical feature to predictive HAB models for the Pacific Northwest region."
This interagency partnership is an important step in achieving the vision and goals set forward in the West Coast Governors' Agreement on Ocean Health to create a HAB early warning and forecast network that covers the coastal region from Washington to California. Investigators on this project are helping to put together a plan for the network based on recommendations from researchers, coastal managers, and other stakeholders that came out of the West Coast Regional HAB Summit held in February 2009 in Portland, Ore.