Harmful Algal Bloom Toxins in Alaska Seabirds

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Elevated ocean temperatures are linked to the development of harmful algal blooms (HABs). Toxins from these blooms may pose health threats to marine organisms, including seabirds. Since 2015, the USGS has worked with a variety of stakeholders to develop testing methods and research projects to better understand the geographic extent, timing and impacts of algal toxins in Alaska marine ecosystems, including possible links to recent seabird die-offs.

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Algal blooms are large areas of growth on a water surface by phytoplankton, also known as microalgae. Certain species of microalgae produce biotoxins that can injure or kill fish and wildlife. These events, termed harmful algal blooms or HABs, are often related to higher seawater temperatures and changes in ocean currents and nutrient levels. The aim of USGS research on HAB toxins is to provide rapid testing of wildlife and environmental samples that may be impacted, understand the prevalence of algal toxins in wild birds and the fish that they forage on, and share this information with the public and decision makers. Current study locations in Alaska include Prince William Sound, Cook Inlet, and the Bering and Chukchi seas.

New USGS and NOAA Publication Investigates Harmful Algal Bloom Toxins in a Large-scale Common Murre Die-off:

Elevated seawater temperatures are linked to the development of harmful algal blooms (HABs). The USGS Alaska Science Center and the NOAA National Centers for Coastal Ocean Sciences investigated the potential role of HAB toxins in a massive die-off of Common Murres in Alaska in 2015 and 2016. Saxitoxin (STX), a neurotoxin responsible for paralytic shellfish poisoning in humans, was common in both die-off and healthy birds as well in forage fish and marine invertebrates that were sampled. These results do not implicate HAB toxins as a primary cause of the die-off event, however, the widespread occurrence of STX in this region indicates that algal toxins should be considered in future assessments of seabird health. USGS is beginning new research to determine the sensitivity of murres to STX to determine potential impacts of exposure to this toxin. Read the paper at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.hal.2019.101730