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.

Two birds grabbing fish out of the ocean

Black-legged Kittiwakes forage on Pacific sand lance and capelin near their colony on Gull Island, Cook Inlet on June 28, 2018. 
(Credit: Sarah Schoen, USGS, Alaska Science Center. Public domain.)

Common Murre on the water in Kachemak Bay, Alaska

A Common Murre on the water near its colony on Gull Island in Kachemak Bay on July 25, 2019.
(Credit: Sarah Schoen, U.S. Geological Survey. Public domain.)

A Northern Fulmar on the water in Lower Cook Inlet

A Northern Fulmar on the water in Lower Cook Inlet on July 18, 2018.
​​​​​​​(Credit: Sarah Schoen, U.S. Geological Survey. Public domain.)