NPR Story
1:00 am
Mon September 30, 2013

Toxic Algal Blooms And Warming Waters: The Climate Connection

SAMMAMISH, Wash. -- A photograph displayed in Jacki and John Williford's home commemorates a camping trip that would go down in family history.

The most memorable event from that outing in 2011 involved the mussels John and his two children collected from a dock near Sequim Bay State Park on Washington's Olympic Peninsula. The family took them back to their campsite and steamed them in white wine with garlic and oregano.

“It was really good. Like the best mussels in the whole wide world,” remembers their son Jaycee, now 7. “And they were huge.”

But his little sister’s memories of that day aren’t quite as fond.

“They had poison in them.” says 4-year-old Jessica as her parents look on. “They drinked the poisoned water.”

The mussels the Willifords ate around the campfire that night were indeed poisoned. But it was a natural type of poison. The shellfish had sucked up a toxin produced by a certain type of algae called dinophysis.

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Dinophysis has been found around the world and documented in Northwest waters for decades. But scientists think it’s becoming more toxic as ocean conditions change, in part due to climate change.

Every year during the warmer months, blooms of algae dot Northwest waters. Some types of algae can release toxins, which poison shellfish and the people who might eat those shellfish.

In recent years, toxic algal blooms have been more potent and lasted longer. That has scientists trying to understand how our warming climate could be contributing to the problem.

The Williford's encounter with what turned out to be diarrhetic shellfish poisoning wasn’t pretty. Soon after their youngest went to bed that night, Jacki and her husband John heard sounds of vomiting coming from the tent.

After a long night spent using pillowcases, towels and every spare article of clothing to clean up the mess, the Willifords decided to cut their vacation short, pack up their things and head home.

“It just broke your heart the next morning to have a 2-year-old sitting in her stroller with a cup and she would just be over there dry heaving into her cup,” Jacki Williford recalls. “I was like, how many two year olds can manage their own cup for throwing up?”

It turns out there wasn't much public health officials could have done to prevent this family’s experience. The DSP toxin is expensive to detect –- and there had never been a confirmed DSP poisoning in the United States –- although it has made people in Europe and Japan sick.

The Washington Department of Health works with tribes and shellfish growers to test regularly for other naturally occurring toxins in shellfish. Other native algae produce toxins that can cause paralysis and amnesia.

It was only recently that dinophysis joined the ranks of algal troublemakers in the Northwest but it may be perfectly equipped to thrive in our changing waters.

Harrington pulls up a cage full of mussels and oysters and starts picking some out for sampling. These shellfish, alongside water samples from this site, will be taken back to his lab to test for algae-related toxins. Some samples will also be overnighted to the Department of Health lab in Shoreline, Wa., which is a clearinghouse for the latest information on shellfish bed closures.

“So it’s sort of cellular vampirism,” Harrington chuckles. “The analog on land would be a carnivorous plant ... a sort of microshop of horrors.”

And this super bug is on the rise in Northwest waters.

As more people move to the Northwest and more land is developed, more fertilizers and nutrients runoff into waterways.

“The more nutrients you add to a water body, the more algae there is,” Harrington says. “And the more algae you get the more chance there is that some of those algae will be harmful.”

Algae thrive in warmer waters. They also like it when snowmelt flushes fresh water into the marine environment.

“They can go to the surface into that fresher layer and photosynthesize during the day and then they can swim down and access nutrient-rich waters at night," says Vera Trainer, an expert on harmful algae with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle. “So we believe that there will potentially be an increase in them in the future.”

In a paper published in 2008, Stephanie Moore, another expert on toxic algae with NOAA, highlighted the concerns in the scientific community about how ocean acidification, the ugly step-child of climate change, could contribute to the rise of toxic algal species. "A more acidic environment would favor, among others, the dinoflagellates -- the group of phytoplankton to which most harmful algae belong," Moore wrote. Vera Trainer, a co-author on the paper, suggests we may be entering a "dinoflagellate regime."

Trainer’s department at NOAA has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars developing equipment that will monitor algae and toxins in the water column.

In the shellfish beds of Samish Bay south of Bellingham, Wash., Moore is beta testing the latest algae monitoring instrument. It's called an Environmental Sample Processor and in about three hours, the ESP automatically collects water, analyzes the samples and sends a photograph that shows how many harmful algal species are present in the water at that moment.

Because of its speed and accuracy, Moore says the ESP has the potential to revolutionize harmful algae monitoring. "I would still be driving back from the site in that amount of time and wouldn’t be anywhere close to being able to report on the abundance of five harmful algal species," Moore says. "So this is a huge advancement in our ability to keep tabs on what’s going on."

With the ESP, Moore can get word to public health officials much more quickly.

Jerry Borchert is one of those public health officials. He’s the guy responsible for making sure all the shellfish harvested along Washington’s 800 miles of coast is safe to eat. The shellfish industry in the state generates $270 million annually.

At the Department of Health lab north of Seattle, Borchert works closely with his team to analyze thousands of shellfish samples every year. If the toxin levels are too high, he closes beaches to shellfishing.

This summer marked the first time he had to close beaches in south Puget Sound because of high levels of DSP toxin. But the trend, overall, has been upwards in recent decades.

“There’s more closures happening repeatedly,” Borchert says. “They’re starting earlier, they’re lasting longer. They’re happening during the winter time where they never used to occur. It is real. We are seeing more toxic blooms.”

The Department of Health is spending $80,000 per year, on top of its regular budget, to test for the toxin that causes diarrhetic shellfish poisoning. That's what made the Williford family sick.

And it’s making Borchert’s life harder. He’s had to hire more staff, expand sampling sites and sample more throughout the year.

“Things are constantly changing but changing in a more negative fashion so I have to do more to be prepared for this and it’s ongoing,” Borchert says as his shoulders slump. He has a resigned, tired look in his eye.

“For every one thing we learn it seems to lead to 100 more questions,” he says.

But in the years to come, Borchert says he expects to be more and more busy.

Story and audio by Ashley Ahearn. Video and additional reporting by Katie Campbell. Photos as credited.

There’s more to come in our series, “Symptoms Of Climate Change:”

Friday: Rising summer temperatures will particularly affect the health of people who make a living outdoors – building roads, landscaping yards and harvesting crops.

Monday: A uptick in temperature can make our waters hospitable to life forms, including toxic algae, that aren't so hospitable to human health.

Tuesday: Cities will feel the heat as climate change drives summer temperatures up. It's a phenomenon called the heat island effect.

Wednesday: Scientists say hotter temperatures will bring about more fire seasons that are longer, drier, and likelier to fill the air with smoke that can make breathing more difficult.

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