NOAA Addresses Harmful Algal Blooms That Are Consuming the U.S.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has allotted funding to manage harmful algal blooms (HABs) which occur when algae — simple photosynthetic organisms that live in the sea and freshwater — grow out of control while producing toxic or harmful effects on people, fish, shellfish, marine mammals, and birds.

GULF OF MEXICO— The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has announced $15.2 million in funding for harmful algal bloom (HAB) research projects throughout the U.S. coast and Great Lake waters. HABs contain organisms that can severely lower oxygen levels in natural waters killing organisms in marine or freshwaters. As a result, they can destroy ecosystems, disrupt consumer seafood supply, impact economies, and threaten human health.


NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) is assigning $12.4 million for HAB research, including $834,000 for three new research awards and $11.6 million for 25 ongoing awards. Funded projects will improve early warning of shellfish-killing algae; optimize detection of HAB toxins; assess the use of HAB control methods in marine and freshwater; enhance HAB forecasts and study the social and economic impact of HABs.


 HABs have caused an annual economic loss of up to $100 million on average, and costs from a single major HAB event can reach tens of millions of dollars, according to the NOAA website. Investments in these projects offer a coordinated effort within the National Ocean Service to advance the U.S.’s capacity to observe, monitor, forecast, and manage the blooms.


“Harmful algal blooms are a national problem, and we are trying to work to address them collectively,” said Marc Suddleson of NOAA. “There are multiple issues throughout the U.S. coast, and Great Lake waters, and there are several different types of species of marine and freshwater algae. They grow exponentially out of control. A number of the species can produce toxins or otherwise cause harmful effects that have negative impacts on ecosystems. Some species release toxins and some just grow so rapidly and so large that they cause ecosystem damage. In some estuaries, they may suck up all the oxygen that is available for the fish or shade out seagrass.”


The impact of HABs on marine and freshwaters throughout the U.S. is escalating as the HAB blooms have been reported in nearly every state.


“Each state is dealing with their different cast of characters and species, and so there are some [species] that impact ecosystems and some that impact our seafood; some can affect beach tourism, and some of them are health concerns,” said Suddleson.

According to the NOAA, the new projects began on Sept. 1 in Florida, Louisiana, Ohio, and Washington to thoroughly check the effectiveness of clay dispersal as technical knowledge of how to control Karenia brevis blooms, a microscopic, single-celled photosynthetic organism, in the coastal environment of Southwest Florida that is the most dominant; commonly known as red tide.


“For Karenia brevis, there are two concerns for the toxins that it can produce,” said Suddleson. “One, it can get into the food through shellfish. They do a good job of monitoring these toxins [in shellfisheries], but if there is a problem, they will shut down that shellfishery so that people aren’t harvesting and then consuming the shellfish. That’s good from a public health standpoint. It’s challenging when that happens to the shellfish industry.”


“In the gulf, there is a second concern with this particular species [Karenia brevis] getting into the surf zone and then the action of the waves breaks open the cells [of the algae] and aerosolize the toxins Suddleson continued.


“The toxin particles can become airborne in the spray [of the waves], so if there is a red tide, algal bloom, and it’s in the surf zone, it can cause the toxins to be airborne, and you can inhale that, and that can have some health problems, especially for people with compromised pulmonary problems like asthma.”


The new projects will improve freshwater HAB toxin detection capabilities of autonomous underwater vehicles and optimize an early warning system to reduce shellfish killing HAB toxins in the Pacific Northwest. NOAA, along with NCCOS, continues to fund the most relevant scientific research to assist managers and coastal communities all over the country trying to cope with developing and recurring toxic algae that continue to affect environmental and human health.


So far, projects this year have attended to most of the U.S. continental coast, inclusive of the Great Lakes and Alaska. The IOOS Regional Associations have established these projects in association with local communities and research institutions to address recognized requirements and coverage gaps in their region.


The Gulf of Mexico testbed is a first of its kind effort to develop a capacity to advance detection and anticipation of harmful algal bloom species such as Karenia brevis and possible unidentified HAB species in the gulf. Through the whole of this three-year inaugural project, researchers will distribute a small collection of autonomous apparatuses to test their sustainability in the opaque waters of the gulf and build the instruments and personnel capacity to conduct, maintain, and translate data from the systems.

A complete list of the new grant awards is available at

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