A Sea Lion suffering from domoic acid poisoning
A Sea Lion suffering from domoic acid poisoning from an algae bloom. Photo by Peter Wallerstein/ Marine Animal Rescue

Researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography have received a $4.9 million federal grant to find out what causes an ocean algae bloom to suddenly turn deadly.

The grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will fund a hunt for blooms along California’s coast to learn how to predict when they will turn toxic.

In 2015, the largest toxic algae bloom ever recorded caused massive marine die-offs from central California to the Alaskan peninsula. Entire fishing industries, like the razor clam and Dungeness crab, were temporarily closed and lost millions of dollars.

Scripps researchers have uncovered the genetic cause of such deadly blooms. A common type of phytoplankton, one of the microscopic plants that support the marine food chain, begins producing the neurotoxin domoic acid. But scientists don’t know why this suddenly happens.

Genomics experts, biological and physical oceanographers and engineers from Scripps have teamed up with Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project. The geographic scope of their research stretches along the coastal waters from Monterey Bay south to Del Mar.

The team will use underwater robots, floating sensors called “Wirewalkers,” and other advanced technologies to monitor the algae blooms and sift through the phytoplankton’s genetic code in real time.

“We can actually sample deeper water and detect subtle changes in gene expression that are at the heart of the harmful algal bloom mystery,” said Clarissa Anderson, a biological oceanographer and executive director of the Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System at Scripps. “This means we will better understand what causes blooms to form in the first place and ultimately build more accurate forecasts.”

One hypothesis is that water pollution could contribute to toxic blooms, so the team will sample blooms near wastewater discharge hotspots along the Orange County coast.

Predicting the cellular toxic triggers has implications beyond California. The most recent toxic red tide event occurred off the Gulf Coast of Florida last year, causing months of prolonged marine die-offs and impacting the fishing and tourism industries.

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Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.