Thursday, October 29, 2009

Killer Sea Foam killing birds off Oregon/Washington Coast

Bird Hospital Saves Sea Birds

From a report titled "Killer foam: Was it a freak event or a warning?" in the Oregonian today:

"A simple organism that killed thousands of seabirds in Oregon and Washington has stunned scientists who are combing through clues in hopes of unraveling its mystery.

They can name it. They can measure it. They can peer at it under a microscope.

But they do not know exactly why it suddenly burst into deadly profusion for the first time off the Northwest coast and whether this was a freak event or a harbinger of the future.

"This is an amazing story," said Julia Parrish, a marine biologist and professor at the University of Washington.

The organism, which has ignited a flurry of emails and phone calls among oceanographers from Seattle to Santa Cruz, Calif., is a single-cell phytoplankton, or algae, called Akashiwo sanguinea.

It has painted red tides off Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil and Hong Kong. It has even hit Chesapeake Bay on the East Coast and Monterey Bay in California, where it killed about 200 birds in 2007.

But it was never a player on the scientific stage in the Northwest -- until mid-September.

Suddenly, the single-cell algae flashed into a reproductive frenzy, splitting apart and multiplying in an algal bloom off the Olympic Peninsula.

Blooms are common in Northwest waters, especially in the summer, and they are essential to providing food that supports fisheries.

But this algae spewed forth surfactants -- or detergent-like substances -- that cloaked seabirds in foam and stripped away their waterproofing, causing them to become hypothermic.
Photo by Penelope Chilton

Thousands of dead and dying birds washed up on beaches around Kalaloch on the Olympic Peninsula in mid-September. Then last week, scores more washed ashore on the Long Beach Peninsula and as far south as Cannon Beach, overwhelming wildlife rehabilitators and surprising oceanographers.

The algae has turned up in the Puget Sound before, and in 2001 it was detected off Newport.

But this appears to be the first time it has killed seabirds in the Northwest.

So, what made it bloom so profusely now?

"This is the big million-dollar question," said Michelle Wood, a phytoplankton specialist at the University of Oregon.

This algae is part of a subset of phytoplankton called dinoflagellates that flourish in warm, stratified water -- or ocean water with a warm layer on top.

Last week, when algae blooms colored the water a rusty chocolate brown, the ocean was warmer than usual.

Sensors situated 10 miles from Newport detected an ocean temperature of about 55 degrees Fahrenheit. That's about 5 degrees warmer than averages from 2002 to 2008 at the same spot the same time of year, said Pete Strutton, an associate professor of oceanography at Oregon State University.

"It's significant," he said.

Peering at graphs, Strutton noticed another phenomenon in the ocean around Oct. 14 -- as water temperatures rose, the salinity dropped. It just so happens that this algae thrives in warm water with low salinity.

Strutton suspects that recent storms helped create the perfect set of conditions.

But increased human activity, with municipal and agricultural runoffs into the ocean, along with climate change appear to be contributing to another marine phenomenon -- harmful algal blooms.

"It's becoming a bigger and bigger problem," said Raphael Kudela, an oceanographer at the University of California at Santa Cruz. "Every country that has a coastline has harmful algal problems now."

The Northwest is no exception.

"The data that we're collecting definitely suggests that we're seeing toxic blooms more frequently these days," Strutton says.

A case in point: since last Friday, the entire Oregon coast has been closed to the recreational mussel harvesting. The mussels are tainted by a paralytic shellfish toxin that can kill humans."
See full article here.

Go to Wildlife Center of the North Coast website for more on their efforts to protect the birds and animals off the Oregon and Washington coasts.

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