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Apr 29, 2009 1:11 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Toxic algae found in local bays in '08

Apr 29, 2009 1:11 PM

Researchers from Stony Brook Southampton’s Marine Science Center say they have detected a previously unidentified species of toxic algae in East End bays that could be harmful to humans.

Details about the discovery of the toxic Alexandrium algae will be presented by Stony Brook University professor Dr. Christopher Gobler and his research students who identified the algae as part of a symposium at the Stony Brook Southampton campus this Friday night.

The algae, the same species that has forced the annual halt of valuable shellfish harvests in Massachusetts and Maine in recent years, was found in relatively small quantities locally, but traces of a neurotoxin that the algae produces were also detected for the first time in local waters, according to Dr. Gobler. The neurotoxin the algae produces can accumulate in the meat of shellfish that are exposed to prolonged blooms of the algae and could be dangerous to humans who eat the shellfish.

The reddish hue that the blooms of Alexandrium algae add to the water they live in has earned it the nickname “red tide”—recalling the infamous “brown tide” blooms of another algae species that have plagued East End bays for more than two decades.

Very high concentrations of the Alexandrium algae were found in two western Long Island bays, in Huntington and Northport, last summer, forcing the closure of shellfish harvesting there. If concentrations on the East End become high enough, it could shut down shellfishing locally as well.

Dr. Gobler said the concentrations of the new algae were not high enough to cause a public health concern for local shellfish yet. “But it’s something we’re definitely going to be keeping an eye on,” he said. “It’s caused a lot of problems in New England.”

Friday’s symposium will also showcase student researchers’ findings regarding the emergence and rapid spread of another species of red tide algae in local waters, the severe brown tide blooms of the past year, the large fish die-off in Mill Pond last fall and the potential negative effects of eelgrass being crowded out of local bays by another species of marine grass.

“It was a pretty bad year across the board in local water bodies,” Dr. Gobler said. “We had a brown tide that started early, extended all over the South Shore of Long Island and, frankly, persisted through to 2009. It never really went away.”

Brown tide devastated shellfish and other marine organisms in the 1980s and 1990s and clouded nearly every inch of East End tidal waters. But the algae blooms had been relatively limited in recent years, until last summer. The brown tide spread from the eastern half of Moriches Bay, throughout the Quantuck Bay-Quogue Canal system and into western Shinnecock Bay, as far as the Ponquogue Bridge. It was also found in the Great South Bay and other bays to the west.

The Peconics and eastern Shinnecock Bay were free of signs of brown tide in 2008, but were stained by the striated red tide blooms instead. The species of red tide found in large concentrations last year is not toxic to humans, but was found to be deadly to fish species, Dr. Gobler said, and capable of killing young fish who were exposed to a bloom in as little as an hour.

“Fishermen were reporting fish kills along with that event,” Dr. Gobler said. “The youngest fish are the most susceptible. The upshot is that a healthy fish swimming through a bloom is probably OK, but younger fish trapped in an estuary where there are high cell densities is in trouble, which could have great implications for fish populations down the road.”

Stony Brook students will also present their findings on the die-off of fish in Mill Pond in Water Mill last year. Nearly 4,000 pounds of fish died in September.

“The smoking gun looks like the collapse of a blue green algal bloom and probably oxygen deprivation associated with that,” Dr. Gobler said.

Students from Stony Brook had been taking intermittent water samples in Mill Pond prior to the fish die-off. Samples taken right after the die-off showed the lowest oxygen levels they had 
measured. Dr. Gobler said the school is installing a permanent sampling 
station in the pond this year that will take automatic samples every 15 minutes.

Dr. Gobler said that another team of researchers, led by Professor Brad Peterson, Ph.D., will present its work on how ecologically critical eelgrass growth has been affected by the spread of a different species of marine grass called codium and whether the proliferation of codium will hinder the survival of baby bay scallops. Bay scallops typically attach themselves to fronds of eelgrass for protection when they are very small and vanishing eelgrass beds have been blamed for the failure of scallops to bounce back from the devastation of brown tide in the mid-1990s.

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