NOAA 99-R532
Contact: Jana Goldman


 The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Sea Grant College Program has awarded two grants totaling $413,506 to study the economic effects of harmful algal blooms, and in particular Pfiesteria piscicida.

North Carolina Sea Grant was awarded $313,804 for a two-year study of the economic impacts of Pfiesteria in the Mid-Atlantic region that will be conducted by Timothy Haab, professor of economics at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C.

The second grant, of $99,702, to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Sea Grant Program in Woods Hole, Mass., calls for a two-year study to help estimate the economic impacts of harmful algal blooms (HABs) throughout the United States. Porter Hoagland, of WHOI's Marine Policy Center, will head the effort.

Pfiesteria is a dinoflagellete, or harmful algal bloom, that is toxic at certain times of its life span. In its toxic form, it is believed to attack fish, causing open lesions or sores that can lead to death. Massive fish kills in the Albemarle-Pamlico estuary of North Carolina, and smaller ones in the Eastern Shore tributaries of Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, have been attributed to Pfiesteria since 1990.

Preliminary studies, conducted by researchers with the University of Maryland and University of Delaware Sea Grant programs, have shown that seafood consumption and recreational water-based tourist activities such as fishing charters were impacted by the outbreaks. A recent Delaware Sea Grant survey of coastal residents showed that the public remains highly concerned about the toxic blooms and its potential impacts on humans, including issues of seafood safety and consumption.

Most of the fish that appear to be affected by Pfiesteria are non-food fish, such as menhaden, though lesions believed to be caused by the toxic dinoflagetlle have been seen on traditional fin fish used for human consumption. However, there have been no reports of human illness from the consumption of seafood coming from waters where Pfiesteria has been present.

"The impact of such an outbreak reaches beyond the death of non-food fish," said Dr. Frances Schuler, NOAA Sea Grant associate director. "There is data that show that some people will not eat any seafood if they hear of an outbreak, and others will not even drive through an area where Pfiesteria has been found. The economic impacts of such outbreaks warrants further study, and Sea Grant is pleased to announce this award to East Carolina University."

Harmful algae are microscopic, single-celled plants that live in the sea. Most species of algae or phytoplankton are not harmful and serve as the energy producers at the base of the food web. Occasionally, the algae grow very fast or "bloom" and accumulate into dense, visible patches near the surface of the water. Some of these blooms are the result of algae that contain toxins of can cause harm, hence the term "harmful algal bloom." They can negatively affect public health, commercial fisheries, recreation and tourism, while causing regions to divert resources to manage and monitor HAB situations.

"As our coastal regions become more populated with residents and tourists, it is especially crucial to know what effect these harmful algae can have on recreation, tourism and public health," Schuler said. "The Woods Hole project will provide a framework to estimate the economic impacts on local, regional and national scales."

Virtually every coastal state of the U.S. is impacted by harmful algal blooms of one type or another. These include paralytic shellfish poisoning in the Northeast and Northwest; brown tides in New York and Texas; red tides that cause massive fish kills, toxic shellfish and respiratory distress to humans exposed to aerosolized toxin in the Gulf of Mexico; blooms of seaweeds that overgrow coral reefs and wash up on beaches in many different areas; amnesiac shellfish poisoning caused by consumption of shellfish and crabs on the West Coast from California to Alaska; mortalities of farmed salmon in the Northwest; ciguatera fish poisoning in tropical states and U.S. territories; and human health problems and fish kills associated with Pfiesteria-like dinoflagellates throughout the southeastern United States.

Sea Grant is a network of 29 university-based programs involving more than 300 institutions nationwide in research, education and the transfer of technology regarding coastal, marine and Great Lake issues. Sea Grant is supported by the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in partnership with the states and private industry.