State: Just say ‘no’ to going in slimy water

Thriving ocean plants form clouds of green in the waters of the Pacific along the coast of Washington and Vancouver Island. A large bloom of Pseudo-nitzschia, a toxic algae, has spread between Alaska and California in this year's warm ocean waters. A NASA satellite can detect high concentrations of chlorophyll in the Pacific Ocean, as it did in this 2004 photo. Not all of the chlorophyll seen in the right image is from the toxic algae. It is likely that other forms of phytoplankton also color the water, and from this image alone, it is impossible to tell which are toxic algae and which are other plants.

WASHINGTON — Everything’s coming up slimy.

The Washington State Department of Ecology is warning citizens to steer clear of the harmful, sometimes toxic algal blooms that have proliferated during this unusually warm, dry summer.

“The big public message is, if people see this green slimy water, just stay out of it. We’ve had a few dogs that have died this year from drinking it. It’s just bad stuff,” DOE spokesperson Sandy Howard said on Aug. 19.

According to an Aug. 19 press release, “Lakes, rivers and the Puget Sound are experiencing more intense and widespread algae blooms this summer and scientists believe warm water due to the state’s drought is partly to blame.”

Pseudo-nitzchia, a saltwater algae species that produces the neurotoxin domoic acid, has already caused widespread closures of razor clam and Dungeness crab fisheries.

Fresh-water blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, sometimes produce toxins that can sicken or even kill people and animals, and small children and the elderly are especially vulnerable, according to the press-release.

Across the state, nine lakes in Douglas, Jefferson, King, Pierce, and Island Counties currently have known toxic algae blooms. But the the state doesn’t regularly test most smaller bodies of water, so there could certainly be other toxic blooms that haven’t been identified yet.

A map on DOE’s fresh-water monitoring page shows that only two fresh-water bodies in Pacific County have been monitored in recent history. The Chinook reservoir is in great shape. “Fake Lake,” near Westport, has had algae problems in the past, but hasn’t been tested since 2009.

Howard explained that much of the monitoring is driven by citizen reports, so it’s helpful for citizens to alert the state if they see a bloom.

Even non-toxic species can cause a lot of trouble when they get out-of-hand. As the blooms grow, they suck up nutrients in the water, and then begin to die off. As they decay, they stink, and create organic compounds that strip the water of oxygen. That can prompt further die-off of algae and marine life, leading to even smellier, slimier conditions.

Algal blooms are “a really big issue,” this year, Jessica Payne, another DOE spokesperson said on Aug. 21.“We’ve had more closures than ever before, and in areas that haven’t been closed before.”

Currently, waters in the Puget Sound “are three or four degrees warmer than they should be for this year,” and researchers have observed lower oxygen content in the water, and “massive amounts of jellyfish” that wouldn’t typically be present. Payne likens the current state of the sound to “a big bath tub.”

Payne noted that this year’s unusual conditions could provide a glimpse of what the future might hold, if climate change causes coastal waters to heat up permanently.

In saltwater, millions of tiny plant and animal-like organisms can form massive colonies in the spring and summer, when sun-warmed water near the surface is rich with nutrients. The blooms come in a wide variety of colors, “ranging from green to red, orange yellow or brown,” according to the DOE.

Some types, like the tomato-soup-colored noctiluca, look bad but don’t pose a threat to humans. But a few saltwater varieties can make people ill if they inhale them, swallow contaminated water, or eat shellfish that have fed on the algae — and it might not be obvious that the toxins are present.

Jerry Borchert, who oversees monitoring programs at the state Department of Health, said there are three types of algae-produced toxins that could potentially turn up in the Willapa Bay. The DOH refers to these as “amnesic shellfish poison,” “paralytic shellfish poison” and “diuretic shellfish poison.”

“The only one we’re seeing is amnesic shellfish poison,” or domoic acid, Borchert said.

Recently, pseudo-nitzchia, which produces domoic acid, has proliferated along the west coast. Though the bloom is invisible to the naked eye, it causes potentially deadly domoic acid to accumulate in the bodies of razor clams and the crab that love to eat them.

“The water from the boat looks normal, but when you concentrate it, it’s ooey and gooey and just dark,” said Ruth Howell, a spokesperson for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

So far, Borchert said, the nitzchia that’s growing in Pacific County waters hasn’t caused any documented illnesses in humans. And unlike some of the toxic freshwater blooms, “It’s so dilute that it has no effect on animals swimming in it,” Borchert said. But it’s still not safe to eat the affected species — semi-regular testing shows that toxin levels are declining, but they’re “still over the action level.”

“It’s still out there and it could still come back on our coast,” Borchert said. “They’ve never seen a bloom like this that still continues to exist out in the ocean.”

DOE would like citizens to report any suspected blooms, and also do their part to prevent harmful algae from spreading.

The following steps can keep algal blooms in check:

• Reduce the use of fertilizers and don’t over water

• Scoop, bag and trash dog poop

• Check, fix and maintain home septic tanks

• Maintain shoreline and wetland vegetation

To find out what a toxic algae bloom looks like, see what lakes are having toxic algae blooms, and to report a suspected algae bloom, visit the Washington State Toxic Algae website: www.nwtoxicalgae.org/

To find out where it’s safe to harvest shellfish, call the Shellfish Safety Hotline at 1-800-562-5632 or visit the Department of Health’s shellfish safety website.

If you suspect you have been exposed to toxic algae, see your physician. If you suspect your pet has been exposed, take it to the vet immediately.

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