SAN DIEGO — Marine mammals and algae bloom experts gave an update Friday on a plankton that is harming hundreds of sea lions and dolphins.
Scientists said they want to let people know what is happening and to be aware of their surroundings in and around the water.
The algae is nothing new, according to scientists, but it is becoming more toxic over the years and they are still unsure why, but they are taking note of its impact.
”We are used to seeing these animals on the beach displaying these sypmtoms what we are not used to is the numbers they are coming in right now, we are seeing so many,” said Justin Viezbicke, the Mammal Stranding Coordinator with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Scientists said people at the beach could encounter a sick marine mammal over the next few weeks.
There is an algae bloom happening off the shore. The algae or plankton is called “Pseudo-nitzschia,” which scientists see every year.
The plankton does not always become toxic and produces domoic acid.
This year’s event, the plankton has been toxic. It has caused hundreds of sea lions and dolphins to become sick or die of the shores of Southern California.
“When the animals are eating whatever fish or squid, or whatever it is offshore, they are eating right now in abundance, they don’t see anything. They are just eating this creature and that creature fed on other creatures, that fed on other creatures, that ate the plankton initially, and now you have an accumulation of this teeny tiny molecule, the toxin in their system,” said Clarissa Anderson, the director of Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System at Scripps Institute of Oceanography.
Anderson has been studying harmful algal blooms for more than 20 years.
Anderson said the bloom happens in the spring and early summer, that is when cold water from hundreds, even thousands of feet deep pushes the Pseudo-nitzschia up.
“But it does take a certain mixture of conditions to get it to be toxic. That can be anything proportion of nutrients that are in the water. It could be a cross-section of that with a little bit of warming thrown in,” Anderson said.
Scientists said the toxins are causing marine mammals to have seizures and be in pain. NOAA is asking people to give the animals their distance and wait for professional help with medication and fluids.
“People on the beach are not going to be able to do anything along those lines. We give them plenty of fluids. We don’t want people pouring water on them or trying to get the animals to drink it. We do it intravenously or under the skin,” Anderson said. “We don’t want to be too anthropomorphic about it and think about just what we care about which are these beautiful creatures that are sick.”
Anderson said the Pseudo-nitzschia plankton with the toxins does contribute to a productive ecosystem. She said scientists must look through both lenses, of the harms and the benefits.
“That’s kind of the interesting bimodal thing here. You could have a vibrant fishery that are so stoked, you could also have all these sick animals. It’s not an easy good or bad,” Anderson said.
The algae bloom also is not harmful to people who come in contact with the water, only if people ingest it.
California Department of Public Health (CDPH) does weekly testing of commercial seafood. Vanessa Zubkousky from CDPH said there is a federal threshold set of how much DA can be in the seafood. She indicated that San Diego seafood does not exceed that threshold.
Scientists predict the likelihood of moving out of the bloom is in the next two to three weeks. However, they said the timeline is an estimate.