Faculty, students join hunt for fish-killing algae

SF State faculty, research staff and students are part of an international team of scientists dispatched to Puget Sound, Wash., to examine the ecological triggers and effects of a fish-killing phytoplankton bloom that threatens lucrative fisheries on the West Coast. The general public is invited to join the investigation via social media.

Photo of the micro-alga Heterosigma akashiwo taken with a phase contrast microscope.

A magnified image of the micro-alga, Heterosigma akashiwo, from a spring 2011 Puget Sound bloom of the organism.

The micro-alga, Heterosigma akashiwo, has killed millions of penned fish in Puget Sound since 1989. Each time it occurs the estimated loss to the aquaculture industry ranges from two to six million dollars. The extent of the damage to wild salmon is still unknown, but a negative impact on young salmon migration has the potential to dramatically reduce natural salmon returns to spawning streams.
The team is examining H. akashiwo in its most active stages to determine what triggers its toxicity. Stationed in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, the team uses a high-speed vessel to collect fresh samples from developing blooms of the alga. Analysis and experiments take place at the HabLab (Harmful Algal Bloom Rapid Response Laboratory), a mobile rapid response lab currently housed at the Friday Harbor Laboratories of the University of Washington. 

SF State Biology Professor and Senior Research Scientist at the Romberg Tiburon Center (RTC) William P. Cochlan is one of the four principal investigators for the study and is assisted by Research Associate Julian Herndon and SF State student Chris Ikeda, both from Cochlan’s RTC lab. They are joined by Vera Trainer of the NOAA-Northwest Fisheries Science Center, Professor Charles Trick of the University of Western Ontario and Professor Mark Wells of the University of Maine, and their research staffs and students.

Cochlan's lab at the Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental Studies has previously examined specimens of H. akashiwo found in San Francisco Bay, but these had no known effect on the Bay's marine life. "We do not yet know conclusively what environmental and biological factors stimulate this alga's ability to kill fish," Cochlan said. "There is also very little definitive information of the physical and nutrient conditions that will result in a toxic bloom and how these differ from a harmless phytoplankton bloom." 

The SF State contingent will return with samples and new ideas in mid-June. They plan to run a series of controlled laboratory experiments this summer including how temperature affects the toxicity of the alga.
The study, commissioned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is expected to continue through 2013, and the team plans to present their results at two professional conferences this fall.

The team welcomes visits and correspondence from interested individuals via Facebook.

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Denize Springer