National Analytical Response to Harmful Algal Bloom–related Marine Animal Mortality Events
Project Status: This project began in January 2000 and is Ongoing
We use extreme events to research new or changing impacts of harmful algal blooms in coastal waters. The NOAA Analytical Response Team leverages cutting-edge analytical methods and collaborative relationships with wildlife biologists to document the impacts of harmful algal blooms on coastal ecosystems. Also, we assist coastal managers and the scientific community in their investigations of harmful algal bloom–related marine animal mortality events.
Why We Care
Science considers many organisms in our coastal waters as “marine sentinel species” acting as a barometer of ocean health and ultimately indicating possible threats to human health. Research from recent decades has proven marine animal die-offs are related to toxic harmful algal bloom (HAB) events. Because HABs are episodic events, the presence of HAB toxins in a given region often show up only when a catastrophic toxic event takes place. For example, a massive die-off of sea lions in California in 1998 was the first evidence that HAB toxins have extensive impacts to marine animals in that region.
Prior to the formal establishment of the NOAA Analytical Response Team (ART), little support existed for investigations and analysis of suspected HAB-related die-offs, and data on the role of HABs in marine animal mortality events was sparse and inconsistent.
What We Are Doing
ART maintains communication with a network of “early event listeners” such as scientists, coastal managers, volunteers and other stakeholders in order to be appraised of HAB-related events as they occur. This "eyes and ears" framework, consisting of our expert scientists from a wide variety of fields, including algal taxonomy, marine genomics (study of all DNA within a cell), toxicology, wildlife ecology, oceanography and chemistry, allows ART to respond to each mortality event with an event-specific solution. We often advise the network on which samples and data are most important to collect for toxin analyses, and we work closely with them on their own investigations into determining the causes of a particular mortality event.
After receiving samples from dead or dying marine animals collected by biologists in the field we use a two-step approach to analysis:
We screen samples using fast, toxin-specific detection methods and then confirm the presence of individual toxins using sophisticated analytical instruments.
We provide a brief but detailed report of our findings to our collaborators for knowledge of possible HAB contributors to the mortality investigation.
Ultimately, our extended efforts in responding to these isolated events help us better understand long-term trends in HAB impact across seasons, years, and geographical regions. Through publishing our most interesting findings in peer-reviewed scientific literature, we assist the general scientific community in understanding the effects of HABs on marine animals throughout the entire US coast as well as internationally.
Benefits of Our Work
Since the creation of ART we have responded to a large number of events related or suspected to be related to toxin-producing HABs. Many have occurred along Florida’s Gulf coast, involving massive die-offs of bottlenose dolphins, manatees, seabirds and finfish. Our work in this region has shown that exposure to brevetoxin, a neurotoxin naturally produced by a species of marine alga known as Karenia brevis, has caused many of these mortality events. We have shown that brevetoxins and another HAB toxin known as domoic acid (produced by the marine algae in the genus Pseudo-nitzschia) frequently contaminate the coastal food web, and can frequently be detected in both live and dead animals.
We documented the presence of high levels of domoic acid in California waters during various mortality events.
We confirmed the presence of saxitoxin in the stomachs of several endangered fish along the coast of New England and detected domoic acid associated with a humpback whale die-off.
In Texas waters we identified toxic acids in deceased dolphins and reported the first occurrence of okadaic acid in marine mammals anywhere.
Routine strandings of marine mammals in the Southeast Atlantic coast helped us discover new trends in HAB distribution in pygmy and dwarf sperm whales.
Our work continues to investigate mortality events suspicious of HAB association. However, our current efforts also include seeking to understand what levels of toxins exist in current ecosystem without HAB presence. We expect this information to explain the “baseline” toxin values in a given region’s animals in order to provide some context to compare toxin values for past or future HABs. We also have begun efforts to understand the impact of HAB toxins on marine animals outside of the U.S., particularly in regions where such data does not exist or in regions where HABs could have large but undocumented impacts.
Related Regions of Study: Atlantic Seaboard, Gulf of Mexico, Pacific Ocean - Eastern, California, Florida, Texas
Primary Contact: Maggie Broadwater
Harmful Algal Blooms (Rapid Response, Monitoring and Event Response)
Related NCCOS Center: CCEHBR
- Brodie, Erin C., Frances M. D. Gulland, Denise J. Greig, Michele Hunter, Jackie Jaakola, Judy St. Leger, Tod A. Leighfield, and Frances M. Van Dolah. 2006. Domoic acid causes reproductive failure in California sea lions (Zalophus californianus). Marine Mammal Scince 22(3):700-707.
- Del Rio, Ross, Sibel Bargu, Donald Baltz, Spencer Fire, Gary Peterson, and Zhihong Wang. 2007. Gulf menhaden (Brevoortia patronus): A potential vector of domoic acid in coastal Louisiana food webs. Harmful Algae 10(1):19-29.
- Fire, Spencer E., Deborah Fauquier, Leanne J. Flewelling, Michael Henry, Jerome Naar, Richard Pierce, and Randall S. Wells. 2007. Brevetoxin exposure in bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) associated with Karenia brevis blooms in Sarasota Bay, Florida. Marine Biology 152(4):827-834.
- Fire, Spencer E., Leanne J. Flewelling, Jerome Naar, Michael J. Twiner, Michael S. Henry, Richard H. Pierce, Damon P. Gannon, Zhihong Wang, Leigh Davidson,and Randall S. Wells. 2008a. Prevalence of brevetoxins in prey fish of bottlenose dolphins in Sarasota Bay, Florida. Marine Ecology Progress Series. 368:283-294.
- Fire, Spencer E., Leanne J. Flewelling, Zhihong Wang, Jerome Naar, Michael S. Henry, Richard H. Pierce, and Randall S. Wells. 2008b. Florida red tide and brevetoxins: Association and exposure in live resident bottlenose dolphins Tursiops truncatus in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, U.S.A. Marine Mammal Science 24(4):831-844.
- Fire, Spencer E. , Zhihong Wang, Tod A. Leighfield, Steve L. Morton, Wayne E. McFee, William A. McLellan, R. Wayne Litaker, Patricia A. Tester, Aleta A. Hohn, Gretchen Lovewell, Craig Harms, David S. Rotstein, Susan G. Barco, Alex Costidis, Barbara Sheppard, Gregory D. Bossart, Megan Stolen, Wendy Noke Durden, and Frances M. Van Dolah. 2009. Domoic acid exposure in pygmy and dwarf sperm whales (Kogia spp.) from southeastern and mid-Atlantic U.S. waters. Harmful Algae 8(5):658-664.
- Fire, Spencer E., Zhihong Wang, Michelle Berman, Gregg W. Langlois, Steve L. Morton, Emily Sekula-Wood, and Claudia R. Benitez-Nelson. 2010. Trophic transfer of the harmful algal toxin domoic acid as a cause of death in a minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) stranding in southern California. Aquatic Mammals 36(4):342-350.
- Fire, Spencer E., Zhihong Wang, Meridith Byrd, Heidi R. Whitehead, Jeff Paternoster, and Steve L. Morton. 2011. Co-occurrence of multiple classes of harmful algal toxins in bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) stranding during an unusual mortality event in Texas; USA. Harmful Algae 10(3):330-336.
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- Fire, Spencer E., Jessica Pruden, Darcie Couture, Zhihong Wang, Marie-Yasmine Dechraoui Bottein, Bennie L. Haynes, Trey Knott, Deborah Bouchard, Anne Lichtenwalner, and Gail Wippelhauser. 2012. 2012. Saxitoxin exposure in endangered fish stocks: association of a shortnose sturgeon Acipnser brevirostrum mortality event with a harmful algal bloom in Maine. Marine Ecology Progress Series 460:145-153.
- Flewelling, Leanne, Jerome P. Naar, Jay P. Abbott, Daniel G. Baden, Nélio B. Barros, Gregory D. Bossart, Marie-Yasmine D. Bottein, Daniel G. Hammond, Elsa M. Haubold, Cynthia A. Heil, Michael S. Henry, Henry M. Jacocks, Tod A. Leighfield, Richard H. Pierce, Thomas D. Pitchford, Sentiel A. Rommel, Paula S. Scott, Karen A. Steidinger, Earnest W. Truby, Frances M. Van Dolah, and Jan H. Landsberg. 2005. Brevetoxicosis: Red tides and marine mammal mortalities. Nature 435:755-756.
- Goldstein, T., J. A. K. Mazet, T. S. Zabka, G. Langlois, K. M. Colegrove, M. Silver, S. Bargu, F. Van Dolah, T. Leighfield, P. A. Conrad, J. Barakos, D. C. Williams, S. Dennison, M. Haulena, and F. M. D. Gulland. 2008. Novel symptomatology and changing epidemiology of domoic acid toxicosis in California sea lions (Zalophus californianus): an increasing risk to marine mammal health. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 275(1632):267-276.
- Goldstein, Tracey, Tanja S. Zabka, Robert L. DeLong, Elizabeth A. Wheeler, Gina Ylitalo, Sibel Bargu, Mary Silver, Tod Leighfield, Frances Van Dolah, Gregg Langlois, Inga Sidor, J. Lawrence Dunn, and Frances M. D. Gulland. 2009. The role of domoic acid in abortion and premature parturition of California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) on San Miguel Island, California. Journal of Wildlife Diseases 45(1):91-108.
- Landsberg, Jan H., Sherwood Hall, Jan N. Johannessen, Kevin D. White, Stephen M. Conrad, Jay P. Abbott, Leanne J. Flewelling, R. William Richardson, Robert W. Dickey, Edward L.E. Jester, Stacey M. Etheridge, Jonathan R. Deeds, Frances M. Van Dolah, Tod A. Leighfield, Yinglin Zou, Clarke G. Beaudry, Ronald A. Benner, Patricia L. Rogers, Paula S. Scott, Kenji Kawabata, Jennifer L. Wolny, and Karen A. Steidinger. 2006. Saxitoxin puffer fish poisoning in the United States, with the first report of Pyrodinium bahamense as the putative toxin source. Environmental Health Perspectives 114(10):1502-1507.
- Scholin, Christopher A., Frances Gulland, Gregory J. Doucette, Scott Benson, Mark Busman, Francisco P. Chavez, Joe Cordaro, Robert DeLong, Andrew De Vogelaere, James Harvey, Martin Haulena, Kathi Lefebvre, Tom Lipscomb, Susan Loscutoff, Linda J. Lowenstine, Roman Marin III, Peter E. Miller, William A. McLellan, Peter D. R. Moeller, Christine L. Powell, Teri Rowles, Paul Silvagni, Mary Silver, Terry Spraker, Vera Trainer and Frances M. Van Dolah. 2000. Mortality of sea lions along the central California coast linked to a toxic diatom bloom. Nature 403(6765):80-84.
- Schwacke,Lori H., Michael J. Twiner, Sylvain De Guise, Brian C. Balmer, Randall S. Wells, Forrest I. Townsend, David C. Rotstein, Rene A. Varela, Larry J. Hansen, Eric S. Zolman, Trevor R. Spradlin, Milton Levin, Heather Leibrecht, Zhihong Wang, and Teresa K. Rowles. 2010. Eosinophilia and biotoxin exposure in bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) from a coastal area impacted by repeated mortality events. Environmental Research 110(6):548-555.
- Shulera, Andrew J., Jeffrey Paternoster, Matthew Brim, Kimberly Nowocin, Templeton Tisdale, Kathleen Neller, Julie A. Cahill, Tod A. Leighfield, Spencer Fire, Zhihong Wang, Steve Morton. 2012. Spatial and temporal trends of the toxic diatom Pseudo-nitzschia in the southeastern United States. Harmful Algae 17:6-13.
- Twiner, Michael J., Spencer Fire, Lori Schwacke, Leigh Davidson, Zhihong Wang, Steve Morton, Stephen Roth, Brian Balmer, Teresa K. Rowles, and Randall S. Wells. 2011. Concurrent exposure of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) to multiple algal toxins in Sarasota Bay, Florida, USA. PLoS ONE 6(3):e17394. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0017394.
- Twiner, Michael J., Leanne J. Flewelling, Spencer E. Fire, Sabrina R. Bowen-Stevens, Joseph K. Gaydos, Christine K. Johnson, Jan H. Landsberg, Tod A. Leighfield, Blair Mase-Guthrie, Lori Schwacke, Frances M. Van Dolah, Zhihong Wang, Teresa K. Rowles. 2012. Comparative analysis of three brevetoxin-associated bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) mortality events in the Florida Panhandle region (USA). PLoS ONE 7(8):e42974. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0042974
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- Wang, Zhihong, Jennifer Maucher-Fuquay, Spencer E. Fire, Christina M. Mikulski, Bennie Haynes, Gregory J. Doucette, and John S. Ramsdell. 2012. Optimization of solid-phase extraction and liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry for the determination of domoic acid in seawater, phytoplankton, and mammalian ﬂuids and tissues. Analytica Chimica Acta 715:71-79.
- Wiley, Faith E., Michael J. Twiner, Tod A. Leighfield, Susan B. Wilde, Frances M. Van Dolah, John R. Fischer, and William W. Bowerman. 2009. An extract of Hydrilla verticillata and associated epiphytes induces avian vacuolar myelinopathy in laboratory mallards. Environmental Toxicology 24(4):362-368.
- Wilkin, Sarah M., Joe Cordaro, Frances M. D. Gulland, Elizabeth Wheeler, Robin Dunkin, Teri Sigler, Dave Casper, Michelle Berman, Moe Flannery, Spencer Fire, Zhihong Wang, Kathleen Colegrove, and Jason Baker. 2012. An unusual mortality event of harbor porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) off central California: Increase in blunt trauma rather than an epizootic. Aquatic Mammals 38(3):301-310.