Unprecedented toxic algae lingers in Mississippi Sound

DMR Chief Scientific Officer Kelly Lucas said that in high concentration the algae can cause respiratory problems, especially in people that are already susceptible. She also said anglers can continue to fish in the Sound, but do not eat dead or distressed fish. Amanda McCoy amccoy@sunherald.com
BY WESLEY MULLER Sun Herald 14 Dec 15;

BILOXI -- Mississippi's worst toxic algae bloom in recorded history kept the Gulf Coast under siege Monday for the fourth consecutive day, leaving dead marine life scattered along the shoreline.

Monty Graham, director of USM's Gulf Coast Research Lab and chairman of the Marine Science Department at NASA's Stennis Space Center, said he doesn't see any signs of significant change regarding the algae moving.

The winds are forecast to come out of the South," he said. "We're probably in a bit of a pattern where we're not going to change too much."

The bloom, which scientists call red tide, is a rare phenomenon that appeared in Mississippi waters Friday, causing officials to close all beaches and oyster reefs indefinitely.

DMR Chief Scientific Officer Kelly Lucas gives an update on the algae bloom currently in the Mississippi on Monday, December 14, 2015. Lucas said that in high concentration the algae can cause respiratory problems, especially in people that are already susceptible. She also said anglers can continue to fish in the Sound, but do not eat dead or distressed fish.

The Department of Marine Resources collected more water samples Monday to test algal concentrations. The results will be released once the tests are complete, DMR Chief Scientific Officer Kelly Lucas said.

"I think all the cities and counties right now are working on beach cleanup." Lucas said.

Algal concentrations, measured in cells per liter of water, typically become problematic at 10,000 cells per liter and will shut down oyster reefs at just 5,000 cells per liter. Scientists, however, recorded unprecedented numbers of more than 1 million cells per liter in some areas of the Mississippi Sound on Saturday.

Graham said he's never seen readings at that level in the more than 20 years he's worked in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

"You start getting worried when you get into the 10,000s and 100,000s (of cells per liter)," Graham said Saturday. "At the million mark, people even onshore, especially people with asthma, may start feeling the negative effects of it."

Scientists are working to forecast the movements of the algae.

Inia Soto Ramos, a biological oceanographer at USM's Ocean Weather Laboratory at Stennis, said a weekend thunderstorm created cloud cover that prevented any satellite imaging.

An expert on marine algae, Soto Ramos said the species affecting Mississippi is Karenia brevis, a single-celled phyoplankton that typically lives in warmer, saltier waters of South Florida. She said the algae contains a neurotoxin that kills other marine life and gets into the air through breaking waves.

Officials are warning the public, especially those with respiratory problems, to stay away from the beaches and immediate coastal areas, and anglers should avoid harvesting dead or distressed sea life.

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