HAB at It

Red tide is a well-known indicator of harmful algal bloom.© serc.carleton.edu

Last week, the nonpartisan pro-ocean political group Ocean Champions sent out a press release cheering "HAB Wins! HAB Wins! HAB Wins!" What were they so excited about? On October 7, the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act, also known as Toxic Tides, passed out of the House Science and Technology Committee. Wordy as it sounds, the HAB amendment is a critical one for ocean health. Almost every coastal state is suffering from harmful algal blooms according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Essentially, HABs—responsible for "red tides"—are when algae—simple sea plants—produce toxic effects on fish, shellfish, marine animals, people and birds.

Sometimes the algae themselves produce toxins, other times it is when the algae die and decompose that problems start—as that process results in decreased oxygen in the water. HABs have been tied to increased ocean temperatures, to hurricanes, floods and drought, and to runoff from human activities like lawn maintenance and farming.

Major blooms occur regularly on U.S. coasts, and the NOAA reports that impacts have included significant illness and death in shellfish and marine species (including manatees and dolphins in Florida) and serious threats to human health. And then there’s the financial expense. "Just one HAB event can cost tens of millions of dollars to local coastal economies," writes the NOAA, "and over the past few decades the total costs associated with HABs have been conservatively estimated at over $1 billion."

The Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Amendments Act was first passed in 1998, and signed into law again in 2004, and gives the NOAA more muscle for detecting and monitoring and ultimately controlling these dangerous tides. Now Ocean Champions is pushing to get the latest Act time on the Congressional floor so it can have a shot at being implemented before the year’s end.

Sources: National Ocean Service; govtrack.us (Hypoxia Research); Ocean Champions