The toxic algal blooms are generated by certain phytoplankton, also known as microalgae, autotrophic or self-feeding members of the plankton community, which are free floating algae. Like terrestrial plants, they contain chlorophyll and require sunlight to live and grow.
Phytoplankton provide food for whales, shrimp, snails and jellyfish and other sea creatures. When too many nutrients are available, phytoplankton may grow out of control and form harmful algal blooms, which can produce extremely toxic compounds harmful to fish, shellfish, animals, birds and people.
According to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services’ Division of Public Health, climate change is likely to increase the threat of harmful algal blooms. Warmer waters extend the phytoplankton growing season, increasing the likelihood of toxic blooms, and may allow new potentially harmful phytoplankton species to expand their area of reach in Alaska.
Commercially harvested shellfish sold in stores and restaurants must pass federal Food and Drug Administration and state-run toxin testing to assure their safety for human consumption.
Testing is not required for personal and subsistence shellfish harvests, but the AHAB Network hopes to eventually develop the ability to forecast such blooms to alert personal use and subsistence harvesters.
The network is coordinated jointly by the Alaska Ocean Observing System and Alaska Sea Grant.
Members include the Alaska departments of Health and Social Services and Environmental Conservation, Aleutian Pribilof Island Association, Axiom Data Science, NOAA’s National Ocean Service and National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Southeast Alaska Tribal Ocean Research and the Sitka Tribe of Alaska.