A devastating bloom of toxic algae has wreaked havoc on marine life along the Southern California coast, leading to the illness and death of over 1,000 marine mammals this month alone. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports that high concentrations of domoic acid, a neurotoxin produced by the marine algae Pseudo-nitzschia, have been found in the waters from Orange County to San Luis Obispo County. This alarming situation has prompted rescue organizations and concerned citizens to take action to protect the affected marine mammals.
The Impact on Marine Mammals
The Channel Islands Marine and Wildlife Institute, a local rescue organization, has been inundated with reports of distressed and deceased sea lions and dolphins. In the first few weeks of June, nearly 60 dolphins and numerous sea lions have been found dead along the coastline. The organization is managing over 200 reports of marine mammals in distress every day, highlighting the scale of the crisis.
The Devastating Effects of Domoic Acid
Domoic acid, the neurotoxin produced by the toxic algae, poses a significant threat to marine animals. It can cause brain damage, seizures, and even death in affected animals. California sea lions, in particular, are at high risk due to their foraging sites and habitats. Pregnant sea lions are especially vulnerable as they consume more food, increasing their exposure to the toxin. Domoic acid can lead to prenatal mortality, premature births, and stillbirths in sea lion populations.
Human Impact and Recommendations
According to Latimes News, While the toxin does not directly affect humans unless consumed through contaminated food, the current situation calls for vigilance. If individuals encounter marine mammals exhibiting unusual behavior, such as swaying their heads back and forth, experiencing seizure activity, or foaming at the mouth, it is essential to keep a safe distance and report the sighting to the Channel Islands Marine and Wildlife Institute. Contact can be made via phone at (805) 567-1505 or online.
Causes and Historical Algal Bloom Events
Algal blooms occur during specific conditions, often in spring and fall, when an upwelling of water brings nutrients from deeper water to the surface, where sunlight is stronger. This creates an ideal environment for the growth of toxic algae. Similar events have been recorded in Southern California in the past, including in 2002, 2006, 2007, 2017, and 2022, highlighting the recurring nature of this ecological phenomenon.
Rescue and Recovery Efforts
The Channel Islands Marine and Wildlife Institute, along with other organizations and concerned individuals, are working tirelessly to respond to distressed marine mammals. They are receiving numerous calls and responding to a high volume of animals each day. With prompt treatment, affected sea lions usually show signs of improvement within 72 hours, and many can recover fully. However, the toxin can cause long-term damage to the hippocampus region of the brain, resulting in memory loss and impaired learning abilities.