Algae called growing threat Professor calls lack of knowledge about organisms 'appalling'

March 04, 1998|By NEWSDAY

PHILADELPHIA - Predatory algae blooms are a mysterious and growing global threat to fish and even humans, scientists at Woods Hole Institute said at a recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

"We have more toxic algal species and more fisheries impacted. There's no doubt this problem has expanded significantly in the last few decades," said Donald Anderson, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts.

Anderson said that while he believes monitoring efforts are generally protecting the public from tainted shellfish, he doesn't eat grouper anymore because some of the toxins that originate in algae concentrate as they move up the food chain to the largest fish.

At a briefing held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a panel of scientists said the growing reports of harmful algae are particularly disturbing because so little is known about what triggers the blooms and where and when they will appear next.

"It's appalling, absolutely appalling, how little we know about the basic biochemistry of these organisms," said Rose Ann Cattolico, a professor of botany at the University of Washington and an algae expert.

Nationwide, most of the attention has been focused on Pfiesteria, an algaelike organism that causes lethal open sores on fish and releases a toxin that can trigger memory loss and learning disabilities in humans who are in or near infested waters.

So far, most of the Pfiesteria blooms have been confined to coastal North Carolina, but the microscopic organism also has been blamed for recent massive fish kills in Maryland and Delaware, and an expert said no one is sure where it will show up next. "It's been outsmarting us," said JoAnn Burkholder, the co-discoverer of Pfiesteria and an associate professor of botany at North Carolina State University.

Most types of algae are not toxic, and life on Earth couldn't exist without them because the tiny plants are major processors of carbon through photosynthesis. But even when algae don't release toxins, massive blooms can wreak havoc by soaking up oxygen that fish can't live without.

The dozens of toxic algae species pose a more direct threat. Algae-induced poisonings frequently afflict shellfish - and sometimes the people who eat them - in Alaska, Florida and New England, Anderson said.

Pub Date: 3/04/98

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