Predicting algae blooms in time to help coast economy

Predicting algae blooms in time to help coast economy

Morgaine McKibben collects samples off the Coast to help MOCHA's algae research. // PHOTO COURTESY OF COAS

A statewide research group is developing a way to forecast harmful algae blooms to help mitigate the negative economic impact that beach closures have on Oregon’s coastal communities.

MOCHA (Monitoring Oregon’s Coastal Harmful Algae) is comprised of university and government agency researchers who have been  studying the blooms since 2007. The blooms happen when marine algae populations explode and produce toxins that infect shellfish. The blooms then force communities to close their beaches to shellfish harvesting. Razor clams are especially monitored because even weeks after feeding they can retain the toxins, which can cause paralysis and in some cases death in humans.

A yearlong closure to razor clamming in 2003 cost Clatsop County businesses $4.8 million in revenue. “The peak season is around April to June,” says MOCHA team member Matt Hunter of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Avid bivalve hunters make hotel reservations months in advance for that time period and then abruptly cancel when a closure is announced. This keeps the lodging industry from being able to fill those rooms on short notices. By getting an early bloom alert, and thus a possible beach closure, lodging businesses would have time to fill those cancellations.

Blooms also have negative repercussions for commercial razor clam distributors. It takes about a week to determine whether clams are tainted, says Alex Manderson of the Oregon Department of Agriculture. “The harvester gets paid regardless,” says Hunter. “If the clams turn out to be bad, you have to use them for bait or just discard them.” According to Jon Hartill, co-owner of seafood store Bell Buoy of Seaside, the 2003 closure cost him upward of $60,000 because he had already paid harvesters for the clams and they could not be sold to consumers. Earlier notice of a bloom would have helped prevent this.

“The incidence of [blooms] has increased worldwide. We’re the first monitoring program to determine the frequency along the Oregon coast,” says MOCHA team member Angel White of Oregon State University. The application of MOCHA’s forecasting model currently is limited. “It’s like a weather forecast: We can tell what it’s going to be like today. We want to be able to do monthly forecasts,” Hunter says.

“We’re in data-crunching mode,” White says.