Environmental Report – 4.6

Noteworthy-Environmental Report

The Poisoned SeaA massive mortality event plagues animals along the California coastline

A large crowd gathers on the beach of a sprawling resort located along the bay of Cabo San Lucas. While most onlookers might mistake this throng as yet another spring-break taping of Girls Gone Wild, the only seemingly drunk creature lurking about is a dazed sea lion writhing in pain. This scenario has been played out countless times over the past several decades at various locations around the globe, most recently along the coastlines of California and Baja Mexico. According to Joe Cordaro, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, approximately 200 sea lions have come ashore in this area since March of 2002-a drastic increase from typical numbers. Many of these animals are suffering from neurological disorders such as seizures and disorientation, inundating marine-mammal care centers along the western coastline. Sea lions aren’t the only victims of this massive mortality event-almost 100 dolphins have died in the same time period, making this outbreak one of the worst on record.The culprit? Large algal blooms of Pseudo-nitzschia australis (a type of phytoplankton known to produce domoic acid) occurring off the coasts of Monterey, Morro Bay, and Santa Barbara. Domoic acid is a neurotoxin infamous for causing shellfish poisoning in humans. This toxin is being transferred to these marine mammals through their consumption of planktivorous fishes such as anchovies.Although the specific cause of this algal outbreak has yet to be determined, large harmful algae blooms are often triggered or exacerbated by an abundance of nutrients in the water column-a serious consequence of urban runoff and untreated sewage spills. As the investigation into the source continues, the end does not appear to be immediately in sight. Cordero explains, “These events usually last two to three months but may extend for longer periods of time.” This neurotoxin is unlikely to affect humans, unless the majority of their diet consists of anchovies and shellfish, but the disruption it may cause in the food chain could have serious implications for us in the future. Although this incident appears to be limited geographically to a small sector of animals, it’s an indication of the health of our oceans today-something that affects all of us. A stretch of Huntington Beach has already been closed for several weeks this year due to bacterial contamination, recalling memories of the summer of ’99, when a string of beach closures rendered the Huntington Beach area virtually unusable for much of the season-wreaking havoc on tourists, locals, and business owners alike. So take note of these hapless animals coming ashore, and think about putting some of your time and energy into the effort of cleaning up our oceans. But in the meanwhile, hold the anchovies!-Stacie Perry