Wildlife biologist Susan Kaveggia, right, and wildlife technician Julie King prepared to examine an ailing California brown pelican on Thursday at the Los Angeles Oiled Bird Care & Education Center in Los Angeles' San Pedro district.
Algae bloom poisons sea life
With scores of marine animals sickened, concern about the food chain deepens
LOS ANGELES » A bloom of ocean algae that produces a toxic acid has sickened and killed birds, sea lions and dolphins in California and could threaten humans who eat seafood, environmentalists said.
Birds and animals have been washing up on shores from San Diego to San Francisco Bay.
The state warned consumers yesterday against eating sport-harvested shellfish and seafood caught between Santa Barbara and Orange County.
In the past week, 40 birds have been taken to the International Bird Rescue Center in San Pedro with symptoms of domoic acid poisoning, which attacks the brain and can cause seizures. In previous seasons the center might see seven birds a week, Director Jay Holcomb said.
The Wetland and Wildlife Care Center in Huntington Beach had received 73 sick or dead birds since Sunday, Assistant Director Lisa Birkle said.
Fourteen sea lions have been treated for domoic acid poisoning at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach. Seven died, said Michele Hunter, the center's director.
"What we're concerned about is the fact that we see these animals dying out there," Holcomb said Thursday.
Domoic acid is produced by microscopic algae. Birds and sea mammals ingest the acid by eating fish and shellfish that consume the algae. People who eat fish and shellfish tainted with the acid can experience nausea, seizures and even death.
State health officials said tests showed high levels of domoic acid in sardines caught off Southern California. Other seafood have not yet been tested, but could contain dangerous toxin levels.
The algae population increases or "blooms" every year as the ocean waters warm, but this year's bloom seems early, extensive and "very, very thick," said David Caron, who teaches in the biological sciences department at University of Southern California.
"There are conceivably thousands of animals being affected," Caron said.
Algae blooms have been a problem in Hawaii as well. In 2001 an algae bloom hurt resort businesses along a 6-mile stretch of shoreline from Kaanapali to Kapalua on Maui.
Not only did the state government have to cart off bag-loads of algae, but businesses reported 5 percent to 10 percent losses in revenue.
Researchers found that the cause might have been fresh water from the land that had a high concentration of nitrogen. That could have come from septic tanks, sewage, or agricultural fertilizers, they said.
From 1989 to 1991 there was a major algae bloom off West Maui.