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Scientists Work On Forecasting 'Red Tides'

Tom Banse

Seafood lovers know them as "red tides." Scientists prefer to call them "harmful algal blooms." Whatever term you use, shellfish harvest closures are becoming more common over time. Scientists attending a workshop in Portland, Oregon this week are discussing ways to better monitor and minimize the effects of natural marine toxins. Correspondent Tom Banse has more from Ocean Shores, Washington on why this matters.


If you've never seen a razor clam dig on the coast, trust me, it's a sight to behold. As far as the eye can see, thousands of people in rubber boots or hip waders probe the wet sand in search of buried clams.

Clam digger Kalin Graves brought three generations of family to Ocean Shores.

Graves: "In all this stressful time and stuff that we have today, they need a little fun now and then. It's just good to come down and play in the sand."

This day, just about everyone is getting their limit of razor clams. Long–time digger Jim Bartlett of Yakima is pleased that regular testing at the clam beds confirms they are safe to eat.

Bartlett: "I like to go clam digging. When they say no, you can't do it, then it's a little frustrating. But hey, I don't want to get sick either. I've never been sick from razor clams ever in my life and I have been eating them since I was eight years old."

Some years, a marine toxin produced by algae closes down the entire razor clam season. The neurotoxin is called domoic acid. In Oregon, mussel harvesting recently reopened after a four month coast wide closure due to a different algal bloom. That one can lead to paralytic shellfish poisoning.

The director of the Ocean Shores Chamber of Commerce says an uninterrupted clam season provides a multi–million dollar boost to the coastal economy. Leslie Reedy says without the digs, it would be really quiet.

Reedy: "Economically, these are a lifesaver to the businesses here in town. Our tourism is down. It's down quite a bit actually in the past year. So we really look forward to these because these make all the difference in the world."

This month, the Washington Fish and Wildlife and Health Departments were only able to give the green light four days before the razor clam dig opened. Reedy wishes there was a way to give more advance notice.

Reedy: "If we could put that out there for people maybe a few weeks in advance so they could plan. It's not convenient for everybody to plan a trip to the beach in a three day period."

Life would be better wouldn't it, if scientists could forecast when a harmful plankton bloom is coming and conversely, when the coast is certain to be clear. Oregon State University oceanographer Pete Strutton says the capability to make such forecasts is now entering the realm of the plausible.

Strutton: "Ocean observatories are coming on line. They're collecting data. Some of it will be very useful for predicting the onset of toxic blooms."

Strutton says researchers have discovered some 'hotspots' where algal blooms start and spread out from. They include Heceta Bank off central Oregon and a big eddy at the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca off the northwest tip of Washington State. However, we don't yet fully understand why the microscopic organisms produce toxins some of the time, but not other times. Strutton says a reliable forecast model is still years away.

Strutton: "We also need more development in terms of biological and chemical sensors that will provide relevant data for helping to predict the toxicity of the blooms."

Strutton and fellow researchers at the University of Washington and NOAA Fisheries are hopeful their work will get a boost from the stimulus package pending in Congress. They can see getting a small share of the billions directed to the National Science Foundation.

Ayres: "So how was clam digging?"

Washington coastal shellfish manager Dan Ayres is eager for the day when he can see looming health threats over the horizon.

Ayres: "Right now, if we knew two weeks from now we're going to have a toxin problem, we're not going to open a season. We're not going to take a risk. But if we had two months advance notice — or even a one month advance notice — we could open the season ahead of that, harvest some of these clams, allow some opportunity, allow some economic benefit before that could potentially hit."

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