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Sea Lions and Other Wildlife Are Dying Because of This

Over the past 25 years or so, blooms have been cropping up along the United States’ Pacific coast. They aren’t pretty petals, though; they’re made of algae, formed mostly by a phytoplankton called Pseudo-nitzschia. It produces a deadly neurotoxin called domoic acid. If ingested, it can cause sickness, lethargy, seizures, permanent short-term memory loss, and death in animals and humans (depending on the severity of the poisoning).

In the past, the blooms have been small and short-lived enough to prevent a crisis. This year’s bloom, however, is a troubling surprise.

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What’s this year’s bloom like?

For one thing, it’s huge—likely the largest ever recorded, spreading thick tendrils of toxins from southern California all the way up to the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. Its concentrations are unprecedented, too. Monterey Bay, California was hit especially hard, its water’s toxicity level soaring 10 to 30 times higher than what scientists would typically consider “high toxicity.”

The bloom also has a crazy longevity. It first appeared in early May and has yet to disappear; scientists predict we won’t see the back of it until fall hits. And that’s a problem because it’s affecting humans and wildlife alike.

What’s it doing to us?

The neurotoxin, domoic acid has entered the food web via shellfish, anchovies, sardines, and other small fish. Those who eat them then become poisoned, whether the consumer is human or animal.

Thankfully, no humans have been physically harmed by the Pseudo-nitzschia that produce the toxin. Other wildlife has not been as fortunate. We’ve seen sea lions with seizures and watched pelicans get sick. It’s possible that the blooms have also been responsible for whales dying, though scientists don’t know for sure.

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Though no poisoning incidents have been reported among humans, the blooms still affect and harm us, as well. We’ve shut down several local fisheries, which is good; that means we’re keeping people safe. However, locals who benefitted from the fishing industry have suffered; we’ve lost millions of dollars in income. Not good.

So why is all this happening?

Warm sea temperatures, most likely. That’s possibly a result of climate change, though it could also be thanks to the “warm blob” that’s caused this year’s unusual weather in the Pacific U.S. Whatever the case, scientists anticipate it being even worse next year because of El Niño.

What should I do?

If you live along the Pacific coast, take measures to ensure your safety. Don’t eat recreationally captured shellfish, anchovies, sardines, or other small fish. You can, however, purchase these foods from stores because the meat needs to go through testing in order to be sold.

While you can’t stop the algae from permeating the coastal region, you can prevent other toxins from entering the ecosystem in the first place. Seattle’s Puget Sound is vulnerable to urban toxic runoff, a type of pollution that collects toxins from hard, impervious surfaces like sidewalks and roads. The runoff then empties into Puget Sound and harms the ecosystem there. Your donation will create “rain gardens” to prevent this toxic runoff from entering the ecosystem.

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A. Stout is a Whovian, Potterhead, study abroad alumna, and animal lover. A native to West Michigan, she dreams of publishing novels and traveling all over the world.