Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have found that over 900 marine animals in Alaska contain harmful algae toxins, most notably domoic acid, which has led to the deaths of hundreds of sea lions and other marine creatures in recent times - the Washington Post reports.
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When the scientists captured or obtained a stranded marine animal, they examined its stomach content, feces, and urine for two toxins – domoic acid and saxitoxin.
But considering the fact that sea ice is diminishing and the water temperature is getting warmer, scientists fear that the harmful algae could increase in numbers, leading to algae blooms fish and clams and other marine animals could feed on, getting poisoned in the process and passing the toxins up the food chain.
“The real concern is that the waters are warming and the sea ice is melting and the light is more available, making it more favorable for these blooms of algae,” said Kathi Lefebvre, a research biologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Algae are simple organisms which could be single-celled at times, and they float on waters just like phytoplankton, causing zooplankton and marine animals to feed on them. Under the right conditions, they could rapidly grow into dense blooms that produce harmful toxins that injure sea creatures and animals.
Led by Lefebvre, the NOAA’s West Coast Wildlife Algal-toxin Research and Response Network in Seattle examined 905 animal samples collected in Alaska wildlife over nine years.
The researchers found that the domoic acid discovered in many of the animals cause death in certain marine mammals such as sea lions, and can cause brain damage or loss of spatial memory in those that survive the illness, affecting their ability to forage, migrate or avoid ship strikes. Domoic acid was found in all 13 Alaska species analyzed and in 68% of bowhead whales sampled and in 67% of harbor seals.
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Many of the marine creatures sampled also contain saxitoxin, a toxin that causes paralytic food poisoning in clams and discovered in 10 other marine species. It was also found in 50% of humpback whale sampled and in 32% of bowhead whale sampled.