It's among the tiniest of living things: just a single cell. But Pseudo-nitzschia, a type of algae that produces a powerful neurotoxin, is big trouble.
A toxic algae bloom of unprecedented size and persistence began flourishing off the West Coast last May, affecting wildlife and fisheries from Alaska to Southern California.
In Washington, the razor-clam season has been shut since spring and won't open until mid-December at the earliest. California has delayed its lucrative winter Dungeness crab season because tests revealed dangerous levels of domoic acid, produced by the algae, in the crabs.
Washington regulators are optimistic this state's prized crab fishery will open on time next month, based on test results on crabs so far. There's no decision yet.
A closure along the entire West Coast would be a blow to the industry, which harvested nearly $170 million worth of Dungeness crab in 2014.
The algal toxin also shut down the recreational razor-clam harvest in Oregon and caused the first-ever closure of the Washington state Dungeness crab fishery on the south coast last summer. The razor-clam harvest closure in Washington and Oregon cost an estimated $22 million in tourism-related spending, said Dan Ayres, coastal shellfish manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Kathi Lefebvre runs the Wildlife Algal-toxin Research and Response Network at the NOAA Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. She samples the tissues of stranded or dead wildlife for toxins produced by algae and was alarmed by what she saw this year.
"Typically we have blooms in regions. A bloom in California for a few weeks, one here, one there," Lefebvre said. "This year it was just a solid, nonstop, coastwide bloom, and toxins in the food web for the entire coast. We were finding toxins in the cells of animals from Alaska to Southern California."
The network documented a record number of animals spanning the coast with detectable levels of the neurotoxin, including three sea birds and 36 marine mammals, from whales and dolphins to porpoises, seals and sea lions. The sample represents only a fraction of the animals affected, because many others would never have washed ashore or been discovered.
The poison created by the algae can overstimulate nerves in people, causing seizures. Similar effects occur in marine mammals.
Health professionals seek to protect the public from toxic algal blooms by closing harvest seasons when unacceptably high levels of the chemicals are found in shellfish or other seafood. But sea life, of course, eats what it always eats — and sometimes pays a terrible price.
This summer marked the first time a sea lion was documented to suffer a seizure from the poison in Washington, said Lefebvre. Sea lions had never been known to be affected by the toxin north of California.
State data shows toxin levels dropping, but still in the danger zone, said Michael Milstein, a spokesman for NOAA Fisheries.
"It's definitely not typical," said Anthony Odell, a research analyst based in Aberdeen for the University of Washington's Olympic Natural Resources Center. "You don't see blooms lasting more than a week or 10 days, and this one has been going on since May. It has been pretty persistent, and it's still producing toxins. This is really bizarre."
The algae is a type of diatom, one of the oldest life-forms on Earth. They are among many forms of drifting phytoplankton, which produce about half the oxygen on our planet. But some forms of algae have the ability to out-compete other species with a kind of chemical warfare. The toxins they produce to thrive in warmer, nutrient-poor waters move up the food chain; everything eats phytoplankton, or something else that does.
Forage fish fed on by marine mammals became heavily tainted by this season's toxic pastures of the sea. "Sardines and anchovies are little toxic bullets. The levels were screaming off the charts," said Vera Trainer, manager of the marine biotoxin program at NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center. Trainer and other scientists sampling the coast were stunned by the prolific bloom. "People were complaining of this brown goo in their sampling nets."
The bloom was boosted by "the blob," an alliterative stackup of woe for people and nature on and offshore for the past two years. The anomalously large and warm mass of water that came to be called the blob began forming in the fall of 2013 because of unusual winds. By September of this year the northeastern Pacific was breaking temperature records set in the 1880s, in a mass of water stretching from the coast out 1,000 miles from Alaska to Mexico, said Nate Mantua, research scientist at NOAA's Southwest Fisheries Science Center in Santa Cruz.
The mass has been linked to the extraordinary drought in California, the lack of snowpack in Washington, and even the extreme cold last winter on the East Coast. The toxic algal bloom is just one more feature of a freakish year.
"This is likely related. It was a very unusual year in the ocean, and along the Pacific Coast, lots of things that were unprecedented happened, including this algal bloom, and the fact that it has gotten into the food web," Mantua said. "There is nothing good about it."
Ocean conditions could begin cooling as soon as this year, Mantua said, but there is no way to know. Long term, however, the ocean is absorbing most of the heat of climate warming. And species such as toxic algae that can compete and thrive in warmer, nutrient-poor waters are the winners.
"This is diagnostic of what we can expect more of in the future," Trainer said. "And it's a mess."
Lefebvre was troubled by the link between warm water off the coast and an algal bloom that was unprecedented in both its size and toxicity. "It's a very cautionary tale, to have this warm water and bigger blooms, and more animals affected," Lefebvre said. "What does the future hold?"