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Hearing on “Harmful Algal Blooms and Hypoxia: Formulating an Action Plan”

Dr. Donald M. Anderson
Senior Scientist, Biology Department, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Director, U.S. National Office for Harmful Algal Blooms

Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee.  My name is Don Anderson.  I am a Senior Scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution where I direct the U.S. National Office for Harmful Algal Blooms.  I am co-Chair of the National HAB Committee, and have been actively involved in research on HABs and in formulating our national HAB program.

I was asked to talk about technologies used to mitigate and control HABs.  Mitigation is a term that includes strategies such as monitoring programs for toxins in shellfish, public education and outreach, scientifically based siting of aquaculture facilities, and other activities that reduce HAB impacts.  One of the most important of these is that of forecasting.  In the US, our strong fundamental understanding of the complex processes that underlie regional HABs is being used to provide forecasts over time scales ranging from weeks to months. For example, a regional program in the Pacific Northwest has identified an eddy or circulating water mass off Puget Sound that serves as an incubator for the toxic cells that cause Amnesic Shellfish Poisoning.  This is a debilitating illness that can cause death or permanent memory loss in some victims.  As water spins off of that eddy, it carries cells to shore, causing sudden and significant outbreaks that are now easier to manage given this understanding.

On the east coast, we have taken forecasting a step further and now have computer models that allow us to evaluate conditions that caused past outbreaks, but also to look forward with forecasts.  For the last two years, we successfully forecast major regional HABs months in advance, and have provided weekly forecasts as well. The value of this information is evident in the commitment by Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, to spend nearly one-half million dollars for the collection of data needed to initiate these forecasts for the next two years.

Another important mitigation tool relies on DNA “probes” for identifying and enumerating HAB species. This technology is now being incorporated into robotic instruments that can be deployed remotely, collecting water and conducting the manipulations needed to detect and count HAB cells and measure their toxins. This brings us one step closer to a dream I share with many in my field - arrays of instruments deployed along a coast that detect HABs, monitor their development, and provide real-time data to the computer models that then predict bloom landfall and impacts.  This is the approach used by the weather service to provide their forecasts.  The challenge to do this with biological systems in the ocean is significant and will require sustained investment to achieve this dream.

In the area of control of HABs, progress has been regrettably slow. This is not for lack of strategies, as there are methods to kill HAB cells using bacteria, parasites, viruses, chemicals, or even minerals as simple as clay that can be sprayed over a bloom to capture the toxic cells and carry them to bottom sediments.  The stumbling block has been transitioning laboratory studies to the field.

Why is this? One reason is that, given a choice, scientists will propose fundamental research on bloom dynamics rather than undertake the risky, controversial, and highly visible task of trying to control a bloom.  Another reason is that we do not have a separate program, with its own funding line, and yet another is that no agency currently has a clear mandate to control marine nuisance organisms.

To jumpstart progress, this HABHRCA legislation needs to explicitly call for a program on Prevention, Control and Mitigation of HABs, and specifically authorize funds for that program.  If the funding is significant and targeted, scientists and engineers will participate and move this field forward. This is an area where the HAB community should work with those who seek to manage invasive species, or with agencies such as the Agricultural Research Service which has a long history of biological and chemical control of pests on land.

A related comment is that we need to authorize two other programs, as detailed in my written testimony. One is a national HAB Event Response program and the other is an Infrastructure Program. This need for the former was clearly evident this year when a red tide closed shellfish beds in Maine, New Hampshire, and much of Massachusetts, leading to requests to NOAA from Senator Snowe and from the FDA for information on the offshore extent and status of the bloom. This led to a scramble for funds to support cruises and personnel on very short notice.  Had there been a national program, this response would have been more effective and timely.

I will close by saying that I am strongly supportive of the involvement of EPA in the national HAB program, and in the inclusion of freshwater HABs.  This committee is showing great foresight and initiative in recognizing this need, and acting upon it.

Mr. Chairman, that concludes my testimony.

Originally published: September 17, 2009