The Ecology and Oceanography of Harmful Algal Blooms

A National Research Agenda

2. The ECOHAB Program

2.1 Why a National Program on HABs is Needed

If we accept that HAB problems are expanding and that they have multiple causes, both natural and human-assisted, what can be done about them in a practical sense? What information is needed to efficiently manage affected marine resources, protect public and ecosystem health, encourage and support aquaculture development, and contribute to policy decisions on coastal zone issues such as waste or sewage disposal, aquaculture development, or dredging? If human activities are making the HAB problem worse, how can that be verified, and what steps should be taken to minimize further impacts? These are important practical questions, and the apparent trends in HAB incidence make them even more pressing. The need for applied, practical research on HAB bloom phenomena is clear. However, the problems are complex, and will require a compre hensive research program that includes basic and fundamental studies of HAB species, their environment, and the organisms that interact with them or their toxins. The ECOHAB program has been designed to address these issues.

2.2 What is ECOHAB?

ECOHAB (ECology and Oceanography of Harmful Algal Blooms) is a scientific program designed to increase our under standing of the fundamental processes underlying the impacts and population dynamics of HABs. This program addresses the many factors at the organismal level that determine how HAB species respond to, and potentially alter their environment, the manner in which HAB species affect or are affected by food-web and community interactions, and how the distribution, abundance, and impact of HAB species are regulated by the environment.

In its simplest form, the goal of the ECOHAB program is to develop an understanding of the population dynamics and trophic impacts of harmful algal species which can be used as a basis for minimizing adverse effects on the economy, public health, and marine ecosystems.

2.3 Evolution of the ECOHAB

The U.S. is not alone in its struggle with the expanding HAB problem. Nations throughout the world are faced with a diverse array of toxic or harmful species and impacts, and many of these countries are poorly prepared for the threat posed to their coastal economies and ecosystems. As a result, international agencies or organizations such as the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO, the International Council for Exploration of the Seas (ICES), the Scientific Committee for Oceanic Research (SCOR), the European Union (EU) and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Program (APEC) have all established programs or working groups focused specifically on HABs and their impacts.

The IOC's HAB program is assuming a leadership role in the international arena. A series of workshops was convened beginning in 1987, leading to the creation of a science plan which separates the IOC HAB program into three divisions - scientific, educational and operational. The scientific program has three branches: ecology and oceanography; taxonomy and genetics; and toxicology and toxin chemistry.

From the outset, the IOC HAB program was intended to be a coalescence of national and international programs. On the international side, ICES established a working group on the Dynamics of Harmful Algal Blooms which has planned several major field programs or pilot studies targeting key HAB phenomena. However, due to the regional nature of many HAB problems, it is evident that these field studies will involve individual countries or groups of neighboring countries, and not large multi-national teams of investigators, as is often the case in international programs. At the national level, however, it became clear that many countries did not have a national program or plan to attack HAB issues. In the U.S., this was true despite an array of problems associated with harmful algae and a long history of HAB research. In order to rectify this lack of coordination of HAB problems in the U.S., a workshop was convened in 1992 at the National Marine Fisheries Service laboratory in Charleston, SC. That meeting produced the report " Marine Biotoxins and Harmful Algae: A National Plan "(Anderson et al., 1993), which identified numerous impediments to progress in the HAB field and made specific recommen dations to address those impediments. In addition to identifying areas for future research, the National Plan structured proposed HAB activities in a framework that helped agencies identify their roles in the overall program.

A prominent gap in U.S. attempt to deal with HAB issues was immediately apparent - that dealing with the ecology and oceanography of the blooms. The National Plan identified this as an important area for research, but a detailed scientific agenda was lacking and no agencies were actively supporting such research. NSF and NOAA then co-sponsored a workshop at Snow Mountain Ranch Conference Center in Colorado, involving participants representing an array of scientific disci plines, geographic regions, and agencies. The goal was to integrate field, laboratory, and theoretical studies into a focused effort to understand the fundamental issues underlying HABs and their impacts. The resulting ECOHAB program addresses these national needs, but it also represents a U.S. component of the international HAB programs of IOC and ICES.

2.4 The ECOHAB Strategy

The objective of the ECOHAB program is to combine field, laboratory and modeling studies in a coordinated effort to characterize the physical, chemical and biological processes governing the growth, distribution and impacts of HAB species.

Three program elements have been identified: The Organisms; Environmental Regulation of Blooms; and Food-web/Community Interactions. One challenge has been to design a program that could accomodate the wide array of HAB species, their impacts, and oceanographic regimes without being so broad or diffuse that implementation would be impossible. Given this diversity, ECOHAB will rely on coordinated, multi-investigator programs as well as projects by individual investigators or small groups. The program will require at least three types of research, all of which will involve an integration of physical, chemical and biological components.

Laboratory or Mesocosm Studies. Carefully controlled studies of HAB species and their food chain interactions are needed, focusing on genetic, biochemical, behavioral and life history processes that are important factors in the dynamics and impacts of blooms. These experimental studies will range from the organismal to the ecosystem level.

Field Investigations. Multi-investigator, multi-disciplinary field studies of HAB species are needed to document the distri bution and dynamics of key elements of HAB ecosystems, emphasizing the complex interactions between biotic and physical or chemical factors. Since no single field program could possibly address the wide array of HAB phenomena, a series of regional field studies is envisioned, in the expectation that this comparative approach will reveal differences and commonali ties when both hydrographic regimes and ecosystems are compared. An underlying challenge in all of these studies will be the need to obtain species-specific or autecological information from natural populations.

Theoretical Studies. Existing models will be applied, and new approaches developed, which incorporate field and labora tory measurements into realistic and testable simulations of HAB dynamics in different oceanographic systems. Models will include conceptual studies in idealized flows that examine how circulation patterns affect biological processes at the level of the individual, population, community and ecosystem, as well as site-specific models that address mechanistic interactions of the physics and biology within a particular oceanographic regime.

2.5 Rationale and Benefits

The significant economic, public health and ecosystem impacts of HAB outbreaks are strong, practical motivations for a research program such as ECOHAB, made all the more pressing by the apparently escalating trend in their incidence. The direct benefits to society from a program of this kind are many, and include management issues such as bloom detection and prediction, control or mitigation strategies, site selection criteria for aquaculture, and assessment of impacts from altered nutrient loading, dredging or other coastal zone developments. There are indirect benefits as well. For example, many of the mechanisms underlying bloom formation by harmful algal species are the same as those responsible for blooms of other phytoplankton in the ocean. Multidisciplinary field HAB programs address a practical problem while also providing basic scientific information relevant to plankton ecology and oceanography in general.

Another compelling aspect of the ECOHAB program stems from the need to study individual HAB species, rather than mixed planktonic assemblages. New autecological techniques must be developed, such as remote detection of bloom popula tions using swimming robots or moored instruments. Methods are needed to "tag" target species with molecular probes and then enumerate or separate them from co-occurring organisms, and techniques to estimate in situ growth rates or to deter mine the physiological status of a species must be developed. These are but a few examples of the areas where new technolo gies developed to meet the objectives of ECOHAB can benefit all of oceanography.

2.6 ECOHAB Implementation

To address the many scientific issues outlined in this report, federal agencies must break away from the parochial view that has often dominated HAB research in the past. A comprehensive understanding of the present status of coastal waters, and the manner in which those waters and their ecosystems will respond to changes, both natural and human-assisted, cannot be achieved without effective interagency cooperation, coordination and collaboration. Nowhere else do the missions and goals of so many government agencies intersect and overlap as in the coastal zone where HAB phenomena are prominent. ECOHAB will be succesful only if a nationally coordinated interagency effort can be implemented to direct research personnel, facilities, and financial resources to the common goals outlined in this comprehensive national strategy .

Thus far, the planning of the ECOHAB program has involved the NSF Division of Ocean Sciences, and several agencies or programs within NOAA, including the National Marine Fisheries Service, Sea Grant, and the Coastal Ocean Program. As the science plan evolves, more state and federal agencies are expected to join the program. The research agenda outlined herein is intended to guide these agencies in the efficient allocation of resources targeted to HAB issues, and to help them formulate new, multi-investigator, multi-disciplinary HAB initiatives as well. Joint interagency announcements of opportunity for re search support as well as interagency cooperation on the provision of needed resources and facilities are thus possible. However, an additional feature of the ECOHAB program will be a reliance on proposals submitted by individual investigators or small groups, in recognition of the diversity of causative organisms, impacts, and oceanographic systems associated with HABs.

A Steering Committee has not yet been established, as that awaits a final indication of the agencies that will participate in ECOHAB. Once those issues are resolved, a committee will be selected to oversee implementation of ECOHAB at the national level. Where necessary, small working groups or sub-committees will be convened to address specific program needs. Once ECOHAB is underway and research programs begin to accumulate results, regional and national workshops will be convened to identify common mechanisms and processes underlying the diverse array of HAB phenomena and their impacts. One of the strengths of ECOHAB lies in this "comparative approach" but resources must be allocated to facilitate the requisite scientific communication.