- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 16, 2015

SEATTLE (AP) - Federal biologists have embarked on a research expedition to examine the largest toxic algae bloom along the West Coast in more than a decade, an occurrence that has prompted the closure of some shellfish harvests in Washington, Oregon and California.

The bloom involves some of the highest concentrations of the natural toxic domoic acid ever observed in some parts of the coast, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Monday.

Local blooms of marine algae are common in spring, but the harmful algal bloom that began earlier this year has grown into the most severe in a more than a decade, the agency said. It stretches from Central California into Washington and possibly as far north as Alaska.

In early June, dangerous toxin levels prompted the closure of recreational and commercial Dungeness crab fishing off the southern coast of Washington. Shellfish managers in Oregon and Washington also have closed the coasts to recreational razor clamming. And recreational shellfish harvests have been shut down along Oregon’s northern coast.

“This is unprecedented in terms of the extent and magnitude of this harmful algal bloom and the warm water conditions we’re seeing offshore,” said Vera Trainer, with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. “Whether they’re related we can’t really say yet, but this survey gives us the opportunity to put these pieces together.”

Domoic acid is a natural toxin produced by certain types of marine algae. It can be harmful or even fatal if consumed in enough quantities. Fish such as anchovy and sardines that feed on the algae can accumulate the toxin. Sea lions and birds that eat those fish can get sick.

On Monday, a team of scientists set out from Oregon aboard the NOAA research vessel Bell M. Shimada to survey the algae bloom along the West Coast. They joined a previously scheduled research mission to assess the sardine and hake populations along the coast.

The scientists will examine levels of marine toxins and collect water and algae samples, hoping to understand what’s happening. NOAA is working with the University of California-Santa Cruz, the University of Washington as well as the Quileute and Makah tribes in Washington.

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