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Environment and Energy

Vast, toxic algae bloom off West Coast is exceptionally dense near Santa Barbara County

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Xiuning (Nancy) Du, Newport Lab) from the Newport Line (May 19, 2015 collection date)
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A vast, toxic algae bloom off the West Coast has scientists baffled as they work to figure out why one toxin in particular is dominating the waters. 

A team from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) sent a research vessel up the coast this summer and discovered the bloom stretches from Santa Barbara to Canada. It's exceptionally dense near the Channel Islands and continues in high concentrations up the San Luis Obispo County coastline.

Warmer than normal waters could be to blame, but researchers say there's likely something more at play.

Research oceanographer Vera Trainer who helped track the bloom said while this is a natural, annual cycle, this year's bloom is way out of proportion.

"As far as this one goes, I would say that it's the most geographically expansive and toxic that we've ever seen, certainly on the West Coat and I believe also the world," said Trainer.

The bloom is being dominated by a relatively new marine algal toxin first identified in 1987, according to Trainer. She said researchers have told her that it's behaving like a "super cell."

Plankton feeding fish and shellfish can end up with concentrated levels of the toxin. Those animals then become food sources for seabirds, sea lions and sea otters.

The toxin itself is a nerve poison and it can cause permanent short-term memory loss in humans.

The State of California monitors toxin levels closely and has restrictions in place for commercial and recreationally caught seafood.

"NOAA Fisheries and others are also developing advanced robotic systems and The next link/button will exit from NWFSC web site models to better detect and forecast harmful algal blooms," according to the Northwest Fisheries Science Center.