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Virginia Shouldn’t Give Industries a Pass on Runoff Pollution

Large Bloom of "Red Tide" Stains Southern Bay

Algalbloom1WOLFGANGVOLGELBEINLook at this photo of Virginia’s James River, upstream from where it empties into the Chesapeake Bay.

It looks like a paint factory has exploded, spewing millions of gallons of stain to stripe the river. The location is the Monitor-Merrimack Bridge, where Route 664 crosses the James near Hampton Roads.

But the stain is actually a massive algal bloom, fed by excessive amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. The photo was taken from an airplane on August 30 by Virginia Institute of Marine Science Professor Wolfgang K. Vogelbein. Dr. Vogelbein said in an email that the bloom is likely a potentially harmful species of algae, Cochlodinium polykrikoides. It’s a marine dinoflagellate known to cause fish kills around the world. Sometimes it’s  called “red tide,” although Dr. Vogelbein prefers the term "mahogany tide," because of its darker tint.

Dr. Vogelbein and fellow researchers at VIMS have been working with the Virginia Department of Health and other agencies to monitor blooms of “red tide” in the southern Bay.

"These types of blooms are an indication of eutrophication -- excessive nutrients," meaning too much nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from fertilizers, sewage plants, and other sources, Dr. Vogelbein said. “Nutrients are the biggest pollutant concern in the Bay.”

Dr. Vogelbein said that he and his fellow researchers at VIMS were inspired to start flying over the Bay to determine the extent of algal blooms in 2007.  That was when they discovered a different kind of “mahogany tide” or “red tide,” called Alexandrium monilatum, that was irritating the skin of oyster aquaculture workers and killing cownose rays and sea snails (whelks) in Virginia’s York River.

One theory that Dr. Vogelbein and colleagues are trying to explore by tracking “red tide” blooms is whether Alexandrium monilatum, which is common farther south in the Gulf of Mexico, has shifted north into the Chesapeake Bay because of global warming.

“The question is whether this organism (Alexandrium) has been able to move up the coast and establish new habitat in the Chesapeake Bay," Dr. Vogelbein said.

Algalbloom2WOLFGANGVOGELBEINAt left is a photo Dr. Vogelbein took in late August of an Alexandrium monilatum bloom just off the Goodwin Islands near the mouth of the York River.

He said he has flown twice over the southern Bay and its tributaries since August to photograph and document algal blooms, and may fly again soon. A colleague of his at VIMS, Professor Kim Reece, conducted an aerial survey last summer.   The blooms last summer may have been even worse than this summer, Dr. Vogelbein said.

Algae respond to the same conditions that encourage plant growth on land, and thus are most likely to form blooms when waters are warm and rich with phosphorus and nitrogen pollution, according to VIMS.

“There are three main ingredients for an algal bloom,” Dr. Reece said on the VIMS website. “Warm waters that favor rapid growth of algal cells, abundant nutrients to fertilize that growth, and wind and tidal-driven currents to confine the cells into a dense aggregation.”

The most important way to prevent these harmful algal blooms is to reduce phosphorus and nitrogen pollution from all sources, including rainwater running off of fertilized land.

In December 2010, the federal government imposed limits on nitrogen and phosphorus in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, and threatened penalties to states, including Virginia, that fail to meet these limits. The states are now following pollution reduction plans called the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint.

Meeting these pollution reduction targets over the next 12 years will require investments, innovation, and cooperation between the federal government, states, and counties.

But the payoff will be beautiful to behold:  A Bay with a lot fewer stains like the ones shown in these pictures.

By Tom Pelton

Chesapeake Bay Foundation

(Photo courtesy of Virginia Institute of Marine Science Professor Wolfgang K. Vogelbein)




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Does anyone know what happened to the Virginia Costal Energy Research Consortium?? Are they still active?? Their website only has updates from 2012. If they are active, who is their main contact person??? Appreciate any leads. Thank you Charlotte

Sorry, Charlotte, but I don't know much about them. Do they have a connection to algal blooms?

The main contact for VCERC is Pat Hatcher at ODU (phatcher@odu.edu)

Thanks very much, Todd!

Could this be contributing to Dolphin deaths?

No, I think the dolphin deaths are being caused by a virus, Tracy.

I hope that the License Plate we can purchase in Maryland for just $20 really goes into the account of "Save the Chesapeake Bay Foundation" I really hope so ......Hopeful, Donna Antonius

Thanks, Donna! We are fighting as hard as we can to save the Bay, to prevent problems like this bloom of "red tide."

Greetings from across the continent! This caught my eye as I grew up on the Bay but moved to the Pacific Northwest years ago and now work for the Yurok Tribe in NCalifornia. Last year the 'red tide'hit our ocean shores and Alexandrium peaked to highest concentrations on record- making the shellfish toxic. In Washington State, there were some deaths reported. This seems to be more than a local problem, and I propose, reflects world wide, ocean conditions. Anyway, thanks for keeping us all informed!

Thanks for the report on red tide from the West Coast, Suzanne.

I think you are right: these toxic blooms are increasingly a global problem, driven by excessive use of fertilizers and warming temperatures. We need to control phosphorus and nitrogen pollution everywhere.

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