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Wildlife Science

Fish Science

Habitat Science


Olympic Region Harmful Algal Blooms


Lead Scientist: Daniel Ayres

Ecoregions: Northwest Coast

Ecological Systems: Temperate Pacific Tidal Salt and Brackish Marsh

Photo of WDFW Technician Zach Forster collecting a surf zone water sample.

WDFW Technician Zach Forster collecting a surf zone water sample.

Photo of WDFW Technician Zach Forster filtering the surf zone sample through a plankton net.

WDFW Technician Zach Forster filtering the surf zone sample through a plankton net.

Photo of researcher Filtering water for toxin analysis.

Filtering sample for toxin analysis.

Phto of researcher looking through a microscope.

Doing plankton counts.

Click on map to enlarge
Photo by Alan Sarich

Domoic acid producing pseudo-nitzschia spp. cells.

Along the coast of Washington State, fisheries closures occur with re-occurring harmful algal blooms associated with a naturally occurring algal genus - the diatom Pseudo-nitzschia spp. - which can produce dangerous levels of the neurotoxin domoic acid 1. In the inland marine waters of Puget Sound, wide area closures are associated with another naturally occurring algal species - the dinoflagellate Alexandrium catenella, which produces the neurotoxin saxitoxin 2. The presence of these same species - along with a long list of others - has resulted in major problems for resource users in most of the U.S. coastal states.

The Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, (WDFW), manages a key shellfish fishery that occurs along the Washington coast - the harvest of the Pacific razor clam 3. This abundant and very delicious shellfish species has long been part of the lifeblood of the small communities that line Washington's coast. Each year more than 250,000 avid razor clam harvesters are drawn to the small Washington towns like Long Beach, Ocean Park, Grayland, Westport, Ocean Shores, Moclips and Forks during the periods when this fishery is open between October and May, bringing with them millions of dollars spent on lodging, food, gas and entertainment.

The impacts of harmful algal blooms (HAB) on razor clam fisheries along the coast of Washington state was the impetus that brought together Seattle based NOAA HAB researchers, University of Washington oceanographers and marine algae experts, state and tribal fishery managers and human health experts to form a successful partnership - the Olympic Region Harmful Algal Bloom (ORHAB) project. Originally convened by staff at the University of Washington's Olympic Natural Resource Center (ONRC), ORHAB got its start in 2000 with five years of funding from NOAA's Monitoring and Event Response for Harmful Algal Blooms (MERHAB) Program. The ORHAB partnership provided for a host of activities that included scientific equipment and training for local technicians as HAB specialists. Since federal funding ended and primary support shifted to state dollars generated by a surcharge on recreational shellfish licenses, the partnership has focused on HAB event prediction and monitoring. These state funds provide for two HAB specialists, one working for WDFW and the other for the University of Washington (ONRC). Funding from the Quinault Indian Nation (QIN) also provides a third HAB specialist, who works for QIN.

While employed by separate agencies, these local experts work closely through the ONRC to monitor for HAB events along the entire Washington coast. The ORHAB specialists regularly present and discuss their findings with staff biologists and public health experts from WDFW, QIN and the Washington Department of Health (WDOH). In addition, ONRC regularly convenes scientists from NOAA and the UW to provide oversight and advice on a regular basis. Insight gained from the ORHAB partnership and the recently completed ECOHAB-PNW project has led to a better understanding of where HAB events originate and what environmental factors promote their growth. While much is yet to be learned, we can better manage our important shellfish fisheries because of these insights, good science, and hard work produced by well trained - and locally based - HAB specialists.

1 Eating of fish and shellfish containing domoic acid causes the human illness known as amnesic shellfish poisoning (ASP). Symptoms include vomiting, nausea, diarrhea and abdominal cramps within 24 hours of ingestion. In more severe cases, neurological symptoms develop within 48 hours and include headache, dizziness, confusion, disorientation, loss of short-term memory, motor weakness, seizures, profuse respiratory secretions, cardiac arrhythmia, coma. People poisoned with very high doses of the toxin can die. There is no antidote for domoic acid. Research has shown that razor clams accumulate domoic acid in edible tissue (foot, siphon and mantle) and are slow to depurate (purify) the toxin.

2 Eating of fish and shellfish containing saxitoxin causes human illness known as paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP). Symptoms include tingling of the lips followed by paralyzing of the diaphragm and possible death.

3 Washington State has actively managed razor clam populations along 58 miles of its Pacific Ocean coastline for more than 70 years. See:

Key Management Accomplishments

  • Brought together research professionals from difference agencies – tribal, state, federal and private – into a cooperative, multi-disciplinary project.
  • Trained coastal based technical staff with specific knowledge allowing managers to make scientifically-based decisions about managing and mitigating harmful algal bloom impacts on coastal fishery resources.
  • Increased communication between resource managers and research scientists to create the most effective HAB monitoring program on the Washington coast.
  • Led the WDOH to relax the state regulatory threshold for closing the recreational razor clam fishery, bringing state standards into conformity with federal standards. In the past, state standards had been more stringent due to uncertainties about timing and location of domoic acid outbreaks.
  • Deliver regular, timely and specific HAB related information to state and tribal fishery and human health managers and university and federal research scientists

Key Scientific Accomplishments

  • Led to an understanding of the timing and species composition of Pseudo-nitzschia spp. blooms.
  • Increased our knowledge of the environmental conditions influencing the duration of Pseudo-nitzschia spp. blooms at the coast. This has helped explain why razor clams become toxic some years and not others.
  • Began the development of a model that describes Pseudo-nitzschia spp. bloom transport from the Juan de Fuca Eddy (a HAB bloom initiation site) to the Washington coast.


WDFW Staff

  • Dan Ayres, WDFW  Coastal Shellfish Lead Biologist
  • Zach Forster, WDFW Coastal Harmful Algal Bloom Specialist