Coastal State Discussion Webinar: Detecting the Next Harmful Algal Bloom

Media Contact: Meredith Haas, 401 874-6019 |

Narragansett, R.I.–– March 26, 2021– Alfred Hitchcock’s famous film, The Birds, was inspired by a bizarre event in Monterey Bay in 1961 where crazed birds were seen crashing into buildings, cars, and street signs. The culprit: domoic acid, a neurotoxin produced by a specific species of phytoplankton that, if ingested, can cause animals to become disoriented or have seizures. In humans, it can also cause seizures as well as short-term memory loss or worse in severe cases.

In 2016, an unprecedented harmful algal bloom with detectable levels of domoic acid spanned across New England. It prompted a recall of over 5 tons of potentially infected shellfish in Maine and the first-ever bay-wide closure for shellfishing in Rhode Island as a precaution though toxicity never reach harmful levels. The presence of domoic acid also led to another closure of shellfish harvesting in Narragansett Bay the following year. The cause of these events remains unknown, and the implications for local economies and human health prompted research to better understand and monitor Pseudo-nitzschia, the genus of plankton responsible for producing domoic acid.

Pseudo-nitzschia have been detected for over 50 years in the Narragansett Bay Long-Term Plankton Time Series but have only been a problem recently,” says Bethany Jenkins, professor of cellular and molecular biology at the University of Rhode Island. “What caused these events is unknown: whether an environmental factor altered the physiology of endemic Pseudo-nitzschia or new toxin-producing strain(s) were introduced.”

On April 8 from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., Jenkins, Ph.D. candidate Alexa Sterling, and Colleen Mouw, associate professor of oceanography at URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography, will discuss their research investigating the various strains of Pseudo-nitzschia and real-time characterization of phytoplankton communities in Narragansett Bay that allows for a rapid field response to target harmful algal bloom events as they occur.

“The observations have captured an abundance of critically important harmful algal bloom species, along with the full phytoplankton community composition,” says Mouw. “The seasonality, periodicity, and in some instances, environmental drivers of occurrence are explored from this rich dataset of phytoplankton composition.”

This free webinar is part of the annual Coastal State Discussion Series hosted by Rhode Island Sea Grant and co-sponsored by RI C-AIM and University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography.

To learn more and register for this event, please visit: https://seagrant.gso.uri.edu/special-programs/coastal-state-discussion-series/.

The Coastal State Discussion Series is a forum dedicated to highlighting current scientific research, finding solutions, and building partnerships focused on marine issues impacting coastal communities and environments.