Environmental ProtectionCoordinated Federal Efforts Are Being Undertaken to Address Harmful Algae Gao ID: RCED-99-192 June 30, 1999
Outbreaks of the toxic algae Pfiesteria in the Chesapeake Bay and in North Carolina estuaries have received national attention. The outbreaks are part of a larger problem of harmful algae that represent a significant and expanding threat to human health and marine resources along the U.S. coastline and around the world. This report (1) discusses the available information on harmful algae and their effects on human health and the environment and (2) describes the status of federal efforts to address the problem of harmful algae, particularly the coordination of research and management strategies among the federal agencies. GAO found that according to most current research, the toxins produced by harmful algae can affect human health and marine ecosystems in various ways. The toxins can kill or injure fish that come in direct contact with them and can accumulate in the tissues of fish and shellfish at levels that are harmful or lethal when ingested by larger fish, sea birds, marine mammals, or humans.
GAO noted that: (1) according to the most current research, the toxins produced by harmful algae can affect human health and marine ecosystems in various ways; (2) these toxins--among the most potent chemical compounds known--can kill or injure fish that come in direct contact with them and can accumulate in the tissues of fish and shellfish at levels that are harmful or lethal when ingested by larger fish, sea birds, marine mammals, or humans; (3) symptoms of algae poisoning in humans are neurological (headaches, dizziness, memory loss, and impairment of motor function), gastrointestinal, and cardiovascular; (4) with respect to marine ecosystems, as the algae outgrow the nutrients available to sustain them, their blooms die, and their decomposition depletes the concentration of dissolved oxygen in the water; (5) the lack of oxygen causes the death of aquatic organisms present in marine ecosystems; (6) outbreaks of harmful algae appear to be increasing in scope, frequency, and intensity, and their economic impacts are likely to increase; (7) federal efforts to protect the public from harmful algae started in 1992 with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's sponsorship of a workshop for government agencies and other research organizations; (8) this workshop led to the publication of a report entitled Marine Biotoxins and Harmful Algae--A National Plan; (9) prior to 1992, federal efforts were generally restricted to responding on a case-by-case basis to new outbreaks; (10) the national plan set in place an ongoing interagency process for addressing certain objectives and resulted, in 1996, in the establishment of an interagency coordination program; (11) under this program, five federal agencies have provided approximately $22 million for basic research projects directed at better understanding the scientific uncertainties associated with harmful algae; (12) although the initial research projects were funded in 1997, outbreaks of Pfiesteria in the Chesapeake Bay focused national attention on the problem and resulted in the funding of additional projects in 1998; (13) a scientific panel also recommended, in 1997, the creation of a program to complement basic research efforts by focusing on the coordination of federal efforts to prevent, mitigate, and control harmful algae; and (14) after finding that little has been done at the federal level to prevent and control harmful algae, Congress enacted the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act of 1998, which required the creation of an interagency task force to address the problem.