specimen under microscope

Harmful algae blooms

Project Metric

4Target species that we monitor for See Our Impact
Cellular view of Alexandrium
Alexandrium (produces paralytic shellfish toxins)

Puget Sound is one of the most naturally beautiful and ecologically diverse locations in the Pacific Northwest. However, these waters are home to several species of algae that can produce deadly toxins when water conditions encourage their populations to explode. During these harmful algal blooms (HABs), the algae and their toxins accumulate in shellfish and are also transferred up the food chain to marine and terrestrial animals. High concentrations of some algal species can sicken or kill marine birds, mammals, or humans and cause fish to die in large numbers. The SoundToxins program was formed in response to the apparent increase in HAB occurrences over the past decade. SoundToxins was conceived and initiated by Northwest Fisheries Science Center (NWFSC) and is now directed by Washington Sea Grant (WSG) at the University of Washington College of the Environment. SoundToxins had over 35 partner organizations in 2021. SoundToxins is a phytoplankton monitoring and research network.  

Map depicting Shellfish Safety areas

SoundToxins has three main objectives:

  • To document unusual bloom events and new species entering Puget Sound.
  • To determine the environmental conditions that promote the onset and flourishing of HABs that could cause harm to humans and to sealife
  • To determine the combination of monitoring parameters that provide the earliest warnings of these events
Online map depicting locations of toxins

Volunteers take seawater samples and then identify the phytoplankton, or single-celled algae, under the microscope via zoom. At Sound Water Stewards, plankton identification is both a team effort and a great learning opportunity where highly knowledgeable Stewards train those with less experience. Our data is entered into an online database that state health and natural resource managers can access in real-time to make timely decisions — about getting more samples, or about possible pending shellfish harvest closures to protect human health and reduce economic loss. Samples are collected weekly from March to November and every other week in the winter. Four of the target species to be identified and counted are Pseudo-nitzschia, Alexandrium, Dinophysis, Heterosigma, Akashiwo, Phaeocystis, and Protoceratium.  

Modified from SoundToxins: An Early Warning Program for Harmful Algal Blooms in Puget Sound

Camano Island State Park Boat Launch

Volunteers are at the Camano Island State Park dock every week from March through October taking a plankton tow (biweekly the rest of the year). Subsequently, we look under a microscope for phytoplankton that can produce a harmful algal bloom (HAB). SoundToxins is an early warning system for the presence of organisms that ultimately may result in a beach closure for shellfish harvesting when WDOH determines toxin levels are high.

Metric: 4

Target species of phytoplankton we count. However, we have a list of over fifty to identify.