A group of Blaine residents who routinely monitor the toxin levels in Birch Bay and Drayton Harbor took samples last month that indicated shellfish poisoning in local waters.
Every Tuesday, the Drayton Harbor Harmful Algal Bloom Hunters go out to Birch Bay Village Marina and Semiahmoo Marina to take mussel and phytoplankton samples that are then sent to a state lab in Shoreline that returns results on the coastal region’s water quality to the group the next day. The group found Alexandrium, algae that produces toxins that cause paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP), in its May 2 samples and notified the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) of a possible harmful algal bloom. DOH suspended recreational shellfish harvesting in the area on May 3.
Harmful algal blooms (HAB), commonly referred to as red tide, occur when algae colonies grow out of control and become toxic to people, fish, shellfish, marine mammals and birds. HABs are naturally occurring, but due to pollution and climate change, can occur more often.
The toxic levels can be fatal in rare cases. The first documented case of a probable death due to red tide was in 1793 in B.C. when a crewman of Captain George Vancouver died after eating contaminated shellfish, according to research from the University of British Columbia.
Although given the name “red tide,” an area can experience a bloom even though the water appears clear. The term is commonly associated with the PSP toxin.
Nowadays, shellfish harvesting is routinely suspended when harmful levels are reached to avoid PSP and other HAB-originated human illnesses. DOH closed recreational shellfish harvesting in Whatcom County last summer after the HAB hunters found high levels of biotoxins in mussels in Semiahmoo and Birch Bay. While harmful to humans, these toxins are not harmful to marine life.
Blaine resident Rick Beauregard formed the team in 2020 and it now has two full years – 2021 and 2022 – of data for the Birch Bay and Drayton Harbor area. Weekly sampling consists of taking a plankton tow and collecting mussels off the dock at both sites and sending the samples to the lab.
Beauregard was part of a team to first document the probable causes of the red tide outbreak in New England in 1972, as a researcher with the University of New Hampshire. He is a retired marine biologist and environmental consultant. When he moved to Blaine in 2015 after retiring from an over 30-year career, he found a statewide network of citizen scientists monitoring throughout the Salish Sea, SoundToxins, where he saw an opportunity to use his past experience.
“When I looked at their map, there was a data gap up here in northern Whatcom County,” Beauregard said. “Given the importance of the shellfish resource in Drayton Harbor – commercially, for historical tribal use and recreational use, and also because [the area] is so close to the Fraser River it has a huge impact on it – I thought it was a strategic location to have a site to monitor harmful algae outbreaks.”
SoundToxins receives funding from research institute Washington Sea Grant. The Drayton Harbor HAB Hunters were officially added to the SoundToxins network in early April. The group is made up of volunteers and is self-funded through donations.
The group’s mission is twofold, Beauregard said.
While filling SoundToxins’ data gap in the area, the HAB hunters, in partnership with Garden of the Salish Sea Curriculum (GSSC), also aims to provide education and outreach opportunities to students. GSSC is a local K-12 marine science education program that teaches through field experience. Last year, the group offered two Blaine students, who had an interest in marine biology, summer internships with the HAB hunters. Beauregard said the group plans to offer those internships again this summer.
Beauregard met GSSC founder and director Julie Hirsch as fellow members on the Drayton Harbor Shellfish Protection District Advisory Committee, where he is the current vice chairman and former chairman. The committee is dedicated to improving water quality and enhancing the shellfish resource in Drayton Harbor.
“He’s doing this where he lives to contribute back to his community,” Hirsch said of Beauregard’s work in Drayton Harbor. “He wants to be able to use the resources as well. It’s part of that connection we want.”
Beauregard originally moved to Blaine from southern California for its sailing opportunities, although he said he has since sold his boat.
The HAB hunters also partner with Drayton Harbor Oyster Company to warn the oyster farm and restaurant of developing blooms. Co-owner Steve Seymour said when Alexandrium starts to appear in Drayton Harbor his company is put on guard. Red tide at an extreme level would mean suspending business.
“Beauregard gives us a head start,” Seymour said.
Seymour added that most of the time the oysters are fine, but when a bloom begins they start testing their oysters more regularly.
When looking at Washington State Department of Health’s data from the last decade, Beauregard said the Birch Bay and Drayton Harbor areas have had some of the highest biotoxin levels in the entire Puget Sound. He said he hopes as the HAB hunters gather more data they can see correlations between the water quality, phytoplankton and shellfish to develop predictions of when blooms are likely.
“You don’t want to close the shellfish beds if you don’t need to,” Beauregard said. “On the other hand, you don’t want to miss a toxic event and cause a serious health problem. So it’s important to be vigilant.”
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