Newswise – With shellfish beds from Maine to Cape Cod coast closed fromthe largest algae outbreak in 12 years in Massachusetts Bay,scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution(WHOI) are studying the algae that causes these “red tides.”Red tides are caused by overgrowth of an algae that isnaturally present in the water. Reasons for the overgrowthare not always known, but nitrogen fertilizer washing downfrom farmland into the water during rain storms is oneprobable cause. Shellfish contaminated with the red tidetoxin, if eaten in enough quantity, can cause illness oreven death.
This is an unusual situation, since the water in Cape CodBay rarely become toxic, but areas are closed to shellfishing in some areas because of this bloom. “The nor?easterMay 7 and 8 off the New England coast was the perfect stormin terms of Massachusetts Bay red tide outbreaks,” says DonAnderson, of WHOI. “All the conditions were right for amajor outbreak of Alexandrium fundyense, the predominant redtide species in the Gulf of Maine.”
The WHOI team began collecting samples in the Bay on May 10,right after the nor?easter had passed through, and theyimmediately saw more algae cells than normal. “The cellcounts we?re getting are the highest they’ve been since thelate 1980’s,” says team leader Bruce Keafer.
Anderson says, “The current bloom is big, much larger infact than the last outbreak in the Bay 12 years ago, andmuch more widespread. This is an unusual event.” What causedit? There are a number of factors. First, there’s the factthat there was a recent “perfect storm,” where all theconditions were exactly right to introduce algae cells intothe Bay from the north. Algae cysts remain dormant in oceansediments until conditions are favorable for germination andgrowth, leading to a bloom in subsequent years. Anotherpossibility is that there is more freshwater entering theGulf of Maine this year than has been the case for over adecade, reflecting the abundant rainfall this spring and theheavy snowfall over the winter. This freshwater providesoptimum conditions for the growth of Alexandrium cells.
What does this mean for the average person? There will be amajor shortage of shellfish in restaurants and grocerystores in the near future. This is a shame, because oystershave long been thought to be an aphrodisiac. Now NewScientist magazine reports that levels of the amino acidN-methyl-D-aspartate, a chemical that increases sexualdesire, have been found in clams, a close relative of theoyster. Animal studies have shown that this chemical affectssex drive by raising testosterone production.
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