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Effects of Harmful Algal Blooms

On the path to understanding the ecosystem effects of harmful algal blooms in Shinnecock Bay, NY: First stop, early life stage fish!

Lead Researcher: Dr. Konstantine Rountos, Institute for Ocean Conservation Science

  taggng a fluke
  Early life stage fish toxicity experiment.
(credit: K.J. Rountos)

Harmful algal blooms (HABs) are caused by a variety of marine and freshwater phytoplankton, many of which can produce potent biotoxins. These HABs can be ecologically and economically destructive; for instance, causing mass mortalities in wild and farmed fish and shellfish. While these impacts are substantial, little is known about the broader ecological impacts of HABs, many of which go unseen. In addition to observations of "fish kills" in the field, the vast majority of toxicology research has focused on juvenile and adult life stages of fish. Impacts to early life stages would likely go unnoticed in the wild and could have considerable consequences to the recruitment of coastal fish populations. Only a handful of studies have even evaluated the effects of a few HAB species on early life stages of fish (i.e. embryos and eleutheroembryos or "yolk-sac" larvae). We are actively studying the effects of harmful algal blooms on early life stages of fish in Shinnecock Bay, NY, in order to advance scientific understanding in this area broadly and locally.

One particularly compelling HAB species is Cochlodinium polykrikoides, commonly referred to as the "red tide", "rust tide", or "mahogany tide". Blooms can cause rapid mortality to both fish and shellfish. Unfortunately, this HAB has increased in geographic extent, frequency and duration in many coastal ecosystems worldwide, likely due to eutrophication. In Shinnecock Bay, these blooms are seen in the mid to late summer and early fall, in the eastern portion.

In our recent paper published in the scientific journal Marine Ecology Progress Series, we examined the potential impacts of C. polykrikoides on early life stages of fish. Using laboratory experiments with three estuarine forage fish species (Atlantic silverside, Inland silverside, and Sheepshead minnow), we confirmed that newly hatched eleutheroembryos of several forage fish species can experience rapid mortality and dramatic sublethal effects to motility when exposed to C. polykrikoides. While survival was relatively high in embryos until they hatched, there may be developmental effects from embryo exposures that we could not measure in this study. However, we found that short-term exposures (15min) to bloom concentrations can cause eleutheroembryos to temporarily lose their swimming ability.

This exciting research has shed light on to the potential impacts of C. polykrikoides blooms to early life stages of fish in coastal areas, which will be necessary in order to account for these effects in management. Our next step is to begin testing these effects with other HAB species, such as ones seen in brown tides that are prevalent in Long Island estuaries.

Full article citation:
Rountos, K.J., Tang Y.Z., Cerrato, R.C., Gobler, C.J., and E.K. Pikitch. (2014). Toxicity of the harmful dinoflagellate, Cochlodinium polykrikoides, to early life stages of three estuarine forage fish. Marine Ecology Progress Series. DOI: 10.3354/meps10793. Link

Inland silverside   Inland silverside
Inland silverside (Menidia beryllina) eleutheroembryo exposed to HAB species Cochlodinium polykrikoides (small dots in photo, credit K.J. Rountos).   Inland silverside (Menidia beryllina) embryo exposed to HAB species Cochlodinium polykrikoides(small dots in photo, credit K.J. Rountos).

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