Makah Tribe and the University of Washington’s Olympic Natural Resources Center (ONRC) collaborate in Harmful Algal Bloom research

By Vera Trainer

Harmful algal blooms (HABs) threaten the safe harvest of coastal shellfish, including mussels, clams and oysters. These shellfish feed on algae, some of which can produce harmful toxins, forming HABs.

These poisons from these microscopic algae, also called phytoplankton, can concentrate in the flesh of shellfish, making them dangerous for humans and wildlife to eat.

Sardines and anchovies can also concentrate HAB toxins after filter feeding on algae and whales, sea lions, sea otters and seabirds can become sick or die after consuming these small fish. Scientists from the University of Washington’s Olympic Natural Resources Center (Dr. Vera Trainer and Anthony Odell) and the Makah Fisheries Management – Environmental Division (Lizz Miller and Carter Richards) are working together to bring toxin testing capabilities to the lab in Neah Bay.

Tribal scientists collect seawater adjacent to shellfish harvest areas to determine whether toxic algae are present. This provides an early warning of the presence of toxins that can contaminate shellfish.

Here, the scientists are working in the lab to optimize the accuracy of a toxin testing method, called enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), a technology that is used not only in marine science, but also in medical offices and hospitals to measure compounds in human blood. For example, cholesterol and pregnancy tests use ELISA technology. Partnerships like the one established between ONRC and the Makah Tribe through ORHAB help keep your seafood safe.