Feature Stories

Dead fish due to algal bloom

Fish killed by harmful algal blooms. (Photo: D.Kinley/IAEA)

Protecting Coastal Environments

IAEA Teams Up With African Countries in Fight Against Algal Blooms

Staff Report

During February 2002, approximately 1000 tonnes of rock lobsters beached themselves at Elands Bay in South Africa - the victims of harmful algal blooms. Each year this algae causes massive fish kills, public health emergencies and job layoffs - costing $US 5-10 million per outbreak.

Elands Bay is situated in the Benguela Coastal Region, the most productive marine ecosystem in the world. About 20% of the world's ocean catch comes from this area. It is said the fishing industry will feel the impact of the Elands Bay lobster loss for years to come. The IAEA has teamed up with countries in the Benguela region - Angola, Namibia and South Africa - to develop and deploy more accurate, isotope-based techniques to detect outbreaks of these harmful algae. The IAEA is providing $US 366,000 for laboratory equipment, training, materials and expert services.

"The method currently used involves live mice. It's far less accurate than the isotopic techniques that we are training and equipping these counties to use," says IAEA Technical Co-operation Specialist, Mr. Thomas Tisue. The nuclear techniques rapidly detect toxicity in marine foods contaminated with toxins produced by harmful algal blooms. It is a more precise and humane method than jabbing lab mice with the suspect shellfish toxin concentrate and timing how long they take to die.

The new testing method gives the maritime industry greater certainty that the algal bloom outbreak is genuine, before they are forced to shut up shop. It also comes as a relief to sea towns and villages hit by job layoffs and tourist slumps every time there is an algal bloom scare.

The use of isotopic techniques to monitor and detect harmful algal blooms is expected to yield added benefits. An immediate result would be more timely and accurate warnings to seafood consumers, which should help reduce the number of food poisonings from algal bloom. Tens of thousands of people across the globe are poisoned by marine foods contaminated by algal blooms each year. Symptoms range from nasty bouts of diarrhoea and skin lesions, to more life threatening paralysis.

Through this partner project in the Benguela region, the IAEA is helping to protect livelihoods and contributing to the sustainable development and management of this unique costal environment. It is also helping to implement Agenda 21 of the global action plan adopted at the 1992 UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, particularly its goal for the "protection of the oceans, all kinds of seas, and coastal areas as well as the protection, rational use and development of their living resources".

Other agencies involved in this partnership are the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO and the African Co-operative Agreement for Research, Development, and Training Related to Nuclear Science and Technology.