Information regarding Algae
Phytoplankton are microscopic, single-celled organisms at the base of the food chain in both freshwater and marine environments. Phytoplankton are primarily autotrophic. They contain chlorophyll and require sunlight to conduct photosynthesis to live and grow. Approximately, half the air we breathe originates from marine phytoplankton. Most phytoplankton are buoyant and inhabit the upper part of the ocean, where sunlight still penetrates the water. Phytoplankton also require inorganic nutrients such as nitrates, phosphates, and sulfur which they convert into proteins, fats, and carbohydrates.
Dinoflagellates or diatoms are the two main classes of phytoplankton in marine waters. Dinoflagellates use a whip-like tail, or flagella, to move through the water and their bodies are covered with complex shells. Diatoms also have shells, but their structure is rigid and made of interlocking parts. Diatoms do not rely on flagella to move through the water and instead rely on ocean currents to travel through the water.
Harmful Algal Blooms
In a balanced ecosystem, phytoplankton provide a food base for many organisms. There are hundreds of varieties of phytoplankton, and most are harmless. When there is an oversupply of nutrients and ideal physical conditions, phytoplankton can have high growth rates and form algal blooms. Algal blooms can cause enormous, smelly blooms covering miles of ocean and coastal waters. These blooms include so-called red and brown tides, so named because of the color of the phytoplankton seen on the surface. These outbreaks can decimate large areas by robbing the water of oxygen through decomposition and suffocating life forms found there.
An algal bloom which threatens or damages the environment, human health or surrounding economies is considered a Harmful Algal Bloom, or HAB. Certain varieties can form toxins that may be accumulated by fish and shellfish, which can then pass the toxins on to humans or marine wildlife which eat those creatures. Some of these harmful toxins include domoic acid, paralytic shellfish poisoning, and cyanotoxins. That poisoning can become evident in humans as stomach and respiratory problems, brain damage or paralysis. Occasionally, depending on the specific algal species, the results can be fatal. In some cases contact can cause human respiratory and skin problems.
The Water Boards and Algal Blooms
The Water Boards regulate the nutrients in manmade runoff that contribute to bloom development. We have a responsibility to maintain standards to protect water quality and beneficial uses. We do so by regulating point and nonpoint source dischargers through permits or other enforceable requirements.
For example, the State Water Board sets water quality objectives for the Ocean in the California Ocean Plan. The Ocean Plan algal bloom objectives include requirements that discharges will not cause undesirable discoloration of the ocean surface, objectionable or dangerous growths (blooms) or concentrate organic materials in seafood at levels dangerous to humans. These objectives are then translated into requirements placed in discharge permits for facilities like wastewater treatment plants and storm drains.
In addition, the Water Boards support research and monitoring to better understand algal blooms. The Water Boards work with the State Department of Public Health and the county health departments to post contaminated water bodies when blue green algal blooms pose a health threat.
See questions and comments submitted during the Environmental Review process and the response to the comments.