Legal, Water Quality, Illness
October 14 2011

Harmful Algal Bloom Bill Introduced in the Senate

by Angela Howe

The Harmful Algal Blooms and Hypoxia Research and Control Amendments Act of 2011 (S.1701) was introduced by Senators Olympia Snowe (D-ME) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) yesterday to address the problem of Harmful Algal Blooms (commonly known as "HABs") that are making our coasts and oceans increasingly harmful to public health.  Senate Bill 1701 also has six other co-sponsors, representing the East, West and Gulf coasts in the Senate.  The Senate Bill complements H.R. 2484 introduced in the House by Representative Andy Harris (D-MD) on July 11, 2011.  The house version of the bill states its purpose as "to reauthorize the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act of 1998 to include a comprehensive and integrated strategy to address harmful algal blooms and hypoxia, to provide for the development and implementation of a comprehensive research plan and action strategy to reduce harmful algal blooms and hypoxia, and for other purposes."

Harmful Algal Blooms are accumulated patches of microscopic, single-celled plants that are normally not harmful and serve as the energy producers at the base of the food web in the ocean. Phytoplankton are believed to generate as much as 80% of the world's oxygen supply. They absorb nutrients and carbon dioxide from the water and produce oxygen through photosynthesis.  However, during the harmful algal blooms, most of the phytoplankton eventually die and sink to the bottom, where they are decomposed by bacteria. In addition, at night when photosynthesis stops, algae and other aquatic plants produce carbon dioxide and consume oxygen. These processes deplete the dissolved oxygen necessary for the survival of fish and other organisms.  The lack of oxygen leaves hypoxic “dead zones” where almost no marine life can survive.

A range of human illness can be caused by HABs, including the consumption of neurotoxins that are passed on through shellfish.  Not only is coastal tourism affected negatively by this phenomenon, HABs shut down fisheries, harming the fishing industry too.  Today, there are 405 dead zones in the world, including one in the Gulf of Mexico that is roughly the size of New Jersey.

The new Senate Bill 1701 will drive the development and implementation of a national program to address HABs and hypoxia by improving our ability to predict, mitigate, reduce and control them.  This legislation strives to improve collaboration and coordination across the agencies and organizations responsible for implementing the plan, as well.

Stay tuned for how you can support this important oceans legislation!