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Not Toxic, but Nothing to Sniff At

A plankton bloom fouls coastal waters, creating quite a stink but no real danger, a biologist says.

June 04, 2005|Monte Morin | Times Staff Writer

A seasonal bloom of microscopic plankton off Los Angeles and Orange counties is staining costal waters a cocoa brown and taking local noses by storm as the odor of wildly reproducing plant cells fills the sea air.

"It smells like dead fish," lamented Dee Devore on Friday. "Yesterday was the worst. We almost got sick from the smell," said Devore, who along with her husband, John, owns Redondo Sport Fishing in King Harbor.

Commonly known as a red tide, the bloom began more than a week ago and, according to beach and harbor denizens, hit its peak Thursday and Friday.

While state health officials say this particular bloom does not contain toxin-producing plankton, the bloom's intense odor and brown froth have caused some harbor boat dwellers to abandon their floating homes and retail shop owners to cringe.

"It's pretty obvious," said Barry Kielsmeier, director of the Redondo Beach Harbor Department. "We'll be glad when it's gone.... It's not an especially attractive feature."

Red tides are caused by a variety of phytoplankton, and little is known about what causes such blooms or how long they will last. They commonly occur during this time of year, however.

While certain species of plankton can produce toxins that are dangerous to humans and some sea creatures, a marine biologist with the California Department of Health said Friday that this current red tide bloom is not toxic.

However, he cautioned that conditions can change over the course of a bloom.

"As far as we know, they are all non-toxic [plankton] that are blooming," said Gregg Langlois, senior environmental scientist with the state health department.

The state uses a network of marine institutions and volunteers to monitor the type of plankton involved.

While the current bloom is not known to be toxic, the reproduction and death of billions of plankton cells can deplete oxygen in harbor waters and create ammonia as a byproduct.

Because of this, red tide waters can irritate the nose, eyes and skin.

"When you see a red tide like this, that means there are literally millions of cells in a liter of water," Langlois said.

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