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Marine deaths at California beaches linked to toxin

Domoic acid poisoning is causing wildlife poisoning along Southern California beaches, as well as human sickness when they eat shellfish.

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Algae bloom that sickens birds and mammals is 'especially virulent' this spring.

By Amanda Covarrubias, Times Staff Writer
April 27, 2007

A particularly virulent outbreak of naturally occurring toxin off the California coast has been linked to the deaths of hundreds of marine mammals and birds in recent weeks, researchers said Thursday.

"I have been doing this work for 35 years and I have never seen anything like this as far as the number of species affected, other than an oil spill," said Jay Holcomb, director of the International Bird Rescue Research Center in San Pedro. Local beaches have been littered with sick and dead pelicans, sea lions and dolphins.

The toxin, domoic acid, is produced by microscopic algae and has become increasingly prevalent in recent years. Scientists suspect the upsurge has been caused by such things as overfishing, destruction of wetlands and pollution, all of which have harmed fisheries and allowed algae to flourish.

Although the toxin has not been definitively linked to all the recent deaths, many of the dead animals — including five species of birds — tested positive for domoic acid poisoning, said scientists at the rescue center and the Caron Laboratory at USC.

Dead birds began littering Southland beaches in March. Staffers with the bird rescue center walking the beaches reported seeing "dead birds everywhere," including grebes, gulls, cormorants, American avocets and loons. In the past several weeks, dozens of sea lions, dolphins and even whales have also washed ashore dead or dying from Venice to San Luis Obispo.

In humans, domoic acid poisoning can cause vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, headache, dizziness, confusion, disorientation, loss of short-term memory, weakness, seizures, cardiac arrhythmias, coma and possibly death, according to the bird rescue center. Humans can be affected after eating contaminated shellfish, but cannot be poisoned simply by swimming in the ocean.

Read the remainder of the story at LA Times.

Edited by Carolyn Allen
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