Brown Tide Research Initiative
About Brown Tide

The situation

Brown tides are part of growing world-wide incidences of harmful algal blooms (HAB) which are caused by a proliferation of single-celled marine plants called phytoplankton. One species of phytoplankton, the microscopic alga Aureococcus anophagefferens may bloom in such densities that the water turns dark brown, a condition known as "brown tide." In 1985, severe brown tides were first reported in the Peconic Bays of eastern Long Island, New York, in Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island and possibly in Barnegat Bay, New Jersey. Since then, brown tide has intermittently occurred with variable intensity in Barnegat Bay and in the bays of Long Island.

Brown tide has had particularly detrimental effects on the Peconic Bay ecosystem and the economy of eastern Long Island. During intense bloom conditions, densities of the brown tide organism can approach two million cells per milliliter. These numbers far surpass typical mixed phytoplankton densities of 100 to 100,000 in that same volume. Eelgrass beds which serve as spawning and nursery grounds for shellfish and finfish may have been adversely impacted by decreased light penetration, at least in part, due to brown tide blooms.

The Peconic Estuary bay scallop industry, at one point worth almost $2 million annually, was virtually eradicated to a dockside value of merely a few thousand dollars. Oysters, hard clams and possibly blue mussels have also been impacted, to varying degrees, by brown tide although long-term impacts on these shellfish are unknown. Although not known to be a health threat to humans, the presence of brown tide may reduce people's desire for recreational fishing, boating, and swimming in affected waters.

Advances have been made regarding the identification and characterization of Aureococcus anophagefferens. However, the factors that cause bloom conditions and those that allow blooms to persist need further investigation. For this reason the Brown Tide Research Initiative was developed in the late 1990s as a partnership between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Coastal Ocean Program (COP) and New York Sea Grant. The research, supported by the BTRI effort, was documented in the Initiative's report series.

The first three-year $1.5 million BTRI program (1996-1999) was developed to increase knowledge concerning brown tide by identifying the factors and understanding the processes that stimulate and sustain brown tide blooms. Continued funding for BTRI in 1999-2001, as a $1.5 million three-year effort, came once again from NOAA’s COP.

Prior to the first phase of this initiative, a peer review-based competitive Call for Proposals highlighted the most critical information gaps identified at the 1995 Brown Tide Summit. This process resulted in the selection of eight outstanding and complementary research projects supported by the BTRI. According to BTRI-funded researcher Patricia Glibert, "The strength of this initiative was the multi-faceted approach," combining a focused research effort of biological, chemical and physical oceanographical expertise together with a unique networking opportunity for information and idea exchange among the investigators.

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