Safer Seafood: IAEA develops tools to help fight toxic algal toxins

[Cuba] When tiny marine organisms grow uncontrolled, forming what is called a harmful algal bloom, their toxins can make people sick, harm ocean life and cause millions of dollars in lost seafood revenues. To help mitigate the effects of these toxins, scientists at the IAEA are working with researchers in Cuba to detect and measure biotoxins in ocean organisms and to develop monitoring and reference tools that will help identify such outbreaks worldwide.

“With a better understanding of how harmful algal blooms behave and how their toxins enter the food chain, it will be easier for countries to monitor toxins and control the consumption of contaminated seafood,” said Marie-Yasmine Dechraoui Bottein, a research scientist at the IAEA leading this collaborative project with the Centre de Estudios Ambiantales de Cienfuegos (CEAC) in Cuba. “Harmful algal blooms have a particularly big impact on small island states that rely heavily on their fisheries and tourism.”

In Cuba, the fishing and sale of thirteen fish species including groupers, snappers and jacks have been prohibited year-round since 1996 due to a high risk of ciguatera fish poisoning – due to toxic algae. It is only recently that Cuban scientists, with the help of the IAEA, acquired the capability to measure ciguatera toxins in seawater and in fish and shellfish using a nuclear technique called radioligand receptor binding assay (RBA). This method is based on the specific interaction between the toxins and the receptor they bind (pharmacological target), in which a radiolabeled toxin competes for a limited number of receptor binding sites with the toxin in the sample being analysed, allowing quantification of the toxicity of the sample.

Developing reference material

During the course of a recent field mission in Cuba, a team of IAEA scientists and local fishermen collected fish and algae samples at different depths to study the distribution of toxic harmful algal bloom species.

Once the samples have been processed in Cuba, they will be tested at the IAEA’s marine laboratory in Monaco. Such research facilities will have the most up-to-date technologies including shaking incubators and rotary evaporator technologies. As a result, the IAEA will develop the first-ever reference material for ciguatoxin monitoring worldwide. Such reference materials are critical for national authorities in managing marine environments and adhering to fish trade regulations.

While the exact number of people affected and economic losses are difficult to estimate, the impacts of harmful algal blooms are nevertheless considerable. “With these data and reference materials, we can refine how we monitor toxins to help minimize their impact,” said Dechraoui-Bottein. “It is important to keep in mind that ciguatera fish poisoning remains the most common non-bacterial seafood intoxication worldwide.”

The damage caused by harmful algae blooms

Harmful algal blooms are conglomerations of ocean-borne microorganisms that can be red, blue, pink or even invisible to the naked eye. Under certain circumstances, some species can produce natural toxins such as neurotoxins, which may accumulate in marine fish and shellfish to quantities that are dangerous for human consumption. Eating seafood contaminated with these biotoxins can cause a range of symptoms, from gastrointestinal problems to severe neurological effects and, in rare cases, even death.

Harmful algae bloom outbreaks affect many regions around the world, from the Americas to North Africa to Asia. In the last few years, outbreaks of harmful algal blooms have plagued areas of coastline and inland lakes of the Americas.

For example, in February 2016, harmful algal blooms in Chile decimated 40 000 metric tons of salmon, causing a loss of around $500 million for the local fishing industry as well as a hike in the price of salmon. In 2014, a large bloom in Lake Erie disrupted the water supply of 500 000 Ohio residents for three days.


Photo: A scientist collects samples to test for harmful algal blooms in the ocean. These microorganisms release toxins that can make people sick, harm ocean life and cost millions of dollars in lost seafood revenues. (Photo: IAEA)

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