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‘Man’s role is insignificant’ Scientist Tatyana Orlova explains the ‘red tide’ wreaking havoc off the coast of Russia’s Kamchatka

Source: Meduza
Alfred Rowan /

On October 12, the Vice President of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Andrey Andrianov, announced that the near complete decimation of marine life along the seabed of the Avacha Bay in Kamchatka was not due to chemical contamination, but rather the result of an abnormally active algal bloom, known as a “red tide.” In effect, there are large concentrations of microalgae reproducing in the bay and secreting substances that are toxic to invertebrates, he explained. The day before, on October 11, Far Eastern Federal University (FEFU) Vice-Rector Dmitry Zemtsov reported that the university’s researchers had reached the same conclusion after a research trip to the area, where they found no confirmation of a toxic leak from local landfills, or a fuel spill, or pollution due to seismic activity. To find out more, Meduza special correspondent Irina Kravtsova spoke to Russia’s leading researcher on red tides in the Far East — Tatyana Orlova, the author of dozens of scientific papers on this topic and the head of the Laboratory of Marine Microbiota at the National Scientific Center of Marine Biology in Vladivostok. 

Following the latest reports from scientists in the region, Kamchatka Krai Governor Vladimir Solodov announced that toxic microalgae was the most likely cause of the contamination killing off sea creatures in the Avacha Bay. “I understand that this theory sounds comical and looks more like a fake, but the more you understand and listen to the scientists, the more you realize that in fact we know very little about the ocean,” he admitted. 

Scientist Tatyana Orlova has spent her “entire life” researching so-called red tides both internationally and domestically, focusing specifically on the Bering Sea and Russia’s Pacific Coast. And while many have never heard of this phenomenon, she says that this type of algal bloom is nothing new for the region. “We observe red tides in Kamchatka from year to year. There’s nothing extraordinary about what’s happening in Kamchatka. This is a global problem, this phenomenon is encountered constantly all over the world,” she says.

Tatyana Orlova’s personal archive

As Orlova explains, Kamchatka is a historic location for the development of large concentrations of microalgae, but these blooms often go unnoticed — not all red tides contain toxic algae and, if they do, there’s a “very small” chance that the current will carry dead aquatic animals to the shore. Given the region’s many deserted coasts, she says it takes an “amazing combination of circumstances” for scientists to be able to record and take samples of this kind of event, especially in high concentrations. “If those surfers hadn’t been there, and if those animals hadn’t washed up on that very shore, no one would have even known that this flowering is happening there now,” Orlova says.

“Sometimes [when] a large amount of algae blooms the water changes color. The satellites show it. But a high concentration of algae doesn’t always lead to a change in the water color,” she continues. “Then, scientists can only detect a bloom by collecting water samples and studying them under a microscope.”

Microalgae — even the toxic ones — are a normal part of the marine environment: they provide oxygen and, as Orlova explains, create a “pasture” for aquatic life to feed on. Nevertheless, they can be dangerous: “At certain times, some of these algae produce substances, metabolites, which can be so dangerous you can’t even imagine. They can produce a full range of heavy toxins and all kinds of poisoning. [...] They can kill a person, mammals, and marine flora and fauna, both directly and indirectly,” she says. “And Kamchatka and the Bering Sea are historically an area in which these algae not only develop actively, but [also] cause these red tides that we’re talking about.”

Based on the many samples collected by the Russian Academy of Sciences, Orlova and her colleagues reached the conclusion that “the incident” in Kamchatka is “directly related to the development of microalgae.” “Now, we’re studying dinoflagellates — the culprits behind the incident — from seawater samples taken from the area where there was pollution,” she says.

“In order for what we’re seeing now to happen, the algae has to not only develop rapidly, but there must also be a lot of them, because if the wind is [blowing] from the coast, everything will be carried out to the ocean, and you won’t see anything, but if the breeze is in your direction, millions of tons of these organisms will be washed ashore. When they start to multiply, they actually create a huge biomass, which is even visible from space, which is why space was involved in the analysis,” Orlova explains.

Toxic microalgae blooms had deadly consequences in the region in 1945 and 1972; in both cases, multiple people died after eating contaminated mussels. “The mollusks [consumed] the poisonous algae as food and accumulated toxins. It was all the same for the mollusk, they aren’t dangerous for it, but when a person ate [it], they received a lethal dose,” Orlova recalls, explaining that today, seafood is monitored for toxins, so these kinds of incidents occur less often. “As such, the problem of red tides and toxic microalgae is one of the most funded in the world. The quality of seafood depends on how it is solved.”

Red tides of poisonous algae can have serious consequences for marine life and mass die offs can result in “hundreds of millions of dollars” in losses annually. That said, Orlova doesn’t think the situation in Kamchatka is particularly severe. Judging by photographs and the data published in the media, she says the amount of dead creatures washed up on the shores in Kamchatka was “very small” and “not worth the noise” 

“In some parts of the world, the consequences of red tides are even scarier,” she explains. “If you look at publications in the world press on the topic of ‘red tides and [their] consequences,” you’ll see that there are hundreds of thousands of tons of marine organisms washed up on the coast around the world [...] This phenomenon is accompanied everywhere by colossal consequences for ecosystems.”

Asked about what causes the large-scale algal blooms in the first place, Orlova says there “a lot of factors.” For example, in some areas, agricultural fertilizers dumped into waterways fuel algae’s growth. But she maintains that this is an unlikely factor here, given the sheer size of the coast of Kamchatka and the Bering Sea. “These are hundreds of tons of water, moving at great speed. Man’s role on the Kamchatka coast is insignificant,” she says. 

Dead sea creatures on the beach in Kamchatka. October 1, 2020.
Anna Strelchenko / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

However, this doesn’t mean that people aren’t contributing to red tides or that there’s nothing we can do to prevent them from blooming. “The whole world, except for us [Russia], gradually switched to phosphorous free [washing] powders [...] to stop the bloom of microalgae in Europe, and in Japan, and in China,” Orlova says, giving an example. “There, the red tides diminished gradually.”

On the other hand, one problem can give way to another. “Japan defeated red tides, but a holy place is never empty: in their place came not just algae, which blooms strongly and forms a great biomass, but rather poisonous algae. They may not form red tides, but they are so poisonous that they can pose a lethal danger to humans,” Orlova warns. “Having defeated one problem in a single country, they received another. That’s nature. It’s difficult to keep up with.”

Interview by Irina Kravtsova

Summary by Eilish Hart

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