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Citizen scientists monitor Birch Bay, Drayton Harbor for red tide

A group of Blaine residents who routinely monitor the toxin levels in Birch Bay and Drayton Harbor took samples last month that indicated shellfish poisoning in local waters.

Every Tuesday, the Drayton Harbor Harmful Algal Bloom Hunters go out to Birch Bay Village Marina and Semiahmoo Marina to take mussel and phytoplankton samples that are then sent to a state lab in Shoreline that returns results on the coastal region's water quality to the group the next day. The group found Alexandrium, algae that produces toxins that cause paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP), in its May 2 samples and notified the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) of a possible harmful algal bloom. DOH suspended recreational shellfish harvesting in the area on May 3.

Harmful algal blooms (HAB), commonly referred to as red tide, occur when algae colonies grow out of control and become toxic to people, fish, shellfish, marine mammals and birds. HABs are naturally occurring, but due to pollution and climate change, can occur more often.

The toxic levels can be fatal in rare cases. The first documented case of a probable death due to red tide was in 1793 in B.C. when a crewman of Captain George Vancouver died after eating contaminated shellfish, according to research from the University of British Columbia.

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