A decision support tool, developed to help coastal managers monitor and respond to Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs), has won the 2016 NSW Annual Coastal Management Innovation Award. Scientists from UTS Climate Change Cluster collaborated with Hornsby Shire Council to create Algalert, a centralised system that gives timely, consistent information about HABs found in NSW coastal waters with the aim of reducing public health incidents.
Algal biotoxins experts from UTS Seafood Safety research program, Associate Professor Shauna Murray and Dr Penelope Ajani, and Dr Peter Coad and Dr Ana Rubio from Hornsby Shire Council, recognised that the effectiveness of the current Regional Algal Coordinating Committees would be improved with access to current, peer-reviewed, centralised HAB information.
“The incidence of HABs is on the rise but there is limited knowledge about the public health implications and this hinders an appropriate management response,” Dr Coad said.
Dr Coad explained that coastal blooms were more complicated than freshwater blooms and that it was often difficult to define when a bloom was problematic.
“Blue-green algal blooms in rivers are an obvious sign of contamination but because the water tends not to discolour during a coastal bloom event the public don’t perceive a threat and ignore warning signs about entering the water,” he said.
The impact of HABs on human health can range from mild skin irritation to more serious impacts from eating shellfish contaminated with algal toxins. Depending on the type of HAB, the environment can also suffer as the rapid growth of algae may disrupt aquatic ecosystem balance, remove oxygen from the water and cause fish kills.
Dr Ajani said that in NSW the management of estuarine toxic algal blooms focused mainly on the food safety of commercial shellfish production.
“By developing Algalert we were able to fill in the knowledge gaps around public health and primary and secondary contact impacts,” Dr Ajani said.
Hornsby Shire Council has been monitoring water quality and algal presence in the Hawkesbury estuary for more than 20 years, giving the UTS scientists a wealth of data to analyse. The collaboration also undertook an extensive review of the scientific literature and NSW and national guidelines and policies for management response to marine and freshwater blooms.
The Algalert tool not only gives information about the type and toxicity for each algal species but also the potential for human health risk and thresholds for management action. Public messaging about the HAB is also an important element, alerting the community to the visual and environmental impacts, such as fish kills, and providing warnings about swimming, shellfish harvesting and fishing.
Hornsby Council has made Algalert available for use in any waterway where HABs may occur. The public can access the information via a website and free mobile phone application.