Estimating the Socioeconomic Benefits of SoundToxins, an Early Warning System for Harmful Algal Blooms in Puget Sound

Washington Sea Grant (WSG), the Northwest Fisheries Science Center (NWFSC) and the Washington Department of Health (WDOH) have received a grant for $279,926 from NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science Centers for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research (NCCOS CSCOR) to estimate the socioeconomic benefits of SoundToxins, an early warning system for harmful algal blooms (HABs) in Puget Sound.

 In the Pacific Northwest, there are several types of algae that can cause harm through accumulation in shellfish and subsequent transfer up the food chain to humans and marine wildlife. High concentrations of some algal species can cause fish and shellfish mortalities through direct exposure. These HABs have economic impacts on the commercial and tribal subsistence shellfish industries, which employ over 3,200 people in Washington State and contribute more than $270 million to the state economy. Recreational fisheries can also be impacted, and rural communities can suffer devastating impacts to tourist industries, including hotels, restaurants, and grocery stores. Early detection of HABs can enable selective or delayed harvesting of seafood, which minimizes risks to human health and reduces the economic costs to Puget Sound fisheries.

The recently funded project will use a combination of methods, including in-person interviews and mail-in surveys to estimate the net socioeconomic benefits of the early warnings of HABs provided by SoundToxins. These warnings allow aquaculture producers to alter their behavior to minimize the adverse impact of HABs.  Another objective is to estimate the net socioeconomic benefits of SoundToxins information to recreational shellfish harvesters that allows selective harvesting at “safe” beaches, compared to blanket closures of multiple beaches prior to initiation of the partnership.

In Puget Sound, there are currently 240 shellfish companies permitted to provide shellfish for consumption in the marketplace and many more poised to enter into shellfish farming. The SoundToxins program was established as a partnership of state and tribal shellfish growers, universities, environmental learning centers, state and county agencies and private citizens to ensure the public health and safety of shellfish consumers and confidence in shellfish products.

SoundToxins participants include a network of professionals as well as community science volunteers who monitor water quality and alert state health officials to the presence of potentially harmful phytoplankton. The SoundToxins partnership was conceived of and initiated by NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in 2006. Today, SoundToxins has grown to 35 partner organizations and 92 participants including WSG, which now manages the program.

Washington Sea Grant, based within the College of the Environment at the University of Washington, helps people and marine life thrive through research, technical expertise and education supporting the responsible use and conservation of coastal ecosystems. The National Sea Grant College Program is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce. wsg.washington.edu.