A Golden Alga Bloom

Golden Algae in West Virginia and Pennsylvania

On 25 September 2009 a WV-DEP press release said "The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection now believes a golden algae bloom is linked to a large fish kill on Dunkard Creek, in northern West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania. DEP staff members investigating the incident narrowed down the causes of the fish kill after consulting with algae experts from West Virginia University, North Carolina and Texas.

At the 3 December 2009 Water Quality Forum held in Mount Morris, PA (on the shores of beautiful Dunkard Creek) no platform speaker expressed any reservation about an algae bloom being the cause of the fish kill, although there is no consensus as to exactly why the bloom occurred.

The algae found in Dunkard Creek has been identified as Prymnesium parvum, commonly called golden algae, which occurs worldwide, but primarily in coastal waters that have higher salt or mineral content. The algae produces toxins that can affect gill-breathing organisms and the most visible result of a fish kill caused by golden alga is dead and dying fish and mussels of all species and sizes."

An 18 November 2009 story reports that the PA Department of Environmental Protection and federal agencies are checking southwestern Pennsylvania streams for golden algae.Pa-DEP is working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to test 11 streams and the Monongahela River near West Virginia where water-quality monitors show conditions may be suitable to support golden algae. They report detection in Whiteley Creek (immediately north of Dunkard Creek) in Pennsylvania.

The  WV Department of Environmental Protection has also been testing streams. Their data is posted on the web at
As of 3 December 2009
Golden Algae has now been detected in five other streams in West Virginia besides Dunkard Creek, and possibly two more in Marion County. The WV-DEP table has little in the way of methods or explanation, so it is a little hard to interpret.  But it lists Cabin Creek, near Charleston as having a significant population, as well as several other streams on the South Ohio River and the West Fork River as contaminated, based on samples collected Oct. 21-26.  Golden Algae counts on stream samples (collected Oct. 8) from tributaries of the Mon River such as Buffalo Creek and PawPaw Creek are listed as "BDL" (Below Detection Limit) but include a notation that positive hits could be from contamination."  This would suggest that Golden Algae was detected, but could not be confirmed. 

Sources of Information on Golden Algae

Texas Parks and Wildlife operates the most comprehensive information website. If you want to crawl through an extensive library of resources, including .PDF files of technical papers, you can start with Golden Alga Bloom Status Reports http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/landwater/water/environconcerns/hab/ga/status.phtml

For those with limited time or background, we summarize the
Texas Parks and Wildlife information as follows:

Algae are primitive plants that are usually aquatic and lack true stems, roots, and leaves. The golden alga (Prymnesium parvum) is a microscopic, flagellated organism that normally is suspended in the water column. We do not know if this alga is native and not identified before 1985 or if it is an invasive species accidentally introduced to North America.

Unlike toxic red tide blooms on the coast, golden alga toxins have no apparent lethal effect on non-gill breathing organisms. Cattle, predators, scavengers, birds and other animals have been observed drinking water during a bloom, and many eat the dead fish during on-going golden alga fish kills with no apparent effects.... Officials from the Texas Department of State Health Services have stated that the golden alga is not known to be a human health problem, but people should not pick up dead, or dying, fish for eating.

The majority of golden alga fish kills occur during the winter months when the water is cold. ....  The alga also prefers more saline waters than normal freshwater conditions, which may also contribute to bloom initiation. Additionally, the toxins of golden alga are influenced by cations in the water such as calcium, potassium, and magnesium. The presence of these cations, higher pH levels, and more saline waters may be the reason that fish kills have mostly been confined to waters west of Interstate 35.

Other states have also been impacted by this alga. States that have reported golden alga include: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Washington and Wyoming.

Although aquaculture ponds can be treated successfully, these treatments cannot be effectively used in the larger and more complex reservoirs and rivers.

Quoted from Texas Parks and Wildlife

We have not seen the data on which the WV-DEP announcements are based, but we understand that the presence of the alga has been identified by at least two independent laboratories. According to the Texas information, it appears that golden alga may be present in waters supporting large fish populations. As we understand it, although the Dunkard Creek waters were more saline than desirable, they had nearly neutral pH levels and were warm. These do not accord with the most dangerous conditions identified in the Texas information.

We have obtained several other references on
golden alga:

Growth at the edge of the niche: An experimental study of the harmful alga Prymnesium parvum
Jason W. Baker, James P. Grover, Ratheesh Ramachandrannair, Cody Black, Theodore W. Valenti, Jr., Bryan W. Brooks, and Daniel L. Roelkec - Limnol. Oceanogr., 54(5), 2009, 1679–1687

Growth and Toxicity of  Prymnesium parvum (Haptophyta) as a Function of Salinity, Light, and Temperature
Jason W. Baker, James P. Grover, Bryan W. Brooks, Fabiola Urena-Boeck, Daniel L. Roelke, Reagan Errera, and Richard L. Kiesling
- J. Phycol. 43, 219–227 (2007)

There is also a Maryland DNR site http://www.dnr.state.md.us/bay/hab/heterosigma_akashiwo.html
The species mentioned here is Heterosigma akashiwo, identified in Middle River of Chesapeake Bay during June 2002. This appears to be a different species.

A bass fishing group has some pond-oriented management information at http://www.bassresource.com/fish_biology/golden_algae_control.html