Summer 2018 has seen the return of a huge red algae bloom in the waters of the Howe Sound.
This natural occurrence is common in Squamish waters and is sometimes misidentified as the more sinister “red tide”. The Squamish Chief newspaper spoke with Elysha Gordon of the Canadian Shellfish Sanitation Program Coordinator for Department of Fisheries and Oceans who confirmed that the giant swirls of red algae are in fact non-toxic and are of no danger to humans saying, “[It] does not hurt humans if they swim in this bloom.” And it is not “red tide.”.
So if it’s not red tide in the Howe Sound, what is it?
Well, we did some research and it turns out that red tide isn’t red and algae is actually much cooler than you could have ever imagined!
Here are 5 fascinating facts about the red algae found in BC waters
1. Seaweed is a “big” algae
Algae is a simple nonflowering plant that includes beautiful seaweeds as well as many single-celled species. Algal species range in size from the giant bull kelp common in places like Tofino, right down to the microscopic subset known as the marine phytoplankton. Like the plants in your garden, algae contain chlorophyll but lack the true stems, roots, leaves, and vascular tissue that us landlubbers are most familiar with.
Fun fact, the west coast of British Columbia has a diverse marine flora and is home to the widest variety of kelp in the world.
2. Your favourite sushi roll is wrapped in red algae
Many different red algae are important to BC’s food and restaurant industries. The red algae you’ll be most familiar with here on the west coats is ‘nori’ (Porphyra yezoensis) the green sheets used to make sushi rolls. Nori is farmed extensively in Asia, and did you know there was an unsuccessful attempt was made to farm nori in Washington State in the 1980’s?
On the east coast of Canada, two red algae are very important as food. Irish Moss (Chondrus crispus) is harvested in Prince Edward Island, and Bay of Fundy Dulse (Palmaria palmata) is harvested on Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick.
It even makes an appearance in desserts. Did you know that ice cream contains red algal byproducts to emulsify the milk and water products?
3. Algae come in 4 “colours” that are not really colours
Microalgae include cyanobacteria, (similar to bacteria, and commonly known as “blue-green algae”) as well as green, brown and red algae. The red algae are the most diverse group of seaweeds in the Northeast Pacific and as pointed out by Elysha Gordon, “because various blooms often happen at the same time, many think red tide is — well — red. But it isn’t. It is colourless.”
“The name ‘red algae’ can be misleading in this group because although reds can indeed be red, they can also be green, violet, purple, yellow, brown, pink, black, and even iridescent! This range of colours arises from varying amounts of accessory pigments like phycoerythrin (which leads to a red colour), phycocyanin (bluish colouration), as well as violoxanthin and beta-carotene.” – Colin Bates, www.eflora.bc.ca
4. It is thought that algae produce about 70% of the oxygen that we breath
According to ecology.com, single-cell algae are “the most important living things on our planet because they produce more oxygen than any other plant species”. The oxygen that makes its way into the air we breath is produced through photosynthesis, where plants use sunlight, water and carbon dioxide to produce the oxygen.
5. You’re probably brushing your teeth with red algae
Yep, you read that right. Many toothpastes have red algal byproducts included to keep the calcium carbonate component mixed with the aqueous component. Red algal cell wall components, in particular agars and carageenans, are used in cosmetics, food preparations, and biomedical and biotechnology research.
We hope after reading this that you look at the red algae bloom in Squamish with a little less suspicion and little more love. It’s true that there are some nuisance algae, but the majority are unimposing and do not pose a risk to humans. Next time you are on the rocky shores of the Howe Sound, take some time to think about all the aweosme things that red algae does.
Bates, Colin. 2004. An Introduction to the Algae of British Columbia. In: Klinkenberg, Brian.(Editor) 2004. E-Flora BC: Atlas of the Plants of British Columbia [www.eflora.bc.ca]. Lab for Advanced Spatial Analysis, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, Vancouver.
AllAboutAlgae.com, produced by the Algae Biomass Organization.
Ecology.com, produced by The ECOLOGY Global Network®, a service of Ecology Communications Group Inc.