Algae bloom in Pamlico and Tar Rivers can be deadly for fish and animals

Published: Aug. 18, 2016 at 9:47 PM EDT
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The large algae blooms in the Pamlico River have also been turning up in the Neuse River, causing problems for fish and other animals and it could be dangerous to people.

It's being described as a perfect storm, but it looks more like a green mess.

"It's like the base of the food chain has gone wild basically," says Hans Paerl, a professor at University of North Carolina's Institute of Marine Sciences.

Researchers like Paerl from UNC say there are several factors at play that cause the water to turn green.

"The perfect storm scenario is what we've had this year: a wet winter and spring that delivered nutrients into the system and also sediments that also release the nutrients in the system and then the river slows down," Paerl explains.

Algae is an important role in the ecosystem, but with those elements combined with the warm weather we've been having, it causes the algae to grow.

"They grow up to such high proportions that they basically choke out everything else," the professor explains.

When large algae blooms happen, it can cause fish and other animals to die.

"There's really two ways they can affect fish health by causing low oxygen conditions and by direct toxicity," he goes on to say.

The type of algae can determine which problem we see more of. Some algae merely consume too much of the oxygen for the fish and blue-green algae, like what's in the Pamlico River, can produce toxins.

"Those toxins can affect the neurological functions and you can get anything from a tingling sensation to paralysis," Paerl says. "Some people and animals have had paralysis from these blooms."

Which is why Paerl says it's important to stay out of and not eat anything from the rivers during these blooms, and it's why scientists are trying to determine at which level the nutrients in the water can trigger these blooms.

Scientists say if they can determine that level, they hope to help slow them down or stop them. Researchers with UNC's Institute of Marine Sciences say this isn't a problem that is specific to North Carolina, there are a lot of similar algae blooms happening all over the world.


Parts of the Pamlico River are turning green due to one of the largest algae blooms in years.

Parts of the Pamlico River and surrounding creeks and canals are being overwhelmed with algae growth, according to Tar-Pamlico River Keeper Heather Deck, who says it's the worst bloom she's seen in 13 years on the job.

She recommends avoiding contact with green water and keeping your pets away from it as well.

While an exact cause isn't clear yet, Deck believes it's due to large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from heavy rains in the spring -- combined with the hot and stagnant conditions this summer.

Deck says, "If we continue to get very hot conditions for the rest of the summer it's likely that, while this may subside for a while, we'll see it pop up again, you know throughout this month. But as the cooler temperatures come in the fall, typically we don't see major algae blooms then happening after the summer heat is over."

Deck says as the algae dies off it will deplete oxygen levels in the water, which could lead to large fish kills down the road.