ORCA:OneHealth toxin transfer from algae blooms and its impact on human health

With support from the Martin County Community Foundation’s Frances Langford Fund

Developing methods to localize sources of pollution has been ORCA’s goal since it was founded in 2005. Now, ORCA’s vision has expanded to take on a One Health approach with our work.

One Health, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recognizes that the health of humans and animals is connected to the health of the environment.

Our One Health focus includes everyone that lives, works and plays in and around our local waters; however we are particularly focused on the most vulnerable of these populations. One of those groups is our subsistence fishing communities. Subsistence fishing refers to fishing, other than sportfishing, that is carried out primarily to feed the family and relatives of the person doing the fishing.

ORCA's fish study aims to determine if toxins in blue-green algae are transferring from the algae to the fish typically used for human consumption.

In 2017 the American Civil Liberties Union published a report focused on public health titled Tainted Waters describing the government response to the unprecedented algae bloom that occurred in Martin County in the summer on 2016. When an expert on the toxins that are produced from algae blooms cautioned men he saw fishing not to eat the fish because it could be dangerous they told him, ‘But we have to feed our kids’.

ORCA is focused on connecting the dots between what is happening in our waters and human health. Our first project – for which we received funding from the Frances Langford Fund through the Martin County Community Foundation – is to determine subsistence fishers’ fish consumption patterns in Indiantown in Martin County, followed by an assessment of the environment and fish in the area where their fish are caught.

"The idea is to see if toxins in the blue-green algae are transferring from the algae to fish," said ORCA research scientist Beth Falls, "and from the fish into the people who catch and eat them." ORCA will look specifically for microcystin, the most common toxin in the blue-green algae blooms.

As algae is eaten by animals at the bottom of the food chain, and as those animals are eaten by larger ones, the level of microcystin increase. This means fish eaten by humans could have high levels of the toxin.

"We know that microcystin bioaccumulates, at least in laboratory experiments," Falls said. "What we don't know is how much it builds up in fish in our local waters and how much of a risk it is to people who eat those fish."

Researchers will look for the toxin on the fish's skin, in its liver and in its meat.

Fishing has had a long history of providing food to communities of all types. To this day lower income individuals still heavily rely on catching their own food source. A landmark Environmental Protection Agency study found that consumption of contaminated fish is an especially pressing concern for many communities of color, low-income communities, tribes and other indigenous people, whose members may consume fish, aquatic plants, and wildlife in greater quantities than does the general population (EPA 2202). ORCA is committed to addressing this environmental justice issue by documenting the risks and working with other support groups to find alternative food sources if needed.

Reference: National Environmental Justice Advisory Panel. Fish Consumption and Environmental Justice. EPA 2002


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