Researchers Find More Evidence of Biotoxin in Georges Bank Humpback Deaths 2003/10/22 Researchers Find More Evidence of Biotoxin in Georges Bank Humpback Deaths


Humpback Deaths

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Teri Frady, NOAA
508 495-2239


NMFS Northeast Fisheries Science Center

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Researchers Find More Evidence of Biotoxin
in Georges Bank Humpback Deaths

Woods Hole, Mass. -- Researchers examining samples taken from five dead whales on Georges Bank this past summer have discovered domoic acid in some of the samples. These preliminary findings were presented today in Newport, Rhode Island at the annual meeting of the Marine Mammal Commission, a federal panel that oversees the nation’s progress in protecting and conserving marine mammals.

Domoic acid is a toxin produced naturally during some harmful algal blooms. It has been associated with marine mammal deaths on the U.S. West Coast.

“It’s not exactly a smoking gun, but it’s the most significant finding to date,” said Katie Touhey, onsite coordinator of the investigation into the deaths, and leader of the Cape Cod Stranding Network. “We are still awaiting results of several analyses to understand the whole picture of what may have happened to these whales,” said Touhey.

Between July 3 and July 30, 2003, NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency charged with protecting and recovering the nation’s whale populations, received 21 reports of dead large whales, mostly humpback whales. The carcasses were sighted dead on, or in proximity to, Eastern Georges Bank, and in coastal waters off Southern New England. Some samples retrieved from the dead whales have so far tested negative for saxitoxin, another biotoxin produced naturally during some harmful algal blooms. Other samples from the animals are still being tested for the substance.

In addition, plankton, herring and other fish were sampled during the event and are still being analyzed for any evidence of naturally-occurring biotoxins or other agents that might further explain the deaths.

If domoic acid proves to be the culprit, it would be the first known incidence of marine mammal deaths on the East Coast associated with this biotoxin, although how the animals may have been exposed to the toxin is undetermined. Domoic acid acts on the neural system and, in humans, can cause a range of symptoms including short-term memory loss, which can be permanent. Thus, the toxin’s effect is called “amnesic shellfish poisoning.”

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