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Sept. 15, 2003

TPWD Steps Up Initiative to Address Golden Alga

AUSTIN, Texas – Bolstered by $1.2 million in appropriations from the legislature and aided by world renowned experts, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is stepping up efforts to mediate impacts of a devastating toxic organism that has thus far wiped out 16 million fish valued at more than $6 million.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Commission approved a department budget on Aug. 28 that included $960,000 this year for efforts to address management problems associated with the toxic golden alga, which has caused widespread fish kills on five river systems in Texas. Rep. Jim Keffer, whose district encompasses several water bodies hit the hardest by golden alga, was instrumental in helping secure the appropriations funding to address this issue.

The new funding, which is being leveraged with other funding sources, will be used to find ways of dealing with the golden alga problem. Additional funding of $360,000 has already been obtained through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s State Wildlife Grant supplemental program. Sport Fish Restoration, another federal aid program, is also supporting this effort with matching grant funds to provide survey and inventory, and fish hatchery maintenance and operation assistance. TPWD is also developing partnership opportunities with various river authorities.

“One of our main goals is to come up with real management strategies and not just pour money into research that doesn’t give us answers we need,” said Larry McKinney, TPWD Resource Protection division director. “There’s more that we need to know about this beast. But the research we’re going to fund will need to focus on coming up with a real solution.”

McKinney said the agency is bringing in experts in golden alga research and management to participate in a two-day workshop Oct. 24-25 in Fort Worth. “They’re coming from around the world to help us come up with some management strategies,” he noted. “They’ve been dealing with golden alga in Europe a lot longer than we have and they have some research and techniques we need to learn about.”

State officials are also hoping to learn about the strategies that didn’t work. “We want to make sure we don’t do something that will make the situation worse,” McKinney said. “That doesn’t mean we won’t be open to trying something new. We have some controlled environments we can use to test potential solutions.”

Fish kills from the golden alga, Prymnesium parvum, have been documented in inland waters in Texas since 1985. This algal species is found worldwide in estuarine waters (estuaries are mixing zones between freshwater from rivers and seawater) and in some freshwater bodies that have relatively high salt content.

TPWD biologists were the first to note the occurrence of this alga in freshwater bodies in the western hemisphere. Subsequently, other states have reported its occurrence or possible occurrence. Fish kills caused by the alga can be significant, resulting in both ecological and economic harm to the affected water bodies.

Between 2001and 2002, several major fish kills have occurred in the Brazos and Colorado River systems because of golden alga. About 4.5 million fish were killed in the Brazos River system and 2.3 million fish were killed in the Colorado River system. Most of the affected fish were the forage base (threadfin shad, primarily) for some of the economically important species. Striped bass, Black bass, crappie were also killed.

As a result, recreational fishing was severely impacted throughout these systems and particularly so in popular fishing destinations like Possum Kingdom reservoir. Additionally, significant impacts occurred at the Dundee State Fish Hatchery. More than 5 million fish were killed (valued at about $430,000) in hatchery ponds before officials realized that the golden alga was present. An entire year’s production of striped bass was lost. That fishery is a “put, grow and take” operation in reservoirs across the state, as the fish do not spawn naturally in Texas. The striped bass fishery in Texas generates about $150 million in angler expenditures annually, so the loss of an entire year’s production at the hatchery had significant, but manageable impacts to freshwater fisheries programs. Appropriate steps have been taken to help ensure that does not happen again.

Little is known about the environmental requirements of the alga or what allows it to gain a competitive edge over other species, cause a “bloom,” (an explosive increase in the population of one or several species), and result kill fish.

The majority of golden alga fish kills occur during the winter months when the water is cold. This is the time of year not favorable for the normal green algae that populate our inland waters and this likely gives the golden alga a competitive edge. The alga also thrives more in saline waters than normal freshwater and this may also contribute to blooms. That is the likely reason that fish kills have mostly been confined to waters west of Interstate 35, where saline content is higher than in east Texas waters.

Unlike toxic red tide blooms on the coast, golden alga toxins have no apparent lethal effect on other organisms. People have seen cattle and other animals drinking from rivers during ongoing golden alga fish kills and the animals were apparently not affected. Texas Department of Health officials have stated that the golden alga is not known to be a human health problem, but that people should not pick up dead or dying fish and consume them.

In Texas, the golden alga has caused fish kills in five major river systems including the Canadian River (Lake Meredith stilling basin), the Red River (the Wichita River including Lake Kemp, Diversion Lake, and the Dundee State Fish Hatchery), Brazos River (Paint and California creeks, upper segments of the river, Lubbock City Lakes 1 thru 6, Possum Kingdom Reservoir, Lake Granbury and Lake Whitney), Colorado River (upper segments of the river, E. V. Spence Reservoir, Lake Colorado City, Moss Creek Lake, and the river between E. V. Spence and O. H. Ivy Reservoir), and the Pecos River (the entire river in Texas, Red Bluff Reservoir, and headwaters of Lake Amistad).

In addition, the U.S. Geological Service has identified the golden alga in the Trinity River (Lakes Bardwell, Navarro Mills, and Grapevine) and the Sulphur River (Lake Cooper) but no fish kills have been attributed to golden alga in these two river basins.

Other states have just begun to recognize fish kills caused by this alga. States that have confirmed fish kills due to golden alga in the last two years include New Mexico, North Carolina and South Carolina. The state of Colorado has experienced fish kills that may have been caused by this alga but the presence of the alga has not been confirmed.




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