Primer: Gulf of Mexico Harmful Algal Blooms

Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System

A Primer on Gulf of Mexico Harmful Algal Blooms

Harmful algal bloom off coast of Florida (Credit: B. Kirkpatrick)

Harmful algal blooms are a serious coastal hazard in the Gulf of Mexico and affect public health of local Gulf communities. Over 50 harmful algal species occur in the Gulf and these species can cause illness in people and living marine resources1. In Texas, a harmful algal bloom event in 2000 cost the oyster industry $10 million in lost revenue due to closure from harvest to protect public health2.

Starting in 2007, GCOOS along with partners from the Florida Department of Health and the Gulf of Mexico Alliance agreed to oversee the development of a Harmful Algal Bloom Integrated Observing System (HABIOS) Plan for the Gulf of Mexico. The start of this Plan engaged a wide range of Gulf stakeholders-partners of GCOOS and GOMA encompass myriad local, state, and federal agencies, private industry, and academic and research institutions. Participants came together to plan, design, and implement an integrated, comprehensive, sustained HABIOS for the Gulf of Mexico. Efforts included three workshops sponsored by GCOOS and GOMA to bring stakeholders together to design the plan in three phases:

  • HABIOS-NOW, based on extant knowledge, tools, methodologies, and models;
  • HABIOS-NEXT, based on current, on-going, soon-to-be-completed research and technology development; and
  • HABIOS-FUTURE, based on knowledge and technology still to be defined and performed.

The first workshop developed a strategy for HABIOS and the second workshop identified users, needs, and gaps in existing HABs data and products. The third workshopexplored the steps for implementation, including the now, next, and future steps.

HABS species by location. (Credit: HABIOS Primer)

Efforts are currently underway to identify assets and funding sources to collaboratively build HABIOS as part of the GCOOS and the GOMA Gulf Monitoring Network. The HABIOS plan, which is a complement to the GOMA Gulf Monitoring Network Plan for water quality, resulted from these workshops and specifically addresses the need for HAB monitoring and public education on HABs to protect health and safety. Meeting reports for and attendees of the workshops can be downloaded at

An important public education document published from the ongoing efforts in developing the HABIOS plan is “A Primer on Gulf of Mexico Harmful Algal Blooms” – Common questions and answers for stakeholders, decision makes, coastal managers, and the education community (available for download at Document authors are Alina Corcoran (Fish and Wildlife Research Institute & Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission), Matt Dornback (Florida Institute of Oceanography & NOAA National Coastal Data Development Center), Barbara Kirkpatrick (Mote Marine Laboratory), and Ann Jochens (GCOOS Regional Association).

The HABS Primer defines a HAB and its causes, including the contributing physical, chemical, biological, and human-driven factors specific to HABS in the Gulf of Mexico. There are photographs of the various types of organisms found in the Gulf and a series of diagrams illustrating the factors influencing bloom formation and persistence. The prevalent types of toxic harmful algae species are also included, along with symptoms and effects on (humans and marine fauna?) associated with presence of the various species. The Primer also provides a detailed description of where the different HABs occur in the Gulf of Mexico and how blooms are detected and managed by each Gulf state to protect human health. The document concludes with a section on how Gulf citizens can contribute to reducing HABs and how citizens can identify HABs in their local communities.

The development and publication of this document was made possible by joint funding from the GCOOS Regional Association and GOMA.

Dr. Barbara Kirkpatrick, co-author and GCOOS Board Member, states that “harmful algal blooms are an important, but often confusing, issue to the Gulf of Mexico community. We hope this HAB Primer will be a useful reference for Gulf stakeholders.”

Proposed HABIOS (Credit: GCOOS, HABIOS Primer)

Steve Wolfe, GOMA Water Quality Team Coordinator, comments “HABs are among the GOMA priorities because all five states agreed on their importance. As a result the many entities involved in GOMA have collaborated through the HABs Workgroup of the WQ Team on improving our ability to respond to and address HABs. The HABs Primer is an excellent example of the usefulness of this approach.”

The HABS Primer will be shared and distributed in multiple places, including the GCOOS website (web links) and at the 7th Symposium on Harmful Algae in the U.S., Sarasota, Florida, held from October 27-31, 2013 (

The international Symposium brings together students, policy makers, managers, and scientists from non-governmental (NGO) and academic institutions, and local, state, and federal agencies to discuss HAB-related issues, scientific research, and new technologies and tools to monitor these harmful algae.


1 GCOOS Build-out Plan,
2 NOAA. 2010b. National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science’s Economic Impacts of Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs).