Status: current

Project summary:

The SoundToxins project monitors phytoplankton in Puget Sound as an early warning step to protect shellfish consumers from biotoxins harmful to human health. Started by NOAA and managed by Sea Grant, we are one of almost 30 partner organizations who collect plankton samples and look for specific harmful algae.

Volunteers monitoring for toxic phytoplankton

Phytoplankton are the base of marine food webs and produce 50% of the planet’s oxygen. Yet some also make biotoxins that can cause harm to people and wildlife. Their presence can shut down commercial and recreational shellfish harvest. The SoundToxins project looks for the potentially harmful phytoplankton. 

Detection of harmful, microscopic algae can serve as an early warning to protect human health and reduce economic loss. SoundToxins volunteers use microscopes to identify these potentially harmful phytoplankton in seawater samples collected around Puget Sound.

PTMSC volunteers monitor four sites in northeastern Olympic Peninsula: Discovery Bay, Mystery Bay, Port Townsend Bay and Fort Worden State Park. At each site a vertical plankton sample is drawn and water temperature and salinity data collected. Back in the lab, species are identified and recorded. This information supports the state’s shellfish safety map, updated daily by the WA Dept of Health. 

Our dedicated volunteers visit each site weekly March – October and every two weeks through the winter. In our small lab, they identify phytoplankton using a Zeiss compound microscope, and prepare samples for preservation and further analysis. If they find culprit species, we notify the project immediately and they in turn contact the WA Dept. of Health. The data we collect is entered into an online database that can be accessed by state health officials to make real-time, public health decisions. 

Some of the harmful phytoplankton that we look for are:

Alexandrium – a dinoflagellate known to produce neurotoxins that can cause paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP)
photo by: WA Sea Grant
Pseudo-nitzschia – a diatom that produces domoic acid which causes amnesic shellfish poisoning (ASP)
photo by: WA Sea Grant
Dinophysis, species D.acuta – some of the species of this dinoflagellate are known to cause a human syndrome called diarrhetic shellfish poisoning (DSP)
photo by: Teri King
Dinophysis, species D.norvegica – some of the species of this dinoflagellate are known to cause a human syndrome called diarrhetic shellfish poisoning (DSP)
photo by: Teri King
Heterosigma – a small dinoflagellate that is a leading cause of fish die-offs in Puget Sound
photo by: WA Sea Grant
Azadinium – a small dinoflagellate that can produce azaspiracid, a toxin to humans causing chills, headaches and gastronomic distress from azaspiracid poisoning (AZP)
photo by: Urban Tillmann


SoundToxins – an early warning program for harmful algal blooms in Puget Sound



SoundToxins is a diverse partnership of shellfish farmers, fish farmers, environmental learning centers, volunteers, local health jurisdictions, colleges, and Native American tribes that was conceived and initiated by the Northwest Fisheries Science Center (NWFSC), and is now codirected by Washington Sea Grant (WSG). SoundToxins has grown from four partners in 2006 to 28 partners in 2017, some of whom monitor multiple sites in Puget Sound.


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