Global Harmful Algal Blooms

Overall objective: To increase the collaborations among HAB scientists with medical, veterinary, public health and social science expertise to help understand and minimize the risk of HAB impacts to human and animal health. .

Rationale. The main reason to investigate HAB dynamics, which led to the establishment of the international GEOHAB programme, was to help understand and mitigate the effects on human and animal health and wellbeing. The specific link between phycotoxins and human and animal health aspects has also been included in several ICHA meetings, such as in the 2016 conference in Brazil ( In recent decades, however, progress has been made towards the confluence of HAB and ocean research within the medical/public health and social sciences. 

This Health theme in GlobalHAB is particularly timely, as it aligns with other initiatives in the United States and Europe that highlight the need for an integrated understanding of the health and environmental characteristics of the ocean, including HABs. As an example, activities in Oceans and Human Health were launched in the United States in early 2000s, sponsored by NSF, NIEHS, and NOAA, addressing the known and potential links between human health and HABs (as well as microbial and chemical pollution, and natural products from the ocean). In June 2016, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched the One Health Harmful Algal Bloom System (OHHABS) to collect information on HAB-related illnesses in animals and people and on certain environmental characteristics of the blooms ( ohhabs.html). OHHABS is a module within the National Outbreak Reporting System (NORS) specifically designed to collect information on cases of human and animal HAB-related illnesses (www. Other recent examples in Europe include position papers (Moore et al. 2013), the 2014 Oceans and Human Health Workshop in Cornwall, UK (; Fleming et al. 2014), and a dedicated Session on Oceans and Human Health at the EurOcean 2014 Conference in Rome. More recently, Grattan et al. (2016) emphasized the need for transdisciplinary research and close communication and collaboration on efficient illness prevention among HAB scientists, public health researchers, and local, state and tribal health departments at academic, community outreach, and policy levels. Finally, the potential links of HABs with marine mammal mortalities was the focus of a workshop of the International Whaling Commission in Slovenia (May 2017). 


Razor clams harvesting in Washington State, U.S., Pacific coast beaches. These clams can retain the toxin, domoic acid, for many months. Photo credit: Washington State Department of Health


GlobalHAB aims to increase interdisciplinary and inter-institutional collaborations among HAB scientists with medical, veterinary, public health, and social science expertise to help understand, assess and minimize the risks of the different human and animal diseases caused by phycotoxins in marine and freshwater habitats. This general objective will be initiated by focusing on CFP, due to the high incidence worldwide of these human illnesses (e.g., Chateau-Degat et al. 2007, Skinner et al. 2011, Friedman et al. 2017) and because this problem has already resulted in innovative research and collaborations. The experience gained from CFP would then be used to stimulate analogous multidisciplinary research initiatives focused on DSP and PSP, cyanobacterial toxins in freshwater (drinking and recreational water), potential contamination in desalination plants, and other emerging phycotoxin-related health issues (see e.g., Table 1 in Berdalet et al. 2016). 

CFP is the most frequently reported non-bacterial illness associated with fish consumption globally and an apparent increase associated with climate change in the biogeographic distribution of the causal organisms (Gambierdiscus spp.) may exacerbate its impacts on human health and wellbeing in the future (as reviewed recently by Friedman et al. 2017). At present, in some of the most affected areas, there is a solid background of medical and public health information, including material comprising methods of risk communication. Also, public health and HAB specialists have begun to establish systems for compiling inter/transdisciplinary environmental and human health data. This is the case both for OHHABS in the United States, and for the Ciguatera Platform at the Institute Louis Malardé ( php/en/) in French Polynesia. The simultaneous collection of environmental and human health data over time will help public health practitioners identify long-term trends in HAB-related diseases in humans and animals. However, such background of medical and public health information is lacking for most Caribbean Islands, highly impacted by CFP. Importantly, at the international level, a coordinated multiagency IOC-IAEA-FAO-WHO “Global Ciguatera Strategy” was adopted in 2015 (hab.ioc-unesco. org) for improved research (including ecology, toxicology, medicine and epidemiology) and management and a task team has been established to implement the strategy. 

This theme’s objectives are shared by at least three other GlobalHAB themes, including BHABs, Economy, and Climate Change (see Themes 7, 11 and 12, respectively). For this reason, some implementation activities will be designed to coordinate with those indicated in the corresponding sections. The activities fostered by the Health theme will have a marked inter/transdisciplinary character designed to foster interactions between HAB scientists, Health and Public Health departments, medical professionals at national, regional and international levels, Poison Information Centers, and veterinary scientists. The outcomes of these activities will be of interest from local to international levels (including the IPCC). These activities include both citizen science and outreach.


Specific objectives 

  • Improve coordination between algal ecology and biotoxin monitoring and public health surveillance activities in the affected areas, including freshwater, brackish water, and marine systems. 
  • Foster the establishment of a centralized reporting system to collect data on HAB-related disease surveillance and epidemiology (starting from local and regional levels). 
  • Facilitate the collaborations of HAB researchers with public health experts and decision-makers to conduct long-term surveillance, risk assessments and response plans for the different phycological toxin-induced human diseases. 

Example tasks 

  • Endorse and participate in the implementation of the multiagency coordinated IOC-IAEA-FAO-WHO “Global Ciguatera Strategy”. 
  • Engage appropriate health and fishery professionals through existing channels and regional meetings of FAO and WHO to better understand needs and abilities to implement tools related to management of CFP, as identified also in Theme 7. Benthic HABs
  • Convene an interdisciplinary workshop for HAB and other possibly interested scientists to share experiences with research on the different HAB-related diseases. The workshop would include aquatic biologists and ecologists, toxicologists, veterinary professionals, epidemiologists, public health and health care professionals, social scientists, and economists. 
  • Foster interactions between HAB scientists and non-HAB professionals concerning the freshwater HABs and cyanoHABs theme (Theme 5), especially those occurring as a consequence of the drinking and recreational use of freshwater. 
  • Collaborate to assess whether CDC’s OHHABS for surveillance of HAB-related diseases in animals and people could be adopted for use in other countries; especially in areas where CFP, PSP, or DSP are endemic. See the OHHABS website at 
  • Establish communication and active collaboration with cetacean biologists and specific working groups such as the ICES Marine Mammal Ecology Working Group to facilitate tissue testing for HAB toxins and to understand the contribution of HAB toxins to marine mammal mortality and morbidity. 



  • More informed public outreach based on inter/ transdisciplinary initiatives. 
  • Contribution to the implementation of the IOC-IAEA-FAO-WHO “Global Ciguatera Strategy”. 
  • Development of joint health and environment data series to be incorporated into analyses for future IPCC reports. 
  • Information for policy makers and health providers: Guidance for improved mitigation of HAB health effects through greater collaboration between HAB and public health experts, and through advances in HAB-related disease surveillance. 




Island communities which rely exclusively on subsistence fishing are particularly vulnerable to ciguatera risk.

© Institut Louis Malardé (Tahiti, French Polynesia)



The complete list of references can be found here.

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