StateImpact Texas
1:36 pm
Mon January 20, 2014

How Climate Change Could Lead to More Massive Fish Kills in Texas

Dead fish washed ashore during a toxic bloom of golden algae in Canyon Lakes in Lubbock, Texas.
Credit Photo by Michael Hooper courtesy of USGS.

From the Asian Carp to the Zebra Mussel, Texas has its fair share of invasive species. Some of them get a lot of attention (I'm looking at you, voracious feral hog). Others tend to sneak under the radar even when they damage ecosystems.

Take Golden Algae. Originally from Europe, the microscopic plant was discovered on the Pecos River in 1985 when an algae bloom killed hundreds of thousands of fish. Since then, it has colonized other Texas river basins and killed millions more fish. Unlike deadly algae blooms in the Gulf of Mexico that kill fish by taking all the oxygen, golden algae is, itself, toxic. Under the right circumstances, it produces a poison that kills fish and bivalves in the affected waters.

So, it's no surprise that scientists are trying to learn about it.

Just this weekend the US Geological Survey announced the results of one study that could hold answers to what causes the algae to spread, and point to a troubling relationship between the spread of the algae and global climate change.

In the study, researchers from Texas Tech and the USGS show how "salinity is the most important known variable influencing Golden Algae distribution and bloom formation in inland waters." In other words, the saltier a lake or reservoir is, the more habitable it will be to this algal invader.

That might not bode well for Texas water ways, and the reason is climate change, which could make our lakes and rivers saltier than ever, according to the USGS.

Climate change could play a major role in future occurrences because the projected rise in temperatures and change in precipitation patterns may lead to higher salinity levels. Higher temperatures could lead to more water evaporating from reservoirs, which can create higher salinity levels.

An earlier study has shown how climate change and other human influence has also led to decreased inflows into reservoirs, another factor that could lead to higher salinity and, therefore, more algae blooms.

[related_content align="left"]There is some potentially good news in the most recent study. For one, it does not appear that the arrival the algae in 1985 was due to sudden change in water quality in Texas. More likely, the water could have supported algae for years before it got here. It just happened to be introduced at that time (through human introduction, or even piggybacking on a bird or being blown in by the wind).

The study will also help officials in their battle against the deadly algae blooms.

"These findings may help resource managers to control future golden algal bloom occurrences by focusing on strategies to minimize anthropogenic transmission and avoid the development of certain water quality conditions," Reynaldo Patino, USGS scientist and lead author of the study said in a press release.