Fluorescent sea sparkles, dubbed “blue tears,” that glow around the Matsu Islands of Lienchiang County are not caused by toxic algae and are not a sign of environmental deterioration, a National Taiwan Ocean University professor said on Sunday, challenging a recent study.
Chiang Kuo-ping (蔣國平) said that it cannot be established that the “blue tears” along Matsu’s beaches are associated with toxic algae because they do not drain oxygen from the surrounding waters and kill marine life in the process as stated in the study.
He said the single-celled Noctiluca scintillans, also known as dinoflagellates or sea sparkles, that generate the bioluminescence described as blue tears when disturbed, are non-toxic heterotrophs — organisms that cannot produce their own nutrients.
Photo courtesy of the Lienchiang County Government
In coastal ecosystems, they replace copepods — small crustaceans commonly found in aquatic communities — as the main consumers of phytoplankton and play the role of a “terminator” of single-cell algae called diatoms, which Chiang described as a normal phenomenon in marine ecosystems.
The toxic algae argument does not hold water along the coastlines of the Matsu Islands because the sea sparkles have not starved the water of oxygen or led to the death of marine life, he said.
The US study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters was conducted by people with expertise in studying satellite data and images rather by than ecological experts, he said.
The study by Hu Chuanmin, a professor of optical oceanography at the University of South Florida, was extensively covered by local media.
It argued that sea sparkles have become more abundant in recent years based on satellite images that have tracked their movement.
The study observed that from 2000 to 2003 when the Three Gorges Dam was being built on the Yangtze River and there was little water flow, there was only a small distribution of blue tears, but since construction had been completed and the water flow was restored to normal, the blue tears had steadily expanded.
While the reason for that cannot be determined for certain at present, it is likely related to the major release of pollution and agricultural runoff of nutrients from the Yangtze River into the East China Sea, the study said.
Explaining the study to the Live Science Web site, Hu said the sea sparkles are not toxic themselves, but when they eat, they usually choose toxic algae and in the process release ammonia and other chemicals that poison the water around them.
They also breathe oxygen until there is none left in the surrounding waters, making their growing numbers particularly troublesome, Hu was cited as saying by Live Science.
“The oxygen in the water is so low that many animals die,” he was quoted as saying.
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