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Farming Pollution Causes Hong Kong's 'Seas to Sparkle'

Jan 23, 2015 01:09 PM EST

Though it appears a magical, fluorescent blue, Hong Kong's seas are actually sparkling as of late because of farming pollution, underlining a potentially toxic problem behind an otherwise beautiful sight.

Fittingly, an algae-like organism called Noctiluca scintillans, nicknamed Sea Sparkle, is causing this mystical glow. This single-celled organism can function as both animal and plant. It can eat plankton as well as be eaten by other species.

"Those pictures are magnificent. It's just extremely unfortunate that the mysterious and majestic blue hue is created by a Noctiluca," oceanographer Samantha Joye, from the University of Georgia, told The Associated Press (AP).

Noctiluca blooms, which can be either red or greenish in color depending on their location, are triggered by the increased presence of nitrogen and phosphorous from farm run-off.

According to the Smithsonian Institution, toxic blooms have been linked to massive killings of various fish and marine invertebrate species. Unlike other similar organisms, Noctiluca does not itself produce neurotoxins. However, it has been found to accumulate toxic levels of ammonia that is then excreted into the surrounding waters, possibly acting as the killing agent in blooms.

Experts now worry that the recent blooms seen in Hong Kong will devastate local marine life and therefore the fishing industry, especially due to Noctiluca's role as both predator and prey. For example, India has experienced a decline in fisheries when extensive toxic blooms were seen off the east and west coasts.

Likewise, the Arabian Sea also is currently being devastated by the microscopic species, which created a "dead zone" the size of Texas - that's thanks to sewage being pumped into the sea from nearby cities. Even though they are beautiful, the plankton have a lethal effect on plants and animals in the depths below.

"Few animals can survive 'dead zones' of oxygen-poor water," Gwynn Guilford of Quartz wrote. "As the scientists discovered, N. scintillans thrives in these conditions.... And once a dead zone sets in, it's hard for the ocean to recover."

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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