Algal blooms occur naturally when cold-water upwellings bring from the seafloor to the surface nutrients that stimulate the rapid reproduction and growth of microscopic algae, also known as phytoplankton. These events often benefit marine ecosystems by generating tons of algae that are consumed by larger organisms. But several phytoplankton species produce harmful blooms, known as red or brown tides, which release toxins in the water that can poison mollusks and fish.
Excessively large blooms can also overwhelm a marine ecosystem by creating oxygen-depleted dead zones in the ocean. Scientists have long suspected that many harmful blooms are fueled by fertilizer runoff from farming operations, which in many regions pour tons of excess nitrogen and other nutrients into rivers that eventually flow into coastal waters. However, some agricultural industry groups contend that there is not enough evidence to link farm runoff to red tides or dead zones. (reference)
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