Giant, Slimy Green Algae Bloom Threatens Olympic Sailing

By Eliza Strickland | June 27, 2008 6:55 pm

algae bloomAt the sailing venue for this summer’s Olympic Games, a vast algae bloom has covered the coastal waters with a bright green slime. The Chinese government is scrambling to clean up the mess before the games begin in early August, and more than 1,000 fishing boats have already been mobilized. “We can only haul the blue-green algae manually and we’re doing all we can with our arms full and by the boat-load,” said Wang [Haitao], a sailing spokesman for the Beijing Games organizing committee. “All you can see is fishing boats along the coast” [Bloomberg].

Besides being a concern to the sailors who plan to compete in the Olympic regattas, the algae explosion is also another instance of bad publicity highlighting China’s polluted environment. The country’s three-decade economic boom has left its waterways and coastlines severely polluted by industrial and farm chemicals and domestic sewage [AP], which contain high levels of nitrogen that nourish the algae blooms.

The Olympic sailing events are scheduled to take place in the Yellow Sea near the coastal city of Qingdao. The seaweed is making life hard for those training for the Games, wrapping around keels and stopping boats from getting up to speed…. Iain Percy, a gold medal winner in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, said he was worried by the seaweed’s presence, only six weeks from the Games. He said: “It appeared in patches the size of football pitches which are impossible to sail through. How the organisers are going to be able to set a mile-long sailing course is a real cause for concern” [Daily Mail].

On a richly ironic note, China has promised to make the 2008 summer games the “green Olympics” by enforcing environmentally responsible policies throughout the events. But preparations for the games have instead called attention to the pollution in China’s rapidly developing cities; most notably, athletes are worried about breathing Beijing’s polluted air. Beijing officials are shutting factories and taking cars off the road in a bid to reduce pollution in time for the Aug. 8 opening ceremony. The International Olympic Committee has said it will reschedule events if smog threatens athletes’ health [Telegraph].

Image: flickr/

  • Alison

    I know that the United States went through a time of horrendous pollution, when factories pumped black smoke into the air and people routinely tossed shopping bags full of trash out their car windows. I hope that we are experiencing a real environmental enlightenment, where people are beginning to realize the impact of their actions on the planet, and to modify their behaviors – even slightly – accordingly. However, it seems that developing countries are doomed to repeat our mistakes, clogging their own rivers with plastic bags and clouding their skies with smog.

    Possibly China’s progress through their “pollution period” will be accelerated by intense international attention – that would be such a wonderful side effect of the 2008 Olympics. I don’t think that preaching to the Chinese is the answer to their environmental problems, as they have to keep their own self-interests in mind, and economic development is top priority. But the pride they feel in the Olympics is a great motivation for them to clean up their country, and maybe some of these practices will have long term impacts. I really hope they will use some of their current revenue from all the trinkets they produce to invest in their magnificent country.
    Come on, China! Be an international leader in environmental causes too!!

  • redtidetoxinalert

    Harmful Algal Blooms (HAB) are proliferating worldwide, particularly along the Gulf of Mexico coastline. Sea mammals are washing ashore stricken by the potent neurotoxins that the HAB produce. More emergency room visits are logged by humans exposed to the HAB toxins.

    Researchers say that the HAB toxin called brevetoxin (red tide outbreaks) has no long-term affect on humans, yet the studies are few and far between. It kills animals in the sea by the tons, however.

    Those protecting the seaside economies tell you that the HAB toxin affect is temporary; they won’t tell you about the life-threatening symptoms being reported. Children with strange, recurrent rashes; elderly patients with debilitating lung problems; young people with chronic fatigue and mysterious infections; middle-aged victims with chronic asthma, leukemia, or other cancers.

    HAB neurotoxins invade the cells of the lymphatic system in animals, bind in the fatty tissues; and cause cellular DNA changes, yet we are told that symptoms are temporary and should go away when we leave the beach. Hmmmm…what’s wrong with this picture?

    Industry claims that run-off, excessive nutrients, and pesticides are not to blame. They say that HAB are a naturally-occurring phenomena and that the evidence does not point a finger at industry pollution. Hmmm…would the oceans wipe out their own animal life? Would the oceans suddenly create an imbalance in nature that results in serious ecosytem changes?

    Any logical human being would say this sounds like a big cover-up. The question is are humans safe when in the HAB? Though it is downplayed, human anecdotal records may show that the HAB toxins are far more dangerous than we are being told. The more important question is what is being done to protect those who know nothing about the power of a deadly HAB toxin?

  • Mark Powell

    This is a remarkably bad problem. As a sailor and oceanographer, it’s easy to say that natural conditions never produce this kind of problem. I think China’s dream is backfiring, I didn’t know about this problem until the Olympics highlighted it.

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