News Release

Anglers' delight as algal blooms breakthrough highlights innovative science

Successful trials could mean millions of fish-deaths prevented

Peer-Reviewed Publication

John Innes Centre

Millions of fish-deaths caused by toxic Prymnesium algal blooms could be prevented with the application of a household chemical best known for bleaching hair, breakthrough research has revealed.

Trials carried out in the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads National Park have shown that at controlled concentrations hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) is deadly to Prymnesium parvum, the golden algae.

The discovery follows research led by a team of scientists at the John Innes Centre and the University of East Anglia, aimed at finding a cost-effective solution to a persistent problem that threatens the £100m angling economy of the Broads.

In 2015, following an outbreak of toxic Prymnesium blooms, the Environment Agency supported by angling clubs, rescued almost three quarters of a million fish from Hickling Broad and Somerton. The fish were released back into safer parts of the River Thurne, Norfolk, over the course of six weeks in one of the largest rescues of its kind. The operation cost just under £40,000 and involved 561 hours of staff time.

Major rescue operations of this sort are on the verge of becoming a thing of the past following successful trials at Whispering Reeds Boatyard on Hickling Broad. "We wanted to come up with an easy, cheap chemical treatment so that when the Prymnesium bloom does happen there's a way to control it that prevents fish deaths," explained Ben Wagstaff, PhD student at the John Innes Centre who took part in the trials.

"Our lab and literature research came up with hydrogen peroxide as a potential chemical treatment. We developed a system in the lab where you could use low enough concentrations that would kill algae but wouldn't affect any fish or macro invertebrates. Then we took our lab understanding and sprayed a very small section of a broad which had been affected by blooms and it worked brilliantly."

He added: "We are really grateful to Norfolk Wildlife Trust and Whispering Reeds Boatyard for their help to facilitate this exciting work". Prymnesium, unlike other algae, does not produce obviously visible blooms; the first indication is often the death of fish or large masses of fish frantically trying to escape the source of toxicity.

Blooms happen regularly in slightly salty or brackish waters such as the coastal parts Norfolk and Suffolk Broads, although not all of them are deadly. Under certain environmental conditions still being researched, Prymnesium can produce toxins, very quickly turning water toxic for fish within a matter of days, sometimes even hours.

Previous research by the John Innes Centre team revealed the existence of a virus which is believed to cause Prymnesium to release toxins into the water.

The research was hailed as a "life-saver" by John Currie General Secretary of the Pike Angling Club of Great Britain: "It's hard to put into words how important this is for us. Thanks to this research from the John Innes Centre we can save fish rather than observe them dying."

"At one time before the first Prymnesium wipe out in 1969 this area had the British pike record, so was one of the most important pike fisheries in Europe. With this success we hope that in the next six years we will see growth rates coming back to pre-1969 levels, that's completely feasible."

He added: "In 2015, during the Prymnesium incident we had over a million fish in a small area. If we were in that situation again we would be able to use hydrogen it's a life-saver."

Hydrogen peroxide is already used by the Environment Agency during pollution incidents to raise oxygen levels for fish and stop them from effectively suffocating. Peroxide can also help where large numbers of fish can become trapped in small areas of water and need extra aeration to help them survive. It is extremely effective -- much more effective than other aeration methods. Only slightly higher doses are needed to go from being useful for water aeration to being a safe chemical to kill off Prymnesium and, after a short period, it breaks down into water and oxygen which makes it very safe when applied.

The versatile chemical compound is perhaps best known as a hair bleaching agent. It also has a string of other useful functions such as an antiseptic mouthwash, teeth-whitener, acne treatment, stain-remover and laundry whitener.

The John Innes Centre/University of East Anglia team tested a range of concentrations -- working out that the optimum levels to kill the Prymnesium while remaining harmless to fish and other wildlife.

The team believe that preventatively treating localised areas with hydrogen peroxide could help create safe refuges during periods in which a build-up of Prymnesium threatens a toxic bloom.

Jamie Fairfull, Senior Environmental Officer for the Environment Agency said: "Prymnesium is one of the biggest risks to the fish population in the Broads. Being able to use hydrogen peroxide is a major breakthrough because for us the current options are so labour intensive. The Environment Agency usually recharges polluters for the cost of dealing with pollution incidents -- but with Prymnesium of course there is no-one to invoice."

Prymnesium, when stressed is able to produce a toxin that kills off its competition as well as fish, but the tests showed that the peroxide completely broke the Prymnesium and its toxin down without adverse effects.

Follow up trials, said Mr. Fairfull, are necessary for us to fully understand how the peroxide mixes and disperses so that it can be used effectively and safely. It will then be used and implemented along with a range of other methods in combating Prymnesium.

"This will allow us to protect the fish population for the benefit of the environment, anglers and the economy of Norfolk," he added.

Andrea Kelly, Senior Ecologist for the Broads Authority said: "This research has given us a new way to protect fish stocks and angling in the Broads and we continue to support the John Innes Centre and the University of East Anglia in developing knowledge for managing the fishery of the National Park. Although Prymnesium only occurs in a small area, the Broadland rivers are connected and what effects fish in one area of the Broads impacts on the whole system."


Prymnesium - factfile.

Prymnesium parvum, also known as the golden algae, has caused problems on the Norfolk Broads since the mid-1960s.

It is of concern to anglers and aquaculture industry because of its ability to produce the toxin prymnesin. Unlike some other algal blooms it is not harmful to humans or cattle, but can turn waters deadly for fish in a matter of hours.

Current research, carried out by the John Innes Centre and University of East Anglia, is investigating the virus which is responsible for causing the alga to spill its toxic contents into the water. This happens when the virus kills the algal population causing cell lysis -- the bursting of algal cells, which releases toxins into the water.

It is believed that if the virus is not present the algae will die off more slowly and there are insufficient toxins in the water to cause major fish death episodes. Prymnesium kills millions of fish worldwide -- in brackish systems like the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads, also in fish farms with major incidents reported in the United States, Israel and Scotland.

Steve Lane, Fisheries Technical Specialist from the Environment Agency said the trials carried out by the John Innes Centre team represented a "massive step forward," adding: "Transferring thousands of fish to other parts of the system is a last resort as it is stressful to the fish and very disruptive. While we may still need to rescue fish in the future, being able to use peroxide to create safe refuges would be a major step forward. The John Innes Centre's work on peroxide shows how we can work together to translate research into a real-world situation in which angling, tourism, the economy and the environment all benefit."

The John Innes Centre and UEA are working with the Environment Agency and a range of partners to manage the risks of Prymnesium in the Upper Thurne system. Partners include the Broads Angling Strategy Group, the Pike Anglers Club, the Broads IDB, the Earlham Institute, the Angling Trust, the Water Management Alliance, Natural England, Fishtrack and the Broads Authority.

Broads and Angling - Factfile

  • Angling influences direct expenditure of £100m a year in the Norfolk & Suffolk Broads.
  • One in five visitors to the Broads come to fish.
  • More than 40 per cent of the Broads' hire boat industry is influenced by angling.
  • According to one of the largest holiday companies operating within the Broads, 75 per cent of water-facing accommodation is let to anglers and their families.
  • The rescue of almost 750,000 fish from a Prymnesium outbreak in 2015 was one of the largest fish rescue operations ever undertaken by the Environment Agency, and accounted for 94% of the total fish rescued by the Environment Agency in that year.

Press Contact:

Adrian Galvin
Communications & Media Manager
John Innes Centre
Tel: +44 1603 450 238

Notes to editors

1 Pictures to go with this article are available from the following link:

2. The John Innes Centre is an independent, international centre of excellence in plant science and microbiology. Our mission is to generate knowledge of plants and microbes through innovative research, to train scientists for the future, to apply our knowledge of nature's diversity to benefit agriculture, the environment, human health and wellbeing, and engage with policy makers and the public. To achieve these goals we establish pioneering long-term research objectives in plant and microbial science, with a focus on genetics. These objectives include promoting the translation of research through partnerships to develop improved crops and to make new products from microbes and plants for human health and other applications. We also create new approaches, technologies and resources that enable research advances and help industry to make new products. The knowledge, resources and trained researchers we generate help global societies address important challenges including providing sufficient and affordable food, making new products for human health and industrial applications, and developing sustainable bio-based manufacturing.

This provides a fertile environment for training the next generation of plant and microbial scientists, many of whom go on to careers in industry and academia, around the world.

The John Innes Centre is strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

The John Innes Centre is the winner of the BBSRC's 2013 - 2016 Excellence with Impact award.

3. The Environment Agency is the leading organisation for protecting and improving the environment in England. We are responsible for making sure that air, land and water are looked after by today's society, so that tomorrow's generations inherit a cleaner, healthier world.

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