Cyanobacteria, also known as toxic algae, are widespread in many lakes and rivers in New Zealand, particularly more so over the past decade. They are found across a range of water quality conditions, including relatively clean waters. Toxic algae blooms are more likely to occur over summer, and when rivers are low. The algae can produce toxins (called cyanotoxins) that are harmful to animals and humans when eaten, even licked, or when water containing the toxins is swallowed. Some people will have an allergic reaction to just touching the algae.
There are two types of toxic algae that form in Southland's waterways, benthic and planktonic. You are most likely to see the benthic type, which grown in rivers and streams. These algae form mats that detach from the riverbed and accumulate as scum along the river's edge. They also become exposed on the river's edge as the river level drops. Planktonic cyanobacteria (which you could also call floating or suspended algae) is different to that found in rivers. It tends to be hard to see as it forms little globules either suspended in the water, or floating on the surface making it harder to check for. This lake kind can also be invisible to the naked eye.
Children are at high risk of exposure or consumption, especially those who put things in their mouths when out and about. Dogs can be attracted to the musty smell of the toxic algae on riverbanks and in the water and can be poisoned from eating the slime or dried slime mats. Stock can wander into waterways with toxic algae and drink it, so you will need to arrange an alternative water source for them and keep them out of waterways. It is not safe to swim in rivers with toxic algae, and your wetsuit will not protect you.
- For further information on health risks: Public Health South, Medical Officer of Health, (03) 211 0900
- For further information on environmental monitoring: Environment Southland 0800 76 88 45
In this video, Dr Wood from Cawthron Institute talks about toxic algae in New Zealand rivers and what we need to look out for to keep ourselves safe.