When tiny microscopic plants (top photo) bloom out of control, it's called an 'algal bloom' (bottom photo). While some of these blooms are harmful to the environment, others may be beneficial.
Less than one percent of algal blooms actually produce toxins. Harmful algal blooms are blooms of species of algae that can have negative impacts on humans, marine and freshwater environments, and coastal economies. These blooms occur when phytoplankton, which are tiny microscopic plants, grow quickly in large quantities while producing toxic or harmful effects on people, fish, shellfish, marine mammals, and birds.
A bloom does not have to produce toxins in order to be harmful to the environment. It can also be harmful by causing anoxic conditions where oxygen is depleted from the water. Blooms can block light to organisms lower in the water column, or even clog or harm fish gills.
Not all algal blooms are harmful, some can actually be beneficial. Phytoplankton are found at the base of the marine food chain therefore all other life in the ocean relies on phytoplankton. Blooms can also be a good indicator of environmental change not only in the water, but also on land.