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Harmful Algal Cyst Sampling Lays Groundwork for 2017 Gulf of Maine Forecast

A view of Alexandrium fundyense cysts under a microscope. Credit: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

A view of Alexandrium fundyense cysts under a microscope. Credit: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Scientists from NOAA and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) recently completed their annual harmful algal cyst sampling in the Gulf of Maine, a critical step for forecasting next year’s harmful algal blooms (HABs) of the toxic Alexandrium fundyense, commonly known as New England red tide.

A. fundyense has both a vegetative stage, where cells grow and float in surface waters (the spring and summer blooms), and seed-like cysts that overwinter in the bottom sediments. Forecasts of the extent and severity of Alexandrium blooms depend on mapping the abundance of the alga’s cysts in Gulf of Maine sediments and computer models simulating a range of bloom scenarios based on previous years’ ocean conditions.

Embarking November 12 from Quonset Point, RI aboard the NOAA Ship Pisces, scientists collected more than 55 sediment core samples over seven days throughout the Gulf of Maine. From these sediment samples, researchers will determine the presence and abundance of cysts of the harmful alga A. fundyense to incorporate into the forecasting of HAB events along the New England coast in 2017.

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The Gulf of Maine and its adjacent southern New England shelf have extensive shellfish resources, large portions of which are frequently contaminated with A. Fundyense toxins (saxitoxins), known to cause paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) in humans when consumed. State managers use the HAB forecasts to monitor the presence of A. fundyense and saxitoxins, ensuring shellfish are safe for human consumption and issuing shellfish bed closures when necessary.

2016 marks the fourth year of this joint NCCOS-WHOI cyst-sampling team effort. The goal is to transition the cyst sampling and cyst laboratory counting to NOAA as a yearly operational forecast, part of the NOAA Ecological Forecasting Roadmap.

For more information, contact Terry.Mctigue@noaa.gov.

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