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NCCOS Research Project

Improving the Gulf of Maine HAB Forecast with Environmental Sample Processors

Primary Contact(s): marc.suddleson@noaa.gov
This project began in January 2011 and was completed in December 2016

Toxic algal blooms pose a serious health risk and often disrupt valuable regional shellfisheries. Eating seafood tainted with algal toxins can sicken or even kill people. We are pioneering use of the Environmental Sample Processor (ESP) to make ocean observations that serve state and industry management needs. ESPs robotically detect algal cells and toxin at sea and warn managers when levels rise. ESP data can also be assimilated into numerical models to improve the accuracy of bloom forecasts.

Why We Care

The Gulf of Maine region experiences recurrent outbreaks of paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP). PSP is a severe and at times fatal illness in humans who eat fish or shellfish exposed to sufficient amounts of natural algal toxins. These PSP toxins are produced by blooms of a certain algae called Alexandrium fundyense. To prevent exposure, state and federal agencies carefully manage many miles of recreational and commercial beds and thousands of square kilometers of valuable shellfish in federal waters offshore, closing harvests when PSP toxin levels exceed regulatory limits. Major PSP outbreaks can create significant job losses, and remove millions of dollars from the regional economy. Another emerging health threat is amnesic shellfish poisoning (ASP) caused by a different toxic marine algae, Pseudo-nitzschia.

An inability to detect harmful algae cells and toxins in offshore waters quickly, accurately, and economically leaves shellfish managers little to no advance warning of toxic algal blooms. Furthermore, bloom forecast models require real-time data on A. fundyense cells and toxins analogous to the way that meteorological data are used to constantly update and refine weather forecasts.

What We Are Doing

Our effort provides real-time estimates of Alexandrium and Pseudo-nitzschia cell abundance through a demonstration of the feasibility, value, and effectiveness of adding the Environmental Sample Processor (ESP) to observing systems for routine harmful algal bloom (HAB) monitoring. We plan four years of ESP field deployments with associated water quality and hydrographic sensors. With input from state agencies, industry, and the Northeastern Regional Association of Coastal Ocean Observing Systems (NERACOOS) we are targeting several mooring locations with high management value. We are testing near shore and offshore deployments and we will identify and solve the unique set of technical and logistical challenges for deploying the ESP and its mooring and sensors at each site. We are designing an optimum ESP array for the region and working with stakeholders including the US Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS) to sustain the addition of ESPs to ocean observing systems. We will also demonstrate how ESP data, assimilated into numerical forecast models, will improve forecast accuracy, advancing the NOAA HAB Operational Forecasting System (HAB OFS).

The project is part of the Monitoring and Event Response for Harmful Algal Bloom (MERHAB) program. The project is led by Dr. Donald Anderson of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). Project partners include: Dr. Dennis McGillicuddy and Mr. Bruce Keafer (WHOI), Dr. David Townsend (University of Maine), and Dr. Christopher Scholin (Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute).

Benfits of Our Work

NOAA, state agencies, and the shellfish industry want access to continuous, near-real time data on toxic algal blooms offshore and related HAB warning and forecast products. Adding ESPs to observing systems will help managers and industry know where and when shellfish may become toxic, enabling proactive management decisions and effective marshaling of limited monitoring resources. An early warning will allow increased biotoxin testing needed to support shellfish bed closures. Knowing sooner of declining toxin levels will enable safe harvesting to resume more quickly. ESP HAB data will also improve accuracy of forecasts produced by NOAA HAB OFS, much as meteorological observations are used to improve weather forecasts.

Our ESP deployment project leverages federal investments by the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency, and NOAA which have supported construction of multiple ESPs, developed new ESP detection probes, and facilitated commercial availability of the instrument. A concurrent NOAA project advances efforts to field test a new probe for PSP toxin detection.

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NCCOS delivers ecosystem science solutions for stewardship of the nation’s ocean and coastal resources, in direct support of NOS priorities, offices, and customers, and to sustain thriving coastal communities and economies.

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