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NCCOS Research Project

Strengthening Early Warning and Forecasts of Domoic Acid Events in the Pacific Northwest: Using the Environmental Sample Processor to Close the Data Gap

Primary Contact(s): felix.martinez@noaa.gov
This project began in September 2019 and is projected to be completed in August 2024

In the Pacific Northwest (PNW), blooms of Pseudo-nitzschia that produce domoic acid (DA) are a significant human health threat and extremely costly to coastal communities. This project improves early warnings and forecasts of DA events in this region. Second generation Environmental Sample Processors will be modified to enable more frequent, regular, and reliable offshore monitoring. This data will be incorporated into forecasting and management tools, improving the accuracy of the PNW HAB Bulletin. 

Why We Care
Blooms of Pseudo-nitzschia that produce domoic acid (DA) are both a significant human health threat and costly to coastal communities in the Pacific Northwest (PNW). They have caused prolonged closures of the commercial, subsistence and recreational razor clam fisheries and at times devastated the commercial Dungeness crab fishery, resulting in millions of dollars in lost expenditures and a federal fisheries disaster declaration. To assess the risk of DA events and better plan for productive fishing seasons, managers use forecasts provided by the PNW Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB) Bulletin. Toxic HABs in this region typically develop offshore; however, the remoteness of the PNW coast and its frequent rough weather conditions make vessel-based offshore monitoring of toxic Pseudo-nitzschia cells challenging and uncertain. This lack of available offshore information can limit both early warning efforts and managers’ response to HAB events.

The Environmental Sample Processor (ESP) is a powerful technological advancement that enables offshore HAB surveillance without requiring onsite human activity. The ESP autonomously concentrates cells from seawater, applies molecular probes to identify harmful algae and their toxins, and transmits the results to shore so that they can be relayed to end-users in near real-time. The ESP underwent four years of field operations (from 2015-2018) at a site located ~15 miles off the Washington State coast. This site was in the flow path of an offshore HAB initiation site and coastal communities, providing data that both served as an early-warning to these communities and increased the confidence of HAB forecasts.

What Are We Doing
This 5-year targeted project will implement a series of essential, mission-enhancing, and cost-saving engineering upgrades to the ESP mooring system to enable more frequent, regular, and reliable offshore monitoring of DA in the PNW. Specific objectives are to:

      • Develop a reliable, full-time, two-way communication subsystem for the ESP
      • Resume regular deployments of a real-time ESP mooring system on the Washington shelf
      • Extend the duration of ESP deployments by 50 percent
      • Increase ESP sample capacity by 50 percent
      • Integrate ESP data into forecasting and management products

This effort will culminate in uninterrupted ESP deployments from spring to fall (the prime HAB season), with a mid-summer instrument swap, providing near real-time data on DA levels offshore at ~2-day intervals. The ESP observations will be seamlessly integrated into the PNW HAB Bulletin. Additionally, new outreach products will be developed to enhance event response, such as alerts sent to a comprehensive distribution list of stakeholders and flow-trajectory predictions provided by the UW Modeling Group.

Dr. John Mickett of the University of Washington- Applied Physics Laboratory leads this project along with co-leads, Dr. Stephanie Moore (NOAA NMFS NWFSC) and Mr. Nicolaus Adams (NOAA NMFS NWFSC). Other principal investigators include, Dr. James Birch (MBARI), Dr. Jan Newton (University of Washington- Applied Physics Laboratory), Dr. Vera Trainer (NOAA NMFS NWFSC), Ms. Jenny Waddell (Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary), Dr. Greg Doucette (NOAA NCCOS), Mr. Ivory Engstrom (McLane Research Labs), and Mr. Nicolas Michel-Hart (University of Washington- Applied Physics Laboratory). The project is funded through the NCCOS Monitoring and Event Response for Harmful Algal Blooms (MERHAB) Program.

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