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NCCOS Research Project

Training Course on the Identification of Harmful Algae in United States Marine Waters

Primary Contact(s): quay.dortch@noaa.gov
This project began in September 2015 and is projected to be completed in August 2019

We are developing a national capacity to train the next generation of state and federal agency scientists in taxonomic identification of harmful marine algae, helping to rebuild and maintain expertise critical to managing the impacts of harmful algal blooms in every U.S. coastal region.

Why We Care
Many harmful algal bloom (HAB) research and monitoring programs rely heavily on trained experts who can recognize often subtle, morphological characteristics of HAB species and quantify cell abundances in water samples via microscopy. Cell counts are often used as an early warning of potentially harmful blooms and a trained taxonomist with a light microscope continues to be a critical and cost-effective early warning and monitoring tool. As the “gold standard” of HAB species identification methods, specialists trained in these methods are also needed to help other researchers verify results from new technologies being developed to facilitate automated HAB cell identification in areas with diverse HABs or with emerging HAB problems.

Training the next generation of U.S. HAB managers, scientists, and technicians in HAB taxonomy is widely recognized as a core national infrastructure need by NOAA, Congress, and the HAB community (see Footnote 1). These skills are critical for the continued success of early warning monitoring programs that protect state shellfish growing areas, which are recommended by the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference (the administrative body of the National Shellfish Sanitation Program). The current generation of U.S.HAB taxonomic experts is at or beyond retirement age and reliance on ad hoc and generalist training programs has led to a lack of national preparedness in this area.

What We Are Doing
NCCOS funding will help develop, convene, and sustain a professional HAB identification training program for the United States. The program will be located at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay, Maine, and will capitalize on resources and expertise housed at the Provasoli-Guillard National Center for Marine Algae and Microbiota (NCMA). The course will provide expert, certified training in marine harmful algal taxonomy using a combination of lectures and hands-on exercises, and will have an intensive Web-based component to expand the utility of the course. The project will establish detailed course material for an annual taxonomy class to be hosted at the Bigelow Laboratory through the NCMA for three years. It will also develop an implementation plan that will facilitate the transition to a self-supporting annual or biannual class hosted by the NCMA. These certified training courses will benefit and target local, state, and federal government workers involved in all aspects of HAB management and research.

This training course project is part of NCCOS’s Monitoring and Event Response for Harmful Algal Blooms (MERHAB) program. The project leaders are Drs. Michael Lomas and Cynthia Heil of the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences.

Benefits of Our Work
This project will train the next generation of scientists in taxonomic identification of harmful algae. The research will have immediate and long-term benefits to maintain the skilled workforce needed by state and federal monitoring agencies to provide accurate and timely data for management decisions to safeguard human and environmental health and to validate the results of new automated HAB detection technologies being developed by the U.S. research community. It will enable the United States to maintain the highly qualified workforce essential to meet expanding management needs for HAB prediction and response.

To date we have trained a total of 47 students from a variety of local, state, federal, tribal, academic, NGO and ‘other’ agencies involved in HAB monitoring on the fundamentals of classical, microscopic HAB taxonomy.

A primary outcome of this course remains the more accurate and timely identification of HAB species at multiple management levels (local, state, federal, tribe) in the U.S. This in turn allows for timely and accurate decision making in support of HAB management at the local, state, regional and federal levels. This has been especially critical in the past 2 years with ongoing toxic, regional Pseudo-nitzschia blooms in New England. It was also critical to the identification of an unusual Karenia mikimotoi bloom which occurred in the fall of 2017 in Portland Harbor and Casco Bay, Maine and was first identified by a 2017 MERHAB Course student.

Footnote 1 Harmful Algal Research and Response: A National Environmental Science Strategy 2005–2015 (HARRNESS), National Plan for Algal Toxins and Harmful Algal Blooms; and National Assessment of Efforts to Predict and Respond to Harmful Algal Blooms in U.S. Waters; and National Scientific Research, Development, Demonstration, and Technology Transfer Plan on Reducing Impacts from Harmful Algal Blooms (RDDTT).

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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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