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NCCOS Research Project

Value of the SoundToxins Partnership: An Early Warning System for HABs in Puget Sound

This project began in September 2020 and is projected to be completed in August 2024.

We will estimate the net economic benefits of the harmful algal bloom early warnings provided by SoundToxins and evaluate net economic benefits to recreational shellfish harvesters.

Why We Care
A national leader in shellfish farming, Washington state has been cultivating shellfish for more than 160 years, providing a safe, sustainable product to the region and the world. Aquaculture harvests in Washington state surpass those of other West Coast states, and Washington is the largest producer of farmed shellfish in the United States.

Evolving over the past several decades, shellfish production in the state includes a variety of species, growing techniques, and products. It is estimated that Washington shellfish growers directly and indirectly employ more than 3,200 people and provide an estimated total economic contribution of $270 million. Production includes hatcheries, nurseries, farms, processing, distribution, wholesale, and retail operations. The ever-increasing demand of shellfish products is exceeding the current production capabilities of Washington aquaculturists and harvesters, e.g. shellfish sales could easily exceed their current levels. However, over the last few decades, farmed and wild shellfish populations have suffered economic losses due to blooms of harmful algae, a key concern to the aquaculture industry in Washington state.

Knowing when potentially toxic algal cells are in a shellfish growing area allows shellfish companies to modify their farming and harvesting activities to avoid costly recalls, unnecessary destruction of shellfish crops, and protect public health.

The SoundToxins partnership was established in 2006 as a cost-effective monitoring program to provide an early warning of harmful algal bloom (HAB) events to the Washington State Department of Health (WDOH) through weekly phytoplankton monitoring. SoundToxins has 92 participants, including commercial shellfish growers, tribal managers, agencies, environmental learning centers, and private citizens, who monitor HABs at more than 35 sites around Puget Sound. The early warning provided by SoundToxins has helped the state avert human illnesses from toxic shellfish that would have negatively impacted market and harvester confidence.

What We Are Doing
The project team will estimate the net economic benefits of the HAB early warnings provided by SoundToxins to aquaculture producers and WDOH and evaluate net economic benefits to recreational shellfish harvesters. The benefits of the SoundToxins partnership to managers include: helping the WDOH prioritize analysis of shellfish samples to areas identified as having the greatest HAB risk (through HAB cell counts); preventing product recall by providing alerts to the WDOH via the 24/7 communication system; and assisting shellfish growers and managers in avoiding costs associated with HAB events by allowing selective harvest, early harvest, and depuration of toxic shellfish prior to harvest. The researchers will use a combination of methods to estimate reduced costs to state and tribal shellfish managers and net benefits of SoundToxins to aquaculture producers and shellfish consumers. These methods include:

      1. A series of in-person company interviews and mail-in surveys with aquaculture companies and WDOH will be used to estimate the net economic benefits of SoundToxins to aquaculture producers and to characterize the extent of avoided costs due to SoundToxins monitoring,
      2. Data from a recreational shellfish harvest survey, completed in 2016, will be used to determine how SoundToxins benefits recreational harvesters. Interviews with WDOH will be the important source of information to define the “counterfactual” and quantify economic benefit in the absence of SoundToxins data.

Teri King of Washington Sea Grant leads this project. Co-investigators are Dr. Leif Anderson (NOAA NWFSC), Jerry Leonard (NOAA NWFSC), Jerry Borchert (WDOH), and Dr. Vera Trainer (NOAA NWFSC). The project is funded through the NCCOS Prevention, Control, and Mitigation of Harmful Algal Blooms Program.

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