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NOAA funds grants to implement new technologies for harmful algal bloom monitoring and forecasting


Researchers onboard the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution vessel R/V Tioga conducting a survey to map the distribution and abundance of toxic Alexandrium fundyense in the Gulf of Maine. (Credit: With permission from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute)

NOAA research grants totaling $1,665,056 announced today will lead to the implementation of seasonal and weekly toxic algal bloom forecasts improving accuracy and providing better early warnings for harmful algal blooms in the Gulf of Maine. State and local shellfish managers and the shellfish industry use these warnings to prepare for severe seasons, protect human health, and minimize economic losses.

"While we have made great strides in bloom prediction and monitoring, it is clear that these problems are continuing to increase in magnitude and demand our ongoing commitment and attention. This vital support will benefit Maine's dedicated fishermen by enhancing resources needed to prepare for red tides," said Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine.

"Maine's shellfish industry has experienced severe economic losses due to red tide over the years," Snowe continued. "In 2009, the resulting closure of 97 percent of the state's shellfish beds and 100 percent of the offshore beds in federal waters for several months during the peak harvesting season proves that we in Congress must do all we can to provide the necessary resources to ensure our hardworking harvesters are able to safely access this important fishery. I recently introduced the Harmful Algal Blooms and Hypoxia Research and Control Amendments Act (HABHRCA) of 2011, which will also support preparatory resources by enhancing our nation's ability to predict, monitor, and ultimately control harmful algal blooms and hypoxia."

Scientists researching toxic algal blooms in the Gulf of Maine, received the funding for the first year of two multi-year projects through two national peer-reviewed competitions run by NOAA's National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science: the Prevention, Control, and Mitigation of Harmful Algal Blooms (PCMHAB) and Monitoring and Event Response of Harmful Algal Blooms (MERHAB) programs. PCMHAB and MERHAB are authorized by HABHRCA.

Map of Alexandrium fundyense cyst distribution on the Gulf of Maine in 2009.
Map of Alexandrium fundyense cyst distribution on the Gulf of Maine in 2009. Cyst maps from sediments collected in the fall are used to predict the severity of the A. fundyense bloom the next spring and summer. (Credit: With permission from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute)

Harmful algal blooms caused by the algal species Alexandrium can lead to serious illnesses such as paralytic shellfish poisoning in people who consume poisoned shellfish. The PCM HAB project, a four year effort, will advance seasonal and weekly bloom forecast models and transfer them to NOAA, which will issue the forecasts regularly like weather forecasts. The MERHAB project will deploy state of the art sensors for Alexandrium cells and toxins in the Gulf of Maine over five years to improve the accuracy of HAB predictions and provide better early warning.

Research on both projects will be carried out at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution with research partners at North Carolina State University, the University of Maine, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. More than 40 percent of the funding directly supports high quality university and private sector jobs for people working to protect New England fisheries from these devastating blooms.

Funding will also open new markets for ocean observing technologies manufactured in Massachusetts. "After several years of developing a forecast model for Alexandrium in a research setting, we are looking forward to working with our NOAA partners to transition the model to operational use, thereby providing a tool for resource managers that will directly benefit society" said Dennis McGillicuddy, Ph.D. senior scientist in applied ocean physics and engineering at Woods Hole and lead investigator of the PCM HAB project.

According to Don Anderson, Ph.D. senior scientist in biology at Woods Hole and the MERHAB project leader, "The sensors that we will deploy in the Gulf of Maine signal a new era in monitoring and management of HABs. These instruments robotically sample the water, analyze those samples for HAB cells and toxins, and communicate these data to shore giving the shellfish industry and public health and resource managers near real-time information to guide their decisions and actions. This is truly an exciting development in science and management."

"I am looking forward to the day when I can sit at my desk and sensors all over the Gulf of Maine will tell me where the toxic algae are and weekly and seasonal forecasts will reliably tell me where and how toxic they will be in the future," said Darcie Couture, director, Biotoxin Monitoring, Maine Department of Marine Resources. "Then my job monitoring shellfish to protect public health will be much easier."

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