Robotic Sensor Helps Track And Manage Toxic Red Tides

April Flowers for – Your Universe Online

The way scientists monitor and manage red tides or harmful algal blooms (HABs) in New England may be transformed by a new robotic sensor deployed in the Gulf of Maine coastal waters by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). WHOI launched the new instrument at the end of last month and expects to deploy a second system later this spring.

The robotic sensor will add critical data to weekly real-time forecasts of the New England red tide this year, which will be distributed to more than 150 coastal resource and fisheries managers in six states. Federal agencies such as NOAA, the FDA and the EPA also depend upon these forecasts. Data from the sensor will be added to regular updates provided on the “Current Status” page of the Northeast PSP website.

“This deployment is a critical step towards our long-term dream of having a network of instruments moored along the coast of the Gulf of Maine, routinely providing data on the distribution and abundance of HAB cells and toxins. The technology will greatly enhance management capabilities and protection of public health in the region,” says Don Anderson,“¯WHOI senior scientist.

The sensors are known as Environmental Sample Processors (ESPs). They are molecular biology labs packed inside canisters the size of kitchen garbage cans. The ESPs are mounted to ocean buoys in the Gulf of Maine and will detect and estimate concentrations of two algal species that cause HABs or “red tides.” The sensors will also detect one of the potentially fatal toxins that the algal species produce. Sensor data will then be transmitted to the shore in real time.

The first alga is a single-celled organism known as Alexandrium fundyense, which causes paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP). Pseudo nitzschia is the second organism, a diatom responsible for amnesic shellfish poisoning (ASP).

One of the sensors was tested off the coast of Portsmouth, NH in 2011 and 2012. The deployment this year will be the first sustained test of the technology spanning the Alexandrium bloom season in the western Gulf of Maine. This will also be the first time the algal neurotoxin responsible for PSP will be autonomously measured by an ESP in natural waters.

The regional ocean observatory network managed by the Northeastern Regional Association of Coastal and Ocean Observing Systems (NERACOOS) currently consists of 12 instrumented buoys that measure currents, salinity, temperature and meteorological variables at multiple locations in the Gulf of Maine and Long Island Sound. The WHOI researchers would like to see their ESP units become an integral part of this network.

“The ESPs are not a replacement for state-run programs that monitor naturally occurring marine toxins in shellfish. Instead, they will provide valuable data on the phytoplankton cells and associated toxins in coastal waters giving managers a more complete picture of the magnitude and distribution of HAB events,” says Kohl Kanwit, director of the Bureau of Public Health for the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

Bloom toxicity can fluctuate substantially, influencing toxin levels in shellfish. This makes the capability to monitor the toxins a significant step towards assessing the potential of a bloom to cause shellfish toxicity.

“Developing this technology and transitioning it to field testing with academic and industry partners in the Gulf of Maine is the next step in delivering and validating routine forecasts,” says Greg Doucette of NOAA´s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS), who developed the PSP toxin sensor.

“This pilot will demonstrate the ability of ESPs to deliver accurate and critical data to regional resource managers. This is an excellent example of federal, academic, and industry collaboration working together to protect the public´s health.”

Chris Scholin, former PhD student with Anderson, and now president and chief executive officer of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute“¯(MBARI), developed the ESP. MBARI researchers built, tested and used earlier versions of the ESP predominantly on the West Coast. The two sensors in the Gulf of Maine are the first commercially available ESPs, manufactured at McLane Research Laboratories in Falmouth, MA under a license from Spyglass Biosecurity.

The first ESP, deployed last month, is called “ESPchris” and will conduct sampling for approximately 45 days. “ESPdon” will be deployed in late May to continue sampling for another 45 days.

“This type of data will be extremely valuable for ongoing forecasting activities, which have been carried out routinely since 2008. These data are particularly important for testing the forecast model. In the longer term in which we expect more ESPs to be available, we envision assimilating these data into the model, in much the same way the weather service uses meteorological observations,” says Dennis McGillicuddy, WHOI senior scientist.