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NOAA-supported researchers have successfully showcased one of the values of an integrated ocean observing system. Using observations made from ship-board sensors, satellites, and buoys in the Gulf of Maine, scientists were able to predict where and when a toxic algae bloom would wash ashore earlier this summer. This harmful algal bloom forecasting demonstration gave state of Maine officials an early warning of the approaching bloom. High toxin levels in shellfish recorded by the state monitoring program helped confirm the prediction. Affected shellfish beds in Casco Bay were closed to public harvest to ensure the seafood poisoned by the toxic bloom did not become a public health threat. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
“The development of regional operational forecasts of toxic marine algal species that cause severe illness and even death in humans will be one of the significant public health and safety benefits from an integrated ocean observing system,” said retired Navy Vice Admiral Conrad C. Lautenbacher, undersecretary for commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator. “This breakthrough highlights NOAA’s leading role in developing integrated systems that address the national threats to our health and our economy caused by harmful algal blooms.”
NOAA supported researchers utilized state-of-the-art molecular identification techniques to locate and map a patch of the poisonous algae. Simultaneously, observations of winds, currents, and other ocean condition data received from buoys, some of which are part of the developing Gulf of Maine Ocean Observing System, fed a computer model designed to forecast where the water containing the toxic algae patch was headed. Partner institutions include Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Dartmouth College and the NOAA Northeast Fisheries Science Center.
This forecast was created in much the same way that weather models are used to predict the movement of storms. When the model predicted that toxic algae was moving toward the Maine coast, researchers proactively alerted state officials who later confirmed the presence of the algae and closed shellfish beds for harvesting in and around Casco Bay.
The microscopic “red tide” algae, Alexandrium, and its toxin have long plagued New England waters and states have responded with effective, but costly, monitoring programs. A decade of NOAA investment in the Gulf of Maine to understand the ecology and oceanography of the region and to develop new HAB sensing technologies is now bearing fruit. Having advance warning of impending toxic blooms could improve the efficiency of state programs needed to protect seafood safety and public health.
“In successfully combining three elements – sensitive HAB identification, a sound tracking model and accurate location forecasting – the team has demonstrated the ability to alert coastal communities to HAB events so that they can implement protective measures,” said Richard Spinrad, assistant administrator of NOAA’s National Ocean Service which sponsored the research through its National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science office.
“Operational experience takes time to put together,” said research team leader Dennis McGillicuddy of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “It’s the payoff from a decade of outstanding scientific work toward meeting this goal,” he said, “but one that offers great promise for coastal communities for decades to come.”
HABs occur in waters of almost every U.S. coastal state, and data suggests that they are increasing in frequency. HABs can damage the health of people and kill marine organisms. HABs also impact economies. Over the last several decades, HABs have caused more than $1 billion in economic losses in the U.S. They have forced valuable shellfish beds and coastal fisheries to close, affected tourism and service industry revenues, and caused public illnesses.
NOAA’s Ecology and Oceanography of Harmful Algal Blooms (ECOHAB) program and its Monitoring and Event Response for Harmful Algal Blooms (MERHAB) effort are cooperating with regional observing systems to develop new sensing technologies and put early warning systems in place to help coastal managers better plan for and reduce impacts of HABs.
NOAA is currently testing HAB forecasting systems for Florida, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Pacific Northwest and recently issued its second annual “Dead Zone” forecast for the Gulf of Mexico. These ongoing and future plans include automation and installation of detection methods on buoys as part of a greater NOAA emphasis on efforts to refine and make operational ecological forecasts along our nation’s coasts.
NOAA is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and providing environmental stewardship of our nation’s coastal and marine resources.
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