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The ESP being deployed from the WHOI ship R/V Tioga. (Photo Credit: Isaac Rosenthal/WHOI)

New robotic sensor could revolutionise red tide management

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Thursday, May 09, 2013, 23:00 (GMT + 9)

A new robotic sensor deployed by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Gulf of Maine coastal waters may transform the way red tides or harmful algal blooms (HABs) are monitored and managed in New England. The instrument was launched at the end of last month, and a second such system will be deployed later this spring.

The results will add critical data to weekly real-time forecasts of New England red tide this year distributed to more than 150 coastal resource and fisheries managers in six states as well as federal agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Researchers also plan to add data from the sensor to regular updates provided on the "Current Status" page of the Northeast PSP website.

The ESP automatically collects a sample of water and then rapidly tests it for DNA and toxins that are indicative of targeted species and substances they may produce.
(Illustration by E. Paul Oberlander/WHOI)

"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 and the project's principal investigator.

The two sensors, known as Environmental Sample Processors (ESPs), are molecular biology labs packed inside canisters the size of kitchen garbage cans. In the Gulf of Maine, the ESPs are mounted to ocean buoys and will detect and estimate concentrations of two algal species that cause HABs or "red tides" and one of the potentially fatal toxins they produce.

The first, Alexandrium fundyense, a single-celled algae, produces toxins that cause paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP). The second organism, Pseudo-nitzschia, is a diatom responsible for amnesic shellfish poisoning, or ASP The data from the instruments will be transmitted to the shore in real time.

This year will see the first sustained deployments of the technology spanning the Alexandrium bloom season in the western Gulf of Maine and the first time the algal neurotoxin responsible for PSP will be autonomously measured by an ESP in natural waters.

Scientists want the ESPs to become an integral part of the regional ocean observatory network managed by the Northeastern Regional Association of Coastal and Ocean Observing Systems (NERACOOS), which 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 ESPs are not a replacement for state-run programmes 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.

The ESP deployed last month will conduct sampling for approximately 45 days. The second will be deployed in late May and continue sampling for another 45 days or until the end of the bloom.

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