Public Release: 

New research to improve management of toxic red tides in the Gulf of Maine

NOAA Headquarters

NOAA has awarded $457,000 in competitive grant funding to support three projects to better track and manage outbreaks of toxic red tide algae that threaten public health and New England's shellfish industry. The grant covers the first year of what will be multi-year projects. Anticipated to cost almost $1.5 million over the next three years, they will be carried out by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the University of Maine and the University of Texas. Findings will improve forecasts and may lead to novel strategies to prevent and control blooms of the red tide, or, Alexandrium fundyense algae.

Paralytic shellfish poisoning, a potentially fatal illness contracted by humans when they consume shellfish contaminated by toxins produced by the red tide algae, forces closures of productive shellfisheries every year. In 2005, lost shellfish sales caused by red tide closures in Maine and Massachusetts alone totaled $23 million. States have rigorous monitoring programs for PSP that ensure seafood safety.

In July 2009, a red tide event also caused an unprecedented near-complete shutdown of shellfish harvesting in Maine. In response, NOAA provided emergency funding to support red tide surveys to supplement forecasts and help managers plan monitoring strategies.

"Forecasts of Alexandrium abundance and bloom extent are critical to help state managers prepare in advance to minimize impacts on local communities," said Darcie Couture, director of Biotoxin Monitoring from the Maine Department of Marine Resources. "With that information as a guide, we can focus our shellfish monitoring efforts to make more selective harvesting closures and, once red tide starts to move out, more efficient re-openings."

"The work NOAA has supported previously in the Gulf of Maine region has led to remarkably accurate seasonal red tide forecasts--the first-ever predictions of this kind for harmful algae," said Quay Dortch, NOAA oceanographer and coordinator of the interagency Ecology and Oceanography of Harmful Algal Blooms program. "The innovative ideas behind these three new projects will enable us to answer some of the remaining difficult questions to improve predictions."

Woods Hole researchers will explore how the algae's cysts, which act like seeds and form the next year's bloom, are deposited and moved along the seafloor. This knowledge is critical for the seasonal prediction. Additionally, the University of Maine team will explore how some non-harmful algae in the Gulf of Maine may inhibit Alexandrium's growth and the University of Texas team will investigate environmental triggers of bloom decline.

"In addition to refining forecasts, these are all important steps toward pioneering unique prevention and control strategies for Alexandrium outbreaks, an area where less research progress has been made," Dortch added.

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The ECOHAB program has been operating since it was first authorized by the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act in 1998.

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