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Red Tide Robot

NOAA, Partners Test New Tool to Detect Shellfish Toxins

June 11, 2013
NOAA and partners conducted the first field test of an underwater robot using a NOAA-developed sensor that enables remote, automated measurements of paralytic shellfish toxins.

The Environmental Sample Processor (left) is an underwater robot that that can remotely measure paralytic shellfish toxins. Here, the robot and a surface buoy with communication hardware (right) are readied for deployment in the Gulf of Maine. The sampling equipment for this new tool is encased in a yellow steel housing to protect it from crushing ocean pressure. Credit: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Recently, NOAA and partners conducted the first field test of an underwater robot using a NOAA-developed sensor that enables remote, automated measurements of paralytic shellfish toxins (PSTs).  PSTs are produced by the dinoflagellate Alexandrium, the algae that causes toxic red tides in the Gulf of Maine.

The robot, called the Environmental Sample Processor (ESP), was deployed by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and provided near-real time data on both Alexandrium and PST concentrations off the coast of Portsmouth, N.H.  By including the sensor on the robot during deployment, scientists are better able to assess the toxicity level of a given algal bloom.

This year’s Alexandrium and PST information will be conveyed in near-real time from the ESP to scientists, coastal managers, and public health officials to support decisions related to potential shellfish harvesting closures. This is great timing, given that the forecast for blooms in the Gulf of Maine during the spring and summer of 2013 is considered moderate.

Such decision-making is critical for the coastal communities that experience financial hardships due to the closing of commercial beds and whose livelihoods depend on the industry. For example, a 2005 algal bloom cost Massachusetts nearly $50 million and Maine about $23 million in economic losses.

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NOAA is authorized by the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act (HABHRCA 1998, 2004) to help communities counter this increasing threat through research in its labs and centers and to augment our expertise by funding research by our extramural partners. NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science’s (NCCOS) Prevention Control and Mitigation of Harmful Algal Blooms project uses the ESP and PST level data to improve the accuracy of their Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB) forecasts. NCCOS HAB research enhances NOAA’s observing and forecasting capabilities.

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