Transition of Automated Early Warning Sensor for Harmful Algal Blooms

Transition of Automated Early Warning Sensor for Harmful Algal Blooms

The health of our coastal communities, economy, and ecosystems depends on our understanding of complex and constantly changing conditions. Hazards such as harmful algae and pollution are realities for the growing number of Americans who live in U.S. coastal shoreline counties. Harmful algal blooms (HABs), for example, have caused a cumulative economic loss exceeding $1 billion over the last two decades. HABs along our coasts can cause illness and death in humans, fish, and marine mammals.

Accurately observing and forecasting HABs can dramatically reduce their impacts on marine ecosystems, public health and our economy. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) programs are providing the scientific foundation and supporting technological advances that are leading to new, more accurate, and cost-effective HAB observing technologies. A new generation of HAB sensors can autonomously collect high-frequency HAB and environmental data, minimizing the need for expensive survey vessels and human sampling and analysis.

Automated submersible microscopes such as the Imaging Flow Cytobot (IFCB) uses a combination of flow cytometric and video technology to capture high-resolution images of suspended particles, and machine learning technology can also identify potentially toxic species from the images. The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) was awarded a three-year grant by NOAA’s Integrated Ocean Observing Systems Ocean Technology Transition Project to expand the IFCB’s potential operational use by deploying it on autonomous vehicles in the Gulf of Maine and the Gulf of Mexico to enable high-resolution plankton studies with both long duration and spatial coverage.

In 2008, the IFCB detected a new, highly toxic HAB species previously undetected in U.S. coastal waters off the coast of Port Aransas, Texas. The early warning enabled Texas state managers to act proactively with targeted monitoring of shellfish harvested in advance of a popular seafood festival, thereby enabling actions that prevented a significant public health crisis. A Texas Department of Health manager responsible for monitoring biotoxins levels in shellfish likened the IFCB to having three technicians on location collecting and counting samples every 20 minutes. The event garnered extensive press coverage, highlighting the value of HAB-observing sensors in protecting public health. Since then, the IFCB has been helpful in predicting or mitigating at least eight HAB events involving multiple HAB species. These include blooms of the infamous Florida red tide species detected in 2009, which led to fisheries closures. Early warnings of blooms, based on IFCB detection, also were reported to state officials in 2010-2012. NOAA also routinely includes IFCB data in HAB forecasts issued for Texas.

Quay Dortch
Rick Stumpf
Marc Suddleson
Dwight Trueblood
Jenifer Rhoades

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