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September 20, 2004

UCSC researchers to test new technologies for monitoring toxic algae in California coastal waters

By Tim Stephens

Researchers at UC Santa Cruz have received a $400,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to develop an improved system for monitoring toxic algae in the coastal waters of California. The UCSC researchers will work closely with the California Department of Health Services (CDHS), testing new technologies and developing protocols for using them as part of the state's ongoing program of monitoring marine biotoxins to ensure the safety of fish and shellfish harvested along the coast.

"The current system is working, but it is labor intensive. New technologies are available that could make the system for ensuring seafood safety more efficient and more cost-effective," said Peter Miller, a researcher in UCSC's Institute of Marine Sciences and principal investigator on the project.

The grant from NOAA's Monitoring and Event Response for Harmful Algal Blooms (MERHAB) program provides crucial support for the extensive field testing and validation needed before new methods can be incorporated into the state's monitoring program, Miller said.

The grant initiates a planned five-year, $2 million effort by NOAA's MERHAB program to engage key academic and state agency partners in developing harmful algal bloom detection and tracking tools at intensive study sites in Marin, Monterey, and San Luis Obispo Counties. UCSC and CDHS, the state agency charged with ensuring seafood safety, are coleading this effort to implement an economically sustainable harmful algal bloom monitoring plan for the California coastline.

Two toxins produced by different kinds of microscopic marine algae, or phytoplankton, are of particular concern on the West Coast. Both are potent neurotoxins, causing the syndromes known as paralytic shellfish poisoning and amnesic shellfish poisoning. When there are large numbers of toxin-producing algae in the water, filter-feeders such as mussels and other shellfish accumulate the toxins in their tissues. Anchovies and sardines can also accumulate the toxins, mostly in their guts.

Consumption of tainted shellfish can lead to severe illness and even death. Along the California coast, harmful algal blooms routinely poison and kill sea lions, sea otters, and other marine animals, and cause economic harm by forcing the closure of affected fisheries.

The existing CDHS monitoring program relies primarily on routine analysis of shellfish samples to detect toxins before they reach dangerous levels. A statewide network of volunteers, many of them from local public health agencies, collects samples and sends them to a central laboratory for toxin analysis. The toxin analysis is expensive, however, and the process of collecting, shipping, and testing samples is time-consuming, said Gregg Langlois, a marine biologist with CDHS who oversees the agency's marine biotoxin monitoring program.

"We need better tools to do this more efficiently and to get information more quickly," Langlois said.

Several types of diagnostic test kits are now available that allow rapid detection of toxins in the field. The kits could be used for prescreening of shellfish samples, enabling technicians in the field to weed out toxin-free samples that would otherwise be shipped to the central lab and put through a costly and time-consuming analysis. Laboratory analysis could then focus on determining how much toxin is present in positive samples, Langlois said.

There are also new laboratory-based techniques for analysis of water samples using molecular probes to rapidly detect the algal species that produce the toxins and measure their abundance. Remote sensing technologies, such as satellite observations and radar tracking of surface currents, offer the potential to locate and track major blooms of toxin-producing algae and predict where they will go.

Using the best available remote sensing data in conjunction with field data provided by the volunteer force may provide an early warning system and enable tracking of bloom events in real time along the California coast, Miller said. This information can then guide decisions about when and where to intensify monitoring efforts in the field.

"The power of this approach is that it paves the way for the network of program participants, including fishermen, aquaculturists, and volunteers with oversight from CDHS, to prescreen samples in the field using new technologies," Miller said.

The UCSC-led MERHAB program will establish pilot project sites where these new technologies are evaluated and incorporated into an intensive monitoring program. In addition to Miller and Langlois, the project's leaders include UCSC faculty Mary Silver, a professor of ocean sciences who has been studying harmful algal blooms since the early 1990s, and Raphael Kudela, an assistant professor of ocean sciences with expertise in remote sensing.

Miller noted that the program was jointly conceived and developed by CDHS and UCSC scientists. This kind of collaboration between a state agency and academic researchers, with funding from a federal agency, is an effective way to bring cutting-edge research to bear on practical issues of public health policy, he said.

Langlois said he will be focusing on the "grassroots" element of the program, making sure that any new field procedures added to the monitoring program will not be too burdensome for the volunteer network and that there are clear-cut protocols for using them.

"You have to have criteria for deciding when you will burn a $20 test kit, so we need to evaluate these new tools in the field and develop protocols and a decision-tree for implementing them," Langlois said.

"We also need to make it simple and easy for the volunteers, and it has to be fun," he added. "It can be fun, and that keeps people involved in the program."

Partners in the project include the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, and NOAA Fisheries Southeast.


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