Strathclyde plays role in tackling toxic threat on US Pacific coast

A toxic threat to the seafood industry and recreational shellfishing in the Pacific Northwest of the USA is to be tackled in a project involving the University of Strathclyde.

Researchers are aiming to create an early-warning system for the onset of a phytoplankton known as Pseudo-nitzschia, several species of which produce a potent toxin which accumulates in shellfish.

This toxin can cause amnesic shellfish poisoning (ASP) and even death in humans. The west coast of the US is vulnerable to the toxin, produced during algal blooms, which a combination of wind and ocean conditions can drive on to beaches in Oregon and Washington state.

Strathclyde researcher Dr Neil Banas is working with partners at the University of Washington to develop forecasts for the algal blooms. The $1.3 million, five-year project is being funded by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and also involves representatives of Makah, a Native American tribe which has lived in the Pacific Northwest for millennia.

Dr Banas said: "Past outbreaks of Pseudo-nitzschia, including a particularly large incident in 2015, have caused fisheries closures and losses worth millions of dollars of shellfish such as Dungeness crab, rock crab, and razor clam, as well as contributing to the death of many species of marine mammals.

"The loss of a single razor clam opener event – which can last from two to five days – on Washington beaches can result in almost $6 million in lost expenditures and over 65 jobs. The new forecasts we are developing are intended to help resource managers target their beachside monitoring of toxicity levels in shellfish, and fine-tune decisions regarding closures of beaches to shellfish harvest, thus protecting human health and reducing the severe economic disruption that closures can have.

"We've learned to predict some aspects of Pseudo-nitzschia behavior well, such as the way it travels along coasts and the rise and fall of phytoplankton as a whole with changes in wind and light – but it can't yet be predicted exactly when toxic Pseudo-nitzschia species will appear in the phytoplankton community instead of other, similar but non-toxic species. This project is the culmination of more than a decade of basic research on the physics and biology behind these toxic blooms."

In the new forecast system, near-real-time monitoring of offshore conditions will be provided by Dr. Vera Trainer at NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center and members of the Makah Tribe, who will collect samples in the Juan de Fuca Eddy at two-week intervals and analyze them for toxins within a day. Scientists at the University of Washington will combine the monitoring data with predictions from a computer model of coastal currents and plankton biology developed at Washington and Strathclyde.

Marc Suddleson who heads a program for algae bloom research at NOAA, said: "The work supported previously in the Pacific Northwest has led to a predictive capability for Pseudo-nitzschia blooms. The innovative ideas behind this new project will enable us to answer some of the remaining difficult questions to improve predictions and demonstrate a viable forecast system."

The project team plans to produce an integrated, map-based assessment of toxicity risk in the run-up to each scheduled razor clam dig, in the form of a Pacific Northwest HAB (harmful algal bloom) Bulletin for coastal resource managers. The project will also use data from the Olympic Region Harmful Algal Bloom partnership.

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