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Image of shellfish closure sign in Bourne Bay, Mass.June 9, 2005 NOAA announced this afternoon that it is awarding an additional $12 thousand to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to support emergency response efforts to the largest red tide in New England since 1972. (Click image for larger view of shellfish closure sign in Bourne Bay, Mass. Click here for high resolution version. Please credit “Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.”)

Red tide blooms create potent neurotoxins that accumulate in filter-feeding shellfish and other parts of the marine food web. Shellfish contaminated with the red tide toxin, if eaten in large enough quantity, can cause illness or death a poisoning syndrome called paralytic shellfish poisoning or PSP.

The funding, which supports on the water monitoring cruises, is the third such NOAA grant to WHOI this spring in support of its efforts to monitor the extent and movement of the bloom. This information assists coastal managers in determining where to test for toxicity in shellfish to protect public health in the region. NOAA, to date, has awarded $30.6 thousand to support the ongoing New England monitoring effort.

Image of shellfish closure sign in Bourne Bay, Mass.Blooms of Alexandrium fundyense (a microscopic algae), referred to as red tide, occur periodically in the Gulf of Maine, but rarely at the density and geographic extent now being witnessed. The harmful algal bloom spread into Massachusetts Bay last month and now has forced the closure of shellfish beds as far south as Buzzards Bay, Nantucket Island and Martha’s Vineyard. Scientists and coastal managers are concerned that it could continue to spread southward along the Rhode Island and Connecticut coasts into Long Island Sound. (Click image for larger view of shellfish closure sign in Bourne Bay, Mass. Click here for high resolution version. Please credit “Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.”)

“Harmful algal blooms pose a serious threat to human health and are economically damaging to our coastal communities,” said retired Navy Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher, Ph.D., undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and NOAA administrator. “Supporting these monitoring efforts allow us to assist states in maintaining a safe and plentiful seafood supply by allowing targeted closures.”

NOAA officials emphasize that commercially available seafood is safe to eat, and that residents and visitors to the region should follow the guidelines offered by local officials.

“Support of our ship time for tracking this bloom, through the NOAA emergency funding, has been important,” said Woods Hole’s Donald M. Anderson, Ph.D., and lead investigator in the response effort. “The information we have been supplying state managers has allowed them to effectively deploy their staff to focus sampling efforts on new areas threatened by the very high red tide concentrations.”

Through $11 million of funding support to researchers throughout New England over the past decade, NOAA has helped foster several significant advances in monitoring harmful algal blooms. One of the most critical is a rapid cell identification process called “whole cell hybridization.” It reduces HAB identification time from months or weeks to sometimes less than a day. The speed of this identification process, which is used by the WHOI team, combined with a series of other observations, is used to map the spread of the bloom in almost real time.

The Gulf of Maine Ocean Observing System, one of the regional components of the emerging United States Integrated Ocean Observing System, has also been a crucial component in monitoring the HAB spread. Through its observation posts, it is able to track water temperature, currents and other environmental factors that can contribute to a red tide bloom and spread.

“The integration of observing system data with computer models during a red tide event point to the growing importance of ocean observing systems,” notes Richard Spinrad, assistant administrator of the NOAA Oceans and Coasts Service that is overseeing the NOAA response to the current bloom. “Economic impacts of HAB events can be devastating to local regions, and hopefully we will, in the near future, be able to forecast them in advance and take steps to mitigate their impacts.”

The New England region is not the only area of the country affected by red tides. The Gulf of Mexico, coasts of Florida and Texas, the Washington-Oregon coast in the Pacific Northwest and parts of the California coastline have all been impacted by harmful algal blooms this spring.

The NOAA Ecology and Oceanography of Harmful Algal Blooms and NOAA Monitoring and Event Response to Harmful Algal Blooms programs have been supporting a research effort in each region because the causes of the blooms vary by ecological conditions and algal species. In addition to the response funding in New England, NOAA has provided $13 thousand in emergency funds to monitoring agencies in Oregon and $4 thousand to agencies in Texas.

NOAA has established its first red tide forecast system along the Florida coast where toxic blooms have become aerosoled, affecting residents’ respiratory functions. The forecasts, which are geared for public health and coastal managers, are now issued twice weekly. NOAA hopes to be able to adapt the technology to other regions of the country over time.

NOAA, an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce, is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and providing environmental stewardship of the nation's coastal and marine resources.

Relevant Web Sites
NOAA Oceans and Coasts Service

NOAA Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research

Media Contact:
Ben Sherman, NOAA Oceans and Coasts Service, (301) 713-3066 ext. 178
(Photos courtesy of Judy Kleindinst, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.)