NOAA Awards Emergency Funding to Aid New England Red Tide Response 

July 23, 2009

Signs like these will appear in areas that have been closed due to high levels of toxin in shellfish.

Signs like these will appear in areas that have been closed due to high levels of toxin in shellfish.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

NOAA is taking steps to respond to the New England red tide in the Gulf of Maine that has caused a near-complete shutdown of shellfish harvesting in Maine. Today the agency awarded $121,000 to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in partnership with the University of Maine to conduct research cruises to monitor the toxins. The information obtained will help managers determine how long the severe red tide conditions may last, if there are regions where the bloom is receding, and whether the bloom will expand to new areas.

New England red tide, caused by the toxic algae Alexandrium, produces potent neurotoxins that accumulate in clams, mussels, oysters, and other shellfish. A severe and sometimes fatal illness, called paralytic shellfish poisoning (or PSP), can occur in humans who eat shellfish contaminated with the toxin. States have well-established, rigorous shellfish monitoring programs to protect human health, so consumers are assured that commercially available shellfish are safe for consumption.

This emergency funding supports sampling, mapping and forecasting of red tide location and intensity, which will help state managers focus their sampling efforts in areas that have the greatest opportunity to reopen for harvesting. The intent is to minimize economic impacts while maintaining strong human health protections from PSP.

“We were able to use the real-time information on Alexandrium cell abundance offshore to redirect our sampling to the most productive shellfish areas that had signs of cells clearing out. If we can open some of these best harvesting areas a week or two earlier, it will make a huge difference for the shellfish industry,” said Darcie Couture, director of Biotoxin Monitoring with the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

The Food and Drug Administration and NOAA's Fisheries Service also need this critical information to decide whether to close federal waters to shellfish harvesting under the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

This year’s red tide event is consistent with the seasonal forecast issued earlier this year by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and North Carolina State University, which predicted a moderately severe Alexandrium bloom. This forecast was based on a predictive model developed over the past decade with support from NOAA programs authorized by the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act.

Economic impacts from red tide closures can be devastating to coastal communities. The large red tide event in 2005 caused $23 million in lost shellfish sales in Maine and Massachusetts alone.

NOAA’s investment of over $23 million in New England red tide research since 1997 has aided management of these outbreak events through new tools for detecting and monitoring red tide, better communication among researchers and managers in the region, and seasonal and weekly forecasts of red tide location and extent.

As part of this investment, an ongoing $7 million five-year project involving multiple agencies and institutions seeks to improve New England red tide forecasts by establishing a more comprehensive understanding of red tide and associated shellfish toxicity. This project also aims to help managers, regulators, and industry optimize use of nearshore and offshore shellfish resources threatened by PSP, with appropriate safeguards for human health.

NOAA understands and predicts changes in the Earth's environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and conserves and manages our coastal and marine resources.