Robotic Sensors Monitor Red Tides in Gulf of Maine

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is utilizing new robotic instruments to help monitor and manage harmful algal blooms (HABs) or red tides in New England. The first instrument has been in use since last month, and a second will be deployed later this spring.

The new robotic sensors used by WHOI will allow researchers to make weekly real-time forecasts of the algal blooms in the Gulf of Maine more accurate. WHOI forecasts are sent to 150 fisheries, coastal managers, and federal agencies such as the EPA and NOAA. Researchers plan to add “current status” updates to the Northeast PSP website, as well.

According to Don Anderson, WHOI senior scientist and principal investigator of the project, “This deployment is a critical step towards our long-term dream of having a network of instruments moored along the coast of the Gulf of Maine, routinely providing data on the distribution and abundance of HAB cells and toxins. The technology will greatly enhance management capabilities and protection of public health in the region.”

The two robotic sensors, Environmental Sample Processors (ESPs), detect and estimate the population of two algal species that cause red tides and may also produce fatal toxins. The toxicity of the algal blooms can vary and influence the amount of toxins in shellfish. Monitoring the toxicity levels in shellfish and other species can help prevent the spread of the toxin to other marine species and humans that may consume the shellfish.

“The ESPs are not a replacement for state-run programs that monitor naturally occurring marine toxins in shellfish. Instead, they will provide valuable data on the phytoplankton cells and associated toxins in coastal waters giving managers a more complete picture of the magnitude and distribution of HAB events,” says Kohl Kanwit, director of the Bureau of Public Health for the Maine Department of Marine Resources.