NOAA Ocean Science Blog discussed with Dr. Quay Dortch from NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS), Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research, to talk about the recent news of the opening of New England’s Surfclam fisheryand how ECOHAB research contributed to the opening.
What is the protocol and how has it contributed to the recently announced opening of Georges Bank shellfish harvesting?
First it is necessary to give some background about shellfish harvesting on Georges Bank.
The Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank sometimes experience blooms of Alexandrium fundyense, the New England red tide. This algal species produces a suite of potent neurotoxins that can accumulate in shellfish. If humans consume toxic shellfish they may become sick or die of Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP). In near shore waters where states have jurisdiction, each state has a monitoring program that tests for toxicity in shellfish. When toxicity exceeds the FDA regulatory action level, shellfish beds are closed for harvesting by the state to protect public health (MA, NH, ME).
When PSP toxins were found in shellfish from federal waters of the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank, shellfish harvesting was banned in 1990 because these resources are too remote and cover too wide an area for routine monitoring. Surf clams and ocean quahogs support a multimillion-dollar fishery on the east coast but, as clam stocks have decreased in areas to the south where Alexandrium blooms do not occur, interest in harvesting clams from these closed areas has increased. The shipboard screening/dockside testing protocol was developed and tested in a pilot program to solve the monitoring problem.
During the pilot program, that was part of the GOMTOX: Dynamics of Alexandrium fundyense distributions in the Gulf of Maine project and led by FDA researchers, fishermen were trained to use toxin screening methods on the boat. Before harvesting, they did test trawls and screened shellfish for toxins. If toxin levels were below the regulatory threshold, harvesting proceeded. When the ships came back to port, the shellfish were tested at NSSP-approved labs to ensure safety and then the product could be sold. Data were collected for a number of years comparing the quick screening tests with the lab-based tests to make sure the quick tests performed adequately. Once the efficacy of the method had been documented, the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Commission (ISSC) approved the method and FDA concurred.
Many shellfish samples were collected during the pilot program and NCCOS funded additional shellfish sampling in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank, through the GOMTOX project. In general, PSP-toxin levels were low during the entire period. Thus, the risk of PSP from consuming shellfish from federal waters is low, and the testing protocol will be used to keep toxic shellfish out of the food supply if toxicity does occur.
As a consequence of the approval of the testing protocol by the ISSC and the availability of data indicating low toxicity in shellfish from Georges Bank, the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council requested that NMFS open an area on Georges Bank to shellfish harvesting, under authority provided by the Magnunson-Stevens Act. NMFS published the proposed new rule in the federal register and after a comment period, has now published the interim final rule, opening shellfish harvesting in January, 2013.
Who were the partners/stakeholders involved in this effort?
Although the large GOMTOX project had many partners, the main partners/stakeholders in this part of the project are the clam fishing industry and the two U.S. agencies that have joint responsibility for insuring the safety of seafood harvested from federal waters, the Food and Drug Administration and NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).
The fishing industry has been so interested in developing methods of safely harvesting shellfish from Georges Bank that they participated with academic researchers and the FDA in writing the proposal for the GOMTOX project that was submitted to ECOHAB. Early in the GOMTOX project, the fishermen were trained in the use of several quick tests, which they then used in the pilot project testing the protocol. After the development of the protocol the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council requested the opening of Georges Bank, using the protocol so that this large, untapped resource could be safely harvested.
Under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, FDA and NMFS share responsibility for regulating seafood from offshore federal waters. Consequently, FDA scientists led the effort to test the shipboard screening/dockside testing protocol with support both from the NOAA GOMTOX project and also considerable in kind support from FDA.
What is the GOMTOX project?
The GOMTOX project is a large regional, ecosystem study ($9M over 7 years) with many goals. The primary purpose is to understand the growth and toxicity of Alexandrium in the Gulf of Mainein order to better predict blooms and shellfish toxicity and to develop better monitoring methods. In addition to the shipboard screening/dockside testing protocol, the project has also yielded the development of predictive models for A. fundyense blooms. Such models are used to provide HAB forecasts, similar to weather forecasts. Since 2008 project investigators have provided state shellfish and public health managers with seasonal outlooks of bloom severity and weekly forecasts of bloom intensity and location. The most recent forecast in 2012 predicted a moderate red tide. Such forecasts are used to plan for the upcoming year and to improve monitoring to protect public health and minimize economic impacts.
The GOMTOX project was funded by the Ecology and Oceanography of Harmful Algal Blooms (ECOHAB) Program, which is a national, competitive program that funds research to understand the causes and impacts of Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) in order to improve HAB response and management. ECOHAB and the related Monitoring and Event Response for Harmful Algal Blooms (MERHAB) Program and the Prevention, Control and Mitigation of Harmful Algal Blooms (PCMHAB) Program are housed in the NCCOS Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research (CSCOR) and are authorized by the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research and Control Act (HABHRCA).
The GOMTOX project built on earlier ECOHAB and MERHAB projects, funded since 1997, that investigated Alexandrium distributions in the Gulf, and built and tested the first Alexandrium models. Other studies investigated the distribution and transport of the seed-like cysts of Alexandrium that are responsible for the initiation of blooms every spring
Will NCCOS continue research on Alexandrium in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank?
The GOMTOX project is winding down, but the work is being continued through three new, competitive projects and collaborations with NCCOS scientists.
· Forecasting Alexandrium blooms will be operationalized within NOAA, like a weather forecast, through a PCMHAB project “Implementation of an Operational Model for Prediction of Alexandrium fundsyense Blooms in the Gulf of Maine.” Partners include Dr. Rick Stumpf of the NCCOS Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment (CCMA), Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services (COOPs), Coastal Survey Development Lab (CSDL), and, academics, federal and state resource managers, industry and the regional Ocean Observing System, NERACOOS.
· Improve the ability to monitor for Alexandrium cells and toxins in the Gulf of Maine through the deployment of Environmental Sample Processors (ESP). ESPs can provide on-site (in situ) collection and analysis of cells or toxins in water samples from the subsurface ocean.
- MERHAB: Incorporation of Environmental Sample Processor Technology into Gulf of Maine HAB Monitoring and Management
- PCM HAB: Environmental Sample Processor (ESP) Development: Targeting Cost Reductions, Robustness and an Improved User Interface
- Dr. Greg Doucette, of the NCCOS Center for Coastal Environmental Health and Biomolecular Research (CCEHBR), is developing a PSP-toxin sensor module for the Environmental Sample Processor (ESP).
Where can readers learn more about this topic?
For more information on the Shipboard Screening/Dockside Testing Protocol
or to learn more about the NCCOS programs involved with this effort, readers can follow links to the Ecology and Oceanography of Harmful Algal Blooms (ECOHAB) Program and
For more information on the study area, readers can see a map of closed areas in Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank
I’ve also provided some links to Red tides in the Gulf of Maine
and Federal Register Notice Describing Interim Final Rule for folks interested in additional information.