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Protecting New Yorkers from Toxic Shellfish Poisoning with HAB Early Warning and Rapid Response

This project began in January 2011 and was completed in December 2015

Since 2006, large, annual, toxic algal blooms have alarmed the New York shellfish industry. We are developing an early warning system of toxic algae in New York coastal waters and evaluating approaches to monitor the toxins. With our advice, New York will be able to select the fastest, most economical, and most reliable method for rapid harmful algal bloom response to ensure safe shellfish harvesting.

Why We Care
Prior to 2006, there had been no known instance of an algal bloom producing toxins harmful to humans in New York coastal waters. Since, a rise in toxic harmful algal blooms (HABs) has raised the concern shellfish regulators and industry. Shellfish feeding on harmful algae can accumulate toxins in their flesh. When people eat tainted shellfish they can become sick and even die. Annually re-occurring toxic blooms have created potential for outbreaks of two, shellfish-related, human illnesses: paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) which can cause paralysis and diarrhetic shellfish poisoning (DSP) which causes a debilitating digestive system syndrome.

Since 2006 annual toxic Alexandrium blooms and high levels of its toxin in shellfish forced New York to close nearly 7,500 acres of prime shellfish beds on Long Island’s north shore. In 2011, high levels of Alexandriumtoxin in shellfish triggered closure of 3,900 acres along the south shore, hurting oyster aquaculture operations of the Shinnecock Indian Nation. In 2012, Alexandrium blooms expanded to new locations, including Sag Harbor and also appeared earlier in the year. The north shore also now experiences large annual blooms of toxic Dinophysis raising concerns about the emergence of DSP as a new HAB-related health threat.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) shellfish monitoring program is the first line of defense against shellfish poisoning by HABs but does not have access to new technologies and extra resources to rapidly respond to the expanding HAB problem. Further, researchers believe that limited state sampling maybe underestimating the extent of the PSP and DSP health threat. There is a great need for enhanced monitoring, forecasting, and response to New York HAB events.

What We Are Doing
We are collaborating with Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences for annual HAB sampling, quantifying abundances of algal species including Alexandrium and Dinophysis, and measuring toxin levels before, during, and after bloom events. We are also evaluating field-based toxin monitoring tools such as passive toxin absorption resin bags called Solid Phase Absorption Toxin Tracking (SPATT) samplers to identify the best method.

This project is part of the NCCOS Monitoring and Event Response for Harmful Algal Blooms (MERHAB) program. The project leader is Dr. Christopher Gobler, State University of New York at Stony Brook (Stony Brook University), School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences.

Benefits of Our Work
Our research has immediate and long-term benefits to protect the health of people who enjoy eating New York shellfish. Annual monitoring provides accurate estimates of PSP and DSP human health threats during blooms. NYSDEC uses toxin monitoring tool evaluations to select the most rapid, economical, and reliable method for safely determining when to close and re-open shellfish harvests to minimize the chance of PSP or DSP outbreaks. Further, we assess the feasibly of linking HAB sampling, environmental condition data, and mathematical analyses to produce early warnings of HAB-related public health threats.

This project has led to the evaluation of approximately 80 sites across Long Island for the presence of PSP- and DSP-producing, Alexandrium and Dinophysis.  Numerous Alexandrium and Dinophysis hotspots have been identified and toxins in shellfish have been confirmed in those regions.  As a direct result of this project there have been numerous PSP closures across Long Island.  PSP and DSP monitoring technologies were vetted and a DSP monitoring program protocol was proposed to the NYSDEC to protect human health.  In addition, data collected during this project was used to submit an approval package to ISSC for integration of the Abraxis PP2A kit into state regulated DSP monitoring programs.  Environmental parameters collected during these Alexandrium and Dinophysis blooms are currently being used to develop forecast models within Northport Bay.  Data collected during this project has been used to generate multiple peer-reviewed publications and through numerous presentations knowledge gleaned from this project has been disseminated to various state, federal and academic entities.  Overall one of the greatest successes of this project is the data generated from this project identified a serious HAB problem in Long Island that has evolved into the formation of a HAB action plan which is currently being formulated and involves multiple agencies/entities including: Suffolk County Department of Health, Stony Brook University, NYSDEC, NY SeaGrant and the Nature Conservancy, to name a few.

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