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Implementation of an Operational Model for Prediction of Alexandrium fundyense Blooms in the Gulf of Maine

This project began in January 2011 and was completed in December 2014

Earlier NOAA-funded research developed models to predict blooms of toxic Alexandrium fundyense. Toxins accumulate in shellfish, causing illness in human consumers, so states must monitor shellfish and ban harvesting when toxicity is high. This project is transitioning the models to the NOAA HAB Operational Forecast System, which will provide seasonal and weekly forecasts to state managers and the shellfish industry so they can protect public health and minimize economic disruption.

Why We Care
The toxic dinoflagellate, Alexandrium fundyense blooms annually in the Gulf of Maine (GOM). The toxins can accumulate in shellfish, which if consumed by humans, can cause severe illness or death from paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP). To protect human health states in the region rigorously monitor toxins in shellfish and close harvesting when toxins levels exceed a regulatory threshold. When such closures, which occur during the summer tourist season, are widespread and prolonged, they can have major economic impacts. For example, in the severe bloom season in 2005, lost shellfish sales alone were estimated to be $18 million in Massachusetts and $4.9 million in Maine.

NOAA-funded research has led to the development of models that can predict Alexandrium blooms, based on meteorological and oceanographic conditions and the distribution and abundance of seed-like cysts in bottom sediments in the fall. In the fall when blooms end, Alexandrium produces a cyst that falls to the bottom and remains dormant all winter; when environmental conditions improve in the spring, the cysts hatch and Alexandrium grows until it again forms blooms. The geographic extent, intensity, and duration of the bloom, and thus the severity of shellfish toxicity, depend on oceanographic and environmental conditions in the spring and summer. NOAA-funded researchers have issued experimental seasonal outlooks since 2008 (see links below) and pilot weekly forecasts are provided via a listserv to approximately 200 federal, state and local public health, shellfish, and water quality managers, members of the shellfish industry, and researchers.

Early warnings assist managers, who conduct shellfish monitoring, prepare for the upcoming bloom season, especially if it is likely to be a severe bloom. Weekly forecasts allow managers to plan monitoring so that closures are minimized while still protecting public health.  Forecasts also allow the shellfish industry to plan for harvesting closures.

What We Are Doing
This project will transition the Gulf of Maine Alexandrium forecast from an experimental mode as part of a research project to routine operational use at NOAA as part of the NOAA HAB Operational Forecasting System (HAB-OFS). Transitioning the forecast is a multi-step process that involves: implementing and testing the models in real-time mode on NOAA high-performance computers; identifying and incorporating data from various sources, including cruises to map cysts every fall, in order to initiate and validate the models; developing a standard operating procedure; validating model forecast results; producing operational forecast web-based products; training forecast analysts to produce the forecast; and working with end users to develop the appropriate forecast products.

This project is part of the Prevention, Control and Mitigation of Harmful Algal Blooms (PCMHAB) Program. It is led by Dennis McGillicuddy, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Co-principal investigators include Don Anderson, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and Ruoying He, North Carolina State University. NOAA partners are Richard Stumpf, National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment, Frank Aikman, Coast Survey Development Lab, and Aijun Zhang, Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services. The project is advised by a Transition Advisory Committee (TAC) comprised of federal (1), state (4), and local resource/public health, water quality managers plus private industry (2) and Northeastern Regional Association of Coastal and Ocean Observing Systems (NERACOOS) (1) representatives.

Benefits of Our Work
The NOAA HAB-OFS currently provides HAB forecasts for Karenia brevis blooms along the Florida and the Texas coasts. Other HAB forecasts are under development with this forecast in the Gulf of Maine and Lake Erie closest to transition to operations.

By transitioning the Gulf of Maine Alexandrium forecast from research to operations on NOAA’s high performance computers, which include two identical computer systems (one as primary and the other as backup), forecasts will be efficient and reliable. Data will be monitored and validated on a 24x7 operational schedule to produce timely, reliable, and highly accurate forecast products and ensure routine coverage during the bloom season. By training several analysts, and securing sufficient operational funding, it is more likely that consistently high-quality forecasts will continue well into the future. An annual assessment of the forecast accuracy, skill and reliability will be used to fine-tune the models and to identify research needs to improve the forecast.

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