PORTLAND — Red tide monitoring is going high-tech with a robotic “laboratory in a can.”
A garbage can-size canister was deployed in late April in the ocean waters off southern Maine to collect and transmit data about toxin-producing algae blooms, known as red tides, that show up in the Gulf of Maine each spring.
Inside the canister is a pint-size robotic biology lab that extracts organisms from water samples, tests them for DNA and toxins, and transmits real-time data to shore by cellphone. Scientists say the apparatus will transform the way the harmful algal blooms are monitored and allow resource managers to better predict when and where red tide outbreaks might occur.
“This is one of the first steps in a major enhancement of red-tide monitoring,” said Don Anderson, a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Falmouth, Mass., who has overseen development of the device.
One of the contraptions, called an environmental sample processor, was put in the ocean in late April. It’ll be taken out in mid-June and replaced by another that will continue taking samples through the rest of the red tide season.
Anderson wants to have four of the processors in the Gulf of Maine next year. In time, he hopes to have a dozen of them at strategic points along the Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts coasts, as well as in Canada’s Bay of Fundy and on Georges Bank fishing grounds 60 miles east of Cape Cod.
The monitoring devices cost more than $200,000 each, but the price should come down as the technology is refined, Anderson said. Funding for the project comes from a number of sources, including the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Red tide blooms produce a toxin that clams, mussels and some other shellfish absorb, making them unsafe for humans to eat. In extreme cases, eating tainted shellfish can cause potentially fatal paralytic shellfish poisoning.
In bad years, red tide outbreaks have shut down hundreds of miles of clam flats for weeks at a time in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, resulting in tens of millions of dollars in losses for clam diggers and other shellfish harvesters.
The new processors are intended to complement, not replace, existing red-tide monitoring programs. State agencies now test for red tide in coastal shellfish areas, but there’s never been ongoing testing in waters miles offshore.
Tracking red tide outbreaks using only shoreline testing is like predicting the weather using only weather instruments in your backyard, not knowing about a storm system coming your way, Anderson said. Adding offshore testing for red tide toxins is like adding radar, weather balloons and other sophisticated equipment in forecasting the weather, he said.
“You can see something offshore and know what’s coming,” he said. “We take that for granted with the weather. Imagine that in monitoring these algal blooms.”
Offshore tests will help managers determine when they should be conducting coastline testing, said Darcie Couture, lead scientist at Resource Access International LLC, a Brunswick company that provides private laboratory testing for shellfish. If there aren’t any toxins being detected offshore, then there’s probably no need to be testing for them close to shore, she said.
The devices will also give managers a heads-up on when and where red tide might strike. In 2005, there was a large red tide bloom in the Gulf that nobody was aware of and that stayed offshore because winds were blowing from the southwest. But when a nor’easter struck, the northeasterly winds blew the red tide to shore, resulting in widespread clam flat closures with little warning.
“The offshore waters are a blind spot unless you have something out there telling you what’s happening,” said Couture, who formerly headed Maine’s red tide monitoring programming.
The new monitoring device is tethered to a buoy on the water surface and to an anchor on the ocean floor. The first one was developed by Chris Scholin, who was once a student of Anderson’s while earning a doctorate and is now president and CEO of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research institute in California.
Scholin’s first “laboratory in a can,” as he called it, was deployed off Maine in 2000. The idea was to find a way to retrieve and test data from the ocean in a timely manner without actually going to sea, he said. Marine research is time-consuming and costly when scientists have to rent vessels with crew, spend days at a time at sea and collect samples that are later tested in on-shore laboratories. By the time the lab results are known, the water conditions may have changed.
Scholin’s first device was crude compared to the Anderson’s latest version, but it worked. To retrieve the data, he carried an antenna and a large battery in a backpack, and pointed the antenna toward the ocean.
“People thought we were crazy, that it couldn’t be done,” he said.
Besides red tide, the processor can be used to test for water quality and monitor bacteria, viruses and other organisms in oceans, lakes, rivers, reservoirs and at fish farms. In time, it could be used for commercial applications, such as testing food in food-processing plants.
“They are on the cutting edge of technology, pushing the edge,” Scholin said.