October 16, 2006
A new observation and modeling program focused on the southern Gulf of Maine and adjacent New England shelf waters could aid policymakers in deciding whether or not to re-open, develop, and manage offshore shellfish beds with potential sustained harvesting value of more than $50 million per year. These areas are presently closed to the harvest of certain species of shellfish due to the presence of red tide toxins.
Researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and colleagues from seven other universities or agencies began the five-year Gulf of Maine Toxicity program, or GOMTOX, on September 1. The $7.5 million dollar program is funded by a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration‘s (NOAA) National Ocean Service, Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research (NOS/CSCOR) through the ECOHAB program.
The new research effort expands past studies in the Gulf of Maine and builds on data collected during the historic 2005 red tide, which led to closure of both nearshore shellfish beds and offshore beds in federal waters out to Georges Bank. The toxicity also extended for the first time to the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.
The Gulf of Maine (GoM) and its adjacent southern New England shelf is a vast region with extensive shellfish resources, large portions of which are frequently contaminated with paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) toxins produced by the dinoflagellate Alexandrium fundyense. The 2005 outbreak caused millions of dollars in economic damage, but monitoring programs and cooperation among federal, state and local officials, scientists, and shellfishermen prevented any reported cases of illness from people eating contaminated shellfish.
“As a result of the 2005 bloom and the closures in federal waters offshore and on the Cape and Islands, we realized we needed to expand efforts and develop a full, regional-scale understanding of Alexandrium fundyense blooms,” lead investigator Don Anderson of WHOI said. “We don’t understand the linkages between bloom dynamics and toxicity in waters near shore versus the offshore, nor do we know how toxicity is delivered to the shellfish in those offshore waters. An additional challenge is the need to expand modeling and forecasting capabilities to include the entire region, and to transition these tools to operational and management use.”
Anderson said the information and new technologies gained from the project will help managers, regulators and the shellfish industry to fully utilize and effectively manage both nearshore and offshore shellfish resources, and could lead to harvesting of the offshore surfclam and ocean quahog beds on Georges Bank and Nantucket Shoals, which have an estimated potential value of more than $50 million a year. The program should also provide information crucial to the development of a roe-on scallop industry in those waters - a product which is presently restricted because of toxin that accumulates in the roe.
GOMTOX will utilize a combination of large-and small-scale survey cruises, autonomous gliders, moored instruments and traps, drifters, satellite imagery and numerical models. Researchers will incorporate field observations into a suite of numerical models of the region for hindcasting and forecasting applications for both near shore and offshore shellfish resources.
In addition to WHOI researchers, scientists participating in GOMTOX represent Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center, the Canadian National Research Council, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, University of Maine, University of Massachusetts, and the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.
“We will be working closely with federal, state and local officials, resource managers and shellfishermen to synthesize results and disseminate the information and technology,” Anderson said. “Our ultimate goal is to transition scientific and management tools to the regulatory community for operational use. This project covers the entire Gulf fo Maine, including the Bay of Fundy, so there are many affected user groups, communities, and industries who stand to benefit.”