New machine could help predict red tide blooms in NW waters (w/video)

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 19, 2013 

BOW - Detecting pathogens in shellfish that are harmful to humans is currently laborious and time-consuming work, but a new robotic sensing unit could vastly improve the system, resulting in fewer people getting sick.

Officials from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration introduced the Environmental Sample Processor on Thursday, July 18, at Taylor Shellfish Farms. The unit uses molecular probes to detect micro-organisms by their DNA, and it can be done nearly in real time, giving scientists a better chance to see an algal bloom (also known as a red tide bloom) as it is happening.

This allows them to more quickly react and close areas before the affected shellfish are consumed by humans. Some red tide blooms produce natural toxins that can be harmful to other wildlife and people.

"I am so glad it (the machine) is here," said Jerry Borchert, public health advisor for the Washington State Department of Health. "This is a super-early warning system that will greatly reduce the chances for a (food) recall or someone getting sick."

Shellfish contamination can be a significant problem, one that is hard to predict. While it's been a relatively quiet year so far, 2012 was a bad one for this region, with several closures and at least nine people getting sick as a result of the blooms, Borchert said. Whatcom County had a lot of closures last year, and typically is the first area in this region to see red tide blooms.

Along with improving detection in the interest of public health, this machine can help businesses like Taylor Shellfish Farms. Bill Dewey, a company spokesman, said the naturally occurring toxins that can lead to paralytic shellfish poisoning are "always on our mind" and the quicker turnaround on tests will allow them to better manage the business. Before the machine arrived, samples were collected and sent to Lynnwood for testing.

The improved system ultimately could lead to increased harvest times because of better planning, said Jeff Campbell, who is part of the fisheries and wildlife biology faculty at Northwest Indian College.

"It is well on its way to becoming the gold standard for testing," Campbell said.

The machine itself is used onsite and sends the information to scientists for analysis, said Stephanie Moore of NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center. It can provide significantly more data than traditional methods, helping scientists build better computer models. Eventually the goal is to have enough data to be able to make red tide bloom forecasts, much like the weather service does with storms, she said.

"Right now we have no reliable way to know when this (red tide) will happen," Moore said, noting that it takes a variety of factors to create the bloom.

The machine does have some drawbacks: It is costly to build since the technology is new, and it is bulky. The goal is to get it smaller, maybe the size of a basketball, said Jim Birch of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and a developer of the ESP.

This water-sensor technology potentially has applications for a variety of fields, including pipe corrosion prevention for energy companies, said Chris Melancon, CEO of Spyglass Technologies, a Florida-based company that is developing the machine for commercial use.

As more companies and agencies use the machine, the cost for building the units should go down, he said.

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Reach Business Editor Dave Gallagher at 360-715-2269 or dave.gallagher@bellinghamherald.com. Read his Business blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/business or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldbiz.

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