Researchers at the University of California Santa Cruz have received a $400,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to develop a system to quickly and efficiently detect biotoxins in California’s coastal waters.

UCSC and the California Department of Health Services (CDHS) are working collaboratively to test the new monitoring and tracking technologies to ensure the safety of fish and shellfish harvested along the coast.

Toxins produced by phytoplankton have historically been a concern along the West Coast, as they grow rapidly in warm waters and can contaminate mussels, oysters, scallops, clams and any other fish or shellfish that feed on phytoplankton. Consumption of contaminated fish can lead to serious gastrointestinal problems and even amnesia. The presence of such toxins has forced the closure of fisheries, and significantly impacted harvesters and others in the seafood industry.

Most recently, Carlsbad Aquafarms in San Diego County voluntarily recalled potentially contaminated raw oysters sold to distributors and restaurants in Southern California and distributors in Washington and Utah. Such events have prompted the call for new and improved monitoring and tracking systems along the coast.

“The current [monitoring] system is working, but it is labor intensive. New technologies are available that could make the system more efficient and more cost effective,” said Peter Miller, a researcher at UCSC’s Institute of Marine Sciences.

The grant to develop the new technology initiates a projected five-year effort of NOAA’s Monitoring and Event Response for Harmful Algal Blooms (MERHAB) program. The MERHAB program will facilitate development of an improved tracking and detection system, which will be piloted in Marin, Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties.

Diagnostic kits now available allow rapid, on-site detection of toxins, eliminating the costly and timely procedure of shipping samples to the central lab for analysis.

New sensing technologies such as satellite observations also have the potential to locate toxin-producing algae, and additionally, they can predict their path through the water.

Data retrieved by remote sensing technologies and field testing may provide an early warning system and enable tracking of events in real time. This immediately available information can help determine locations and times to intensify monitoring in the field, according to Miller.

In addition to researchers at UCSC and Gregg Langlois, a marine biologist at CDHS, partners in the project include the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Moss Landing Marine Laboratories and NOAA Fisheries Southeast.

“This kind of collaboration between a state agency and academic researchers, with funding from a federal agency, is an effective way to bring cutting-edge research to bear on practical issues of public health policy,” said Miller.

—Arlene Karidis

Food Chemical News, October 11, 2004, Volume 46, Number 35 Copyright © 2004, CRC Press LLC