Federal grant will aid Sitka Tribe toxin research

NOAA allocates $10.2 million for studies of harmful algal blooms

A dozen new research projects to better understand and predict harmful algal blooms and improve response to them are being funded through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, including one to expand existing research by the Sitka Tribe of Alaska.

NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) announced on Oct. 1 the allocation of $10.2 million in fiscal year 2019 for these projects. Approximately $8.4 million will cover the first year of new three- to five-year projects and $1.78 million will go toward three-year projects already in progress.

Harmful algal blooms occur when colonies of algae living in the sea or freshwater grow out of control and produce toxic or harmful effects on people, fish, shellfish, marine mammals and birds. They may range in size from microscopic, single-celled organisms to large seaweed. A few of these algal blooms produce toxins that can kill fish, mammals and birds, and may cause human illness or even death in extreme cases.

The Sitka Tribe is allocated $316,740 for fiscal year 2019, with total anticipated funding of $958,974. The collaborative research also includes NCCOS, NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center and the Washington Sea Grant Program. The project is set to run through August 2022.

The project will expand existing harmful algal toxin monitoring conducted by the Sitka Tribe to include domoic acid and diarrhetic shellfish poisoning toxins, and to validate the protein phosphatase assay (PP2A) compared to accepted methods for DSP toxins.

The Tribe runs a successful monitoring program for harmful algal bloom toxins, which pose a health risk for subsistence, recreational and commercial shellfish harvesters throughout Southeast Alaska. The Tribe also promotes effective collaborations with harmful algal bloom monitoring programs across Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.

NOAA officials said expanding the Tribe’s capacity to detect these emerging toxins in Alaska addresses a recognized gap in the existing monitoring framework and meets the monitoring and event response (MERHAB) objective to build capacity for less costly and more precise and comprehensive monitoring of phytoplankton cells and algal toxins, and for responding to harmful algal blooms.

The project addresses the need for cost-effective toxin detection for public health protection in remote regions. Key data collected in this project will aid method validation for the determination of DSP toxins in additional shellfish matrices and support the NCCOS priority to advance new detection technologies that provide states, municipalities and tribal nations with the ability to identify and quantify HAB species and toxicity.

Also funded with $227,241, with total anticipated funding of $562,209, was a collaborative effort by the University of Washington Tacoma, NCCOS, the University of Alaska and Alaska Sea Grant. The project develops two lab-based quantitative molecular methods for detection and counting of Alexandrium catenella resting cysts in sediment from the Gulf of Maine, Washington (Puget Sound), and Alaska (Kodiak and Kachemak Bay). The project will develop a target-specific DNA probe for a fluorescent in situ hybridization (FISH) assay, researchers said.