Red-Tide Alerts

October 1, 2017
By Damond Benningfield

red tide .jpg

Red tides can contaminate oysters and other shellfish. Credit: Public Domain

 A red tide can cause all kinds of problems. Neurotoxins in the microscopic organisms that cause red tides can contaminate oysters and other shellfish. Anyone who eats the shellfish can get sick, or even die. So it’s important to know when one of these harmful algal blooms is developing -- early detection can keep people from getting sick.

Marine scientists are developing ways to find the nasty little organisms, which are types of phytoplankton, before they become a major problem. Researchers in Massachusetts, for example, are using underwater “robots.” These systems have already detected high concentrations of the offending organisms earlier than more traditional methods, which analyze the shellfish. The shellfish tests that can take days.

The researchers are using two tools.One is a camera system that photographs the phytoplankton as they swim by -- up to 10 pictures a second. The images are transmitted to computers on land. The computers have been “trained” to identify the organisms responsible for red tides.

The second tool is a chemical laboratory that measures the amount of toxins in the water. Those readings are also transmitted to scientists on land.

In 2012, these systems helped identify toxic phytoplankton in local waters before officials were scheduled to begin testing the shellfish. And in 2015, they detected a type of phytoplankton that had never before caused problems in that area. That may have helped prevent a few tummy aches caused by nasty little “bugs” in the water.