Northwest Fisheries Science Center

Media Invitation: Water-Quality Robot Deployment

New robotic technology deployed in Puget Sound to detect microscopic organisms and protect local seafood.

You are invited to a media availability to witness the deployment of an Environmental Sample Processor (ESP), a state-of-the-art robotic sensing unit that uses molecular probes to detect microorganisms in water by their DNA. This automated technology provides near real-time information on what's happening in the water and relays the results to scientists at their desks. Conventional collection and analysis is difficult at remote locations and results can take days.

Summers in Puget Sound routinely see blooms of harmful algae or pathogens, threatening shellfish and finfish farms and water-based recreation. Some of these blooms are striking in appearance and color the water shades of red and brown; whereas others are more insidious. This state-of-the-art instrument is being tested for its ability to provide early warning of harmful algae and pathogens that can affect shellfish growers, fish farmers and water enthusiasts. The goal is ultimately to provide near-real time information to decision-makers so that they can make judgments that will improve the safety of our local seafood and the economic stability of waterfront businesses.

Date: Thursday, July 18, 2013
Time: 10:45am-12pm, followed at noon with a clam bake and chowder picnic with partners
Location 2182 Chuckanut Drive, Bow WA 98232
For more information: Ruth Howell, NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center, 206-302-2474
Note: For pre-event B-roll or audio recordings, the instrument will be available in a lab in Seattle during the first two weeks of July. Contact Ruth Howell for more information.

Scheduled to be available for interviews:
Stephanie Moore, NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center and lead researcher
Jim Birch, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, ESP developer
Bill Dewey, Taylor Shellfish and site host and consumer of ESP information


Background Information:

New Technology

The ESP is part of the next generation of oceanography. A number of new, high-tech instruments — satellites, robotic gliders, moored sensors, underwater observatories — are transforming the way we keep tabs on our oceans. Scientists around the world are now using automated biological sensors to collect timely information that is difficult and expensive to collect by traditional methods of manually collecting field samples and processing back at the lab.

The Environmental Sample Processor (ESP) is the first commercially available robotic sensor of its kind. It collects water samples and uses molecular probes to detect microorganisms by their DNA. The results are transmitted in near real-time to scientists or other interested parties using the cellular network. And the best part — it does this all by itself!

Testing ESPs Around the Nation

NOAA and its partners are working to demonstrate new applications for detecting harmful algae and their toxins and pathogens with ESPs in the Gulf of Maine, California coastal waters, and Puget Sound. Current research is focused on developing ESP deployment and recovery strategies, designing optimal sensor networks, expanding the number of in-water tests available for algae, toxins, and pathogens, and piloting a private sector pathway to expand adoption of ESPs and other marine sensors soon to be commercially available.

Water Quality and Shellfish

The shellfish in Samish Bay, like in many basins of Puget Sound and other waterways globally, are threatened by pollution from many sources. Picture a large sink with Samish Bay as the drain. Any pollutants in the entire watershed can impact water quality in Samish Bay, including runoff from streets, agricultural practices, forest practices, animals in streams (wild and domestic), failing septic systems, and erosion. Boats without holding tanks for their sewage and other recreational users improperly disposing of their waste also impact the bay's water quality.

Pacific oysters and manila clams are cultured extensively in Samish Bay. These species as well as geoduck, horseclams, butter clams, cockles, and native littleneck clams are harvested recreationally. These shellfish are all filter feeders, feeding on microscopic algae (plankton) in the water.

Seafood Safety

Naturally occurring harmful algae and bacteria can sometimes "bloom" in coastal waters, growing rapidly and often increasing in concentration. These harmful microorganisms — and the toxins that they produce — become concentrated in shellfish from the large volumes of water that they filter when feeding. Eating the contaminated shellfish can make us very sick.

To protect people from getting sick, shellfish are routinely monitored for harmful algal toxins and bacteria. Shellfish are not commercially harvested or sold when regulatory thresholds are exceeded. However, sometimes blooms can occur with little or no warning resulting in costly recalls of contaminated product from the market.

The ESP can provide early warning

Every year, harmful algae and bacteria cause millions of dollars in damages to commercial fisheries and aquaculture, public health, and the recreational and tourism industries around the nation. Yet, we do not have reliable ways to predict when they will occur. Early warning of these harmful blooms can reduce consumer and economic risks by triggering increased site surveillance and allowing for mitigation strategies to be put into place.

Because the ESP can detect harmful algae and bacteria in the water in near real-time, it can provide early warning of developing blooms before they contaminate shellfish. This information can help shellfish growers and health managers make decisions about harvesting and monitoring strategies to ensure that the seafood we eat are safe and potentially saving the aquaculture industry and other businesses — and the public — millions of dollars annually.

This project is a collaboration of NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Center for Ocean Solutions, University of British Columbia, Northwest Indian College, Washington State Department of Health, Taylor Shellfish Farms, Lummi Nation's Natural Resources Department, and Spyglass.