Northwest Fisheries Science Center

The Environmental Sample Processor

The Environmental Sample Processor (ESP) is an advanced biological sensing system that conducts automated in situ collection and analysis of water samples. NWFSC scientists are testing the ESP to remotely detect harmful algae and bacterial pathogens and send the results to shore in near-real time via radio, satellite, or even a cellular modem. The ESP uses DNA technology to identify small organisms in the plankton.

The ESP will significantly enhance existing monitoring programs in Puget Sound by eliminating lengthy delays associated with traveling to remote sampling locations to collect a water sample and transporting it back to the laboratory for analysis. The ESP can typically be deployed for up 30 days and can sample on a set time schedule or in response to certain environmental triggers.

The ESP helps us detect harmful algae and pathogens

Harmful algal blooms or "red tides" are formed by single–celled organisms that can sometimes be harmful to humans, wildlife, and the environment. Some harmful algae, such as the dinoflagellate Alexandrium catenella, produce toxins that accumulate in shellfish, making them dangerous to eat. Some of these toxins are incredibly potent and shellfish can become unsafe for human consumption even if the algae are present in concentrations so low that the water is not colored. Naturally occurring pathogenic bacteria, such as Vibrio parahaemolyticus, can also accumulate in shellfish making them unsafe to eat unless they are cooked.

The annual economic cost of pathogens and red tide that cause food–borne disease in the United States is estimated at $350 million, 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.

Developing an integrated early warning system

Since certain weather and climate conditions can favor the growth and development of red tide and pathogens, weather forecasts can be used to enhance early warning of the increased risk of potentially dangerous outbreaks. If harmful algae or pathogens are present in the water at the same time that favorable weather conditions are forecast, the risk of an outbreak is high.

NOAA is currently developing an integrated early warning system that uses ESP technology and weather forecasts. This risk–based approach to managing red tide and pathogens in Puget Sound provides advanced warning of outbreaks and identifies opportunities to mitigate impacts. The ESP provides the answers for step 2 in this decision tree – are algae or pathogens present in the Water.

Environmental Sample Processor
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Microscopic image of the pathogen Vibrio that can contaminate shellfish
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decision tree
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