UW News

May 25, 2016

UW, NOAA deploy ocean robot to monitor harmful algal blooms off Washington coast

UW News

The box surround by purple contains an automated laboratory that will analyze seawater for algal species and toxin. Researchers deployed it May 23 about 13 miles off Washington's coast.

The box surround by purple contains an automated laboratory that will analyze seawater for algal species and toxin. Researchers deployed it May 23 about 13 miles off Washington’s coast.Stephanie Moore / NOAA

Scientists with the University of Washington and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration deployed a new tool this week that will constantly be on the lookout for harmful algal blooms and their toxins off the coast of La Push, Washington.

The Environmental Sample Processor, or ESP, was deployed May 23 for the first time off the Pacific Northwest coast with sensors to monitor specific algal species and a harmful toxin they emit, domoic acid. The tool will provide autonomous, near-real-time measurements of the amount of toxin and the concentrations of six potentially harmful algal species.

instrument with tubes

An identical instrument, at NOAA’s Seattle lab, shows the robotic arm, valves, levers and reagents it uses to do testing at sea.NOAA

The instrument was placed 13 miles offshore in the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. It is near the Juan de Fuca eddy, and in a known transport path where offshore Pseudo-nitzschia blooms – a common Pacific harmful algal species – travel to coastal beaches where they can contaminate shellfish. The tool sits about 50 feet below the surface near the ChaBa buoy, first deployed by researchers from NOAA and the UW Applied Physics Laboratory in 2010 to measure other variables such as temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, currents and acidity.

John Mickett, an oceanographer at the UW Applied Physics Laboratory, led the deployment of the new instrument with Stephanie Moore, a scientist at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, as part of a larger collaborative project.

The tool was developed at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute to automate water-testing that normally requires a boat trip to sea and lab analyses. MBARI scientist Roman Marin helped install the instrument that will beam results back to shore three times a week for the next six weeks. The research team will collect the tool in July, and then deploy another to monitor during the late summer season.

The installation of new technology to monitor harmful algal blooms in the Pacific Northwest comes after a severe harmful algal bloom season in 2015, and worries that such events could become more common under climate change.

The real-time data on bloom toxicity and algal species biomass will be made available directly to state coastal managers and public health officials, including coastal tribes, through the website of the UW-based Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems, or NANOOS.

Coastal managers will use early warning data from the instrument to inform proactive shellfish toxicity testing, and facilitate timely decision-making on shellfish harvesting opportunities and closures.

“Anyone can access the data in near-real-time,” said Jan Newton, an oceanographer at the UW Applied Physics Laboratory and affiliate faculty member in the UW School of Oceanography, and director of NANOOS. “It’s an early warning sentry.”

The new data will also be made available to UW oceanographers to help develop a computer forecast, LiveOcean, that simulates how currents travel and affect local marine conditions along Washington’s coast and into Puget Sound and Canada’s Strait of Georgia.

The new tool’s deployment is part of a collaborative project led by the UW and NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center and funded by the NOAA-led U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System. Partners include NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, NANOOS, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Florida-based Spyglass Technologies, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Bellingham’s Northwest Indian College.

Ship time aboard the R/V Thomas G. Thompson to deploy the tool was provided by the UW School of Oceanography, and the crew included undergraduate students from the UW and the Northwest Indian College.


For more information, contact Mickett at jmickett@apl.washington.edu or 206-897-1795, Newton at newton@apl.washington.edu or 206-543-9152, and Moore at 206-860-3327 or stephanie.moore@noaa.gov.

See a related article on NOAA’s website.