The NOAA ship Fairweather is pictured on Aug. 17, 2012. Photo courtesy of NOAA

The Alaska Ocean Observing System (AOOS) is among the recipients of $20 million awarded by NOAA for research on dangerous algal blooms and hypoxia and monitoring activities nationwide. 

AOOS was allocated $350,000 to monitor Alexandrinum, a particularly well known group of bloom-forming dinoflagellates due to their impacts on human health. The harmful algal blooms occur when tiny microscopic plants called phytoplankton grow out of control and produce toxic effects on people, fish, shellfish, marine mammals and birds. 

The presence of harmful algal blooms and their biotoxins in Alaska’s waters threatens the availability and safety of important commercial and subsistence shellfish resources, as well as wild populations of fish, birds, marine mammals and other species foraging in the marine environment. NOAA officials said climatic changes in Arctic Alaska are increasing the likelihood of harmful algal blooms, signaling a growing potential threat to human and ecosystem health. 

Thomas Farrugia, Alaska Harmful Algal Bloom (AHAB) Network coordinator for AOOS, said the organization has been awarded a third year of funding from NOAA to support the monitoring, research and outreach about harmful algal blooms in Alaska.  

“The funding was approved in August of this year, but AOOS is waiting on approval of the work plan that was submitted in September,” he said. “We expect approval in early November. However, the (harmful algal bloom) work is already underway.”  

AHAB, formed in 2017, seeks to improve the effectiveness of harmful algal bloom monitoring and event response statewide. Collaborators in developing the network included state agencies, Alaska Native organizations, the University of Alaska, AOOS, Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science and the Alaska Sea Grant.  

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This award supports the nascent network, continuing to support a full time AHAB coordinator and statewide action plan. It also ensures that data is collected, synthesized and accessible through a central portal and incorporates proven, cost-effective technologies and testing for paralytic shellfish toxins through in-state labs. 

These funds will also support the purchase of an Imaging FlowCytobot to better understand the dynamics of harmful phytoplankton, specifically Alexandrinum in the changing conditions of Alaska’s oceans. The project is also to help test and develop a plane-based hyperspectral camera system in Alaska to determine whether it can detect blooms of Alexandrinum. Hyperspectral imaging is a technique that analyzes a wide spectrum of light instead of just assigning the primary colors of red, green and blue to each pixel. The light striking each pixel is broken down into many different spectral bands to provide more information on what is imaged. 

The project, led by NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, will coordinate with ship-based surveys to calibrate hyperspectral cameras to describe large Alexandrium blooms. 

The project will also support more travel for in-person meetings in communities where harmful algal blooms are a concern. 

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