This summer, the Center for Ocean Solutions (COS) joined a collaborative to detect microbes, harmful algae and other toxins in near-real time in Puget Sound to help keep seafood consumers safe.

“This new technology allows managers, businesses and communities to quickly assess if their beach is safe to use or their seafood is safe to sell and consume,” said Rebecca Martone, COS ecosystem health program lead.

Martone joined COS early career fellows Kevan Yamahara and Jesse Port along with a shellfish farming business Taylor Industries, the Lummi Nation, Northwest Indian College, and other collaborators on the shores of Puget Sound to celebrate the deployment of one of the Environmental Sampling Processors (ESP). Local media featured the new robotic technology to help keep Puget Sound seafood safe.  For live data from the current deployment, and for more background from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Northwest Fishery Science Center, a project collaborator, click here.

Developed by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, along with Stanford University and COS researchers, this robotic sensor uses molecular probes to detect microorganisms in water and automated technology to provide near real-time information on what’s happening in the water. 

Water-quality researcher Yamahara worked with the Center’s Rapid Detection of Marine Pathogens working group to develop water-quality tests suitable for use in the ESP. The team developed new analytical techniques for pinpointing the sources of pathogens, whether from humans or agriculture. Conventional collection of samples at sea and analysis in a land-based laboratory is difficult and the results can take days.

Why deploy this new robotic technology in Puget Sound? In summer, these waters routinely host multiple blooms of harmful algae or pathogens, threatening shellfish farms and water-based recreation. This state-of-the-art instrument is being tested for its ability to provide early warnings of harmful algae, their toxins, and shellfish pathogens that affect fish farmers and water enthusiasts.

 “We are thrilled to be part of this collaborative project in the northwest,” Martone said. “This work exemplifies the mission of the Center for Ocean Solutions, which is to create viable solutions for the key problems facing the ocean using a unique partnering of science, engineering, law, and policy. “

The ultimate goal is to help decision-makers make judgments that will improve the safety of seafood and the economic stability of waterfront businesses.  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 save the aquaculture industry and other businesses – and the public – millions of dollars annually.

Martone concludes that this tool can help us understand the root causes of deteriorating water quality and allows us to develop solutions to improve the health of the oceans.

The ESP deployment in Puget Sound 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, and Lummi Nation's Natural Resources Department.

Related Stanford News Service story.