Marine Science students set out on Casco Bay on the College’s boat, SeaWolf, to collect samples. Contributed

SOUTH PORTLAND — Southern Maine Community College students are taking a look at the cause of red tides in Casco Bay, thanks to a new federal grant.

According to the Maine Department of Marine Resources, the state each year see red tides, a bloom in harmful algae that occurs in the Gulf of Maine. Shellfish, which are filter-feeders, consume these harmful toxins and become unsafe for human consumption.

“We will be using it to look at red tide organisms, there are two in particular that can produce toxins that can make shellfish unmarketable,” marine science instructor Brian Tarbox said. “There is also a third species not seen in Maine until three years ago – it’s not known to be a human hazard but can deplete oxygen in the ocean.”

In their research, students are hoping to find diatoms, or micro algae, to see if they produce neurotoxic chemicals. By confirming its presence, they may be able to better predict harmful algal blooms in the future, according to marine science major Allyson Fogg.

“It is important to determine if it is present because harmful blooms can cause economic damage and environmental damage,” she said. “If we can use environmental DNA to better determine its presence, or even predict it, we can help to mitigate that damage.”

Marine Science instructor Brian Tarbox has been helping SMCC students collect data for marine ecosystem research. Contributed

The National Science Foundation awarded $20 million to the University of Maine and Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Science in August to fund the collaborative project with other institutions.

The money will fund the Maine-eDNA initiative, an extensive effort to monitor aquatic life in coastal waters through the use of environmental DNA.
According to an Aug. 23 press release, emergence of eDNA research has been called vital to protecting and managing Maine’s marine resources and its fishing, lobstering, aquaculture and other marine industries that are major economic contributors to the state.

The grant is funding a five-year initiative to monitor harmful algal blooms in  Casco Bay. SMCC students teamed up with Colby College and the Bigelow lab to conduct the field research through the Marine Science Seatime classes for senior capstone projects.

Tarbox said students are utilizing the warmer weather to gather water samples and use a filtration device at the labs to isolate the cells. The samples will be frozen before they are analyzed this fall. SMCC students are monitoring saltwater, while Colby students monitors freshwater.

Once analyzed, the data will be added to The Maine-eDNA initiative and used to prepare future participants engaged in team science to use that data to come up with an action plan.

The hope for this project, Tarbox said, is to radically change the current understanding of how coastal ocean ecosystems work.

Tarbox said the use of eDNA is still in its early stages of development. By looking for the actual cells and testing them for toxins, he explained, that data could prove useful as an early predictor of blooms to help with future management initiatives.

Tarbox said if students and researchers participating in the program are able to provide accurate and useful information for future research, they will try to train citizen-scientists to monitor the coast to get a large-scale picture of what is going on.

“Our success in developing the assays will sort of drive the timeline of how we tackle the project moving forward,” he said. “We don’t want to provide any false positives and want to make sure we provide the proper assays.”

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