In bad years, red tide outbreaks have shut down hundreds of miles of clam flats for weeks at a time in Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, resulting in tens of millions of dollars in losses for clam diggers and other shellfish harvesters.
The new processors are intended to complement, not replace, existing red-tide monitoring programs. State agencies now test for red tide in coastal shellfish areas, but there’s never been ongoing testing in waters miles offshore.
Tracking red tide outbreaks using only shoreline testing is like predicting the weather using only weather instruments in your backyard, not knowing about a storm system coming your way, Anderson said. Adding offshore testing for red tide toxins is like adding radar, weather balloons and other sophisticated equipment in forecasting the weather, he said.
“You can see something offshore and know what’s coming,” he said. “We take that for granted with the weather. Imagine that in monitoring these algal blooms.”
Offshore tests will help managers determine when they should be conducting coastline testing, said Darcie Couture, lead scientist at Resource Access International LLC, a Brunswick company that provides private laboratory testing for shellfish. If there aren’t any toxins being detected offshore, then there’s probably no need to be testing for them close to shore, she said.
The devices will also give managers a heads-up on when and where red tide might strike. In 2005, there was a large red tide bloom in the gulf that nobody was aware of and that stayed offshore because winds were blowing from the southwest. But when a nor’easter struck, the northeasterly winds blew the red tide to shore, resulting in widespread clam flat closures with little warning.
“The offshore waters are a blind spot unless you have something out there telling you what’s happening,” said Couture, who formerly headed Maine’s red-tide monitoring programming.