Robots roaming Puget Sound could save shellfish industry millions

SEATTLE - Imagine a seafaring robot roaming local waterways in search of the toxic algae trying to poison the clams and oysters you eat. No, it's not a scene for an upcoming sci-fi movie; this is actually happening and the Puget Sound is involved.

"The goal in what we are trying to do is detect any sort of developing bloom before they occur and before they are able to contaminate shellfish," said Stephanie Moore, project scientist with NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

In July, NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center deployed two robots, known as Environmental Sample Processors, in the Puget Sound - one in Lummi Bay and the other along the shoreline of Samish Bay.

Moore said the robots take water samples from the Puget Sound, filter them, isolate organisms, extract the DNA, identify the species and then use that information to determine how much of the organism is in the water. All of this information can then be accessed by scientists remotely to determine if a toxic algal bloom is growing and what kind of threat it may pose to local fish and shellfish populations.

"This instrument is like a miniature lab that we can take in the field and leave," Moore said. "It can do the work for us and let us know what it is seeing."

Up until now, scientists, the state health department and seafood producers have had to rely on physical samples taken by health officials to determine if shellfish actually contain contaminates.

While the health department has done a good job preventing people from getting sick, Moore said results from those tests can take several days to get back, and by then it may be too late.

"These single-cell microorganisms have population doubling times that are very short," she said. "Those weekly or every two week sampling events to determine if shellfish are safe to eat can sometimes miss the bloom events and can already be toxic by the time the sample is taken."

In a worst case scenario, a product may have to be recalled, which can mean millions of dollars in lost revenue.

"People don't just stop eating shellfish, sometimes they stop eating all fish, including fin fish," Moore said.

And for an industry that relies heavily on consumer confidence, every healthy oyster and clam counts. Just ask Bill Dewey, with Taylor Shellfish Farms, the largest farmed shellfish producer in the country.

"We had to close the [Samish] Bay for bacteria," he said. "We couldn't do any oyster harvesting. And, it adversely affects consumer confidence."

The state's farmed shellfish industry generates $270 million per year. Moore said for an industry that already faces a number of environmental issues that can result in closures, access to this kind of cutting-edge technology can make a big difference, especially in terms of time.

"We can get information in as little as three hours," Moore said. "As soon as it's in, two websites are updated with real-time information that stakeholders can go look and see if there are risks of harmful blooms occurring and let them know now may not be a good time to harvest their product."

Moore said this is the first time oceanographers have had an instrument that can look for biological organisms rather than just physical properties of water.

The hope is to eventually create a network of robots roaming the Puget Sound looking for toxic algae blooms and other bacteria in the water.

"I feel we are really just scratching the surface of what this instrument can do," Moore said. "The robots are currently configured to look for a small number of targets, bacterial targets and harmful algae species. But, there are new and emerging harmful algae species that pose challenges for shellfish growers and health officials."

The instrument deployed off Lummi Bay this summer has already been pulled from the water. Crews plan to collect the one at Samish Bay next week.

The technology for each robot was originally developed by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. Moore said they would like to continue to work with the research institute to develop an even smaller device for future testing.

This summer was the second year NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center used the robotic instrument in the Puget Sound. Moore said additional funding allowed them to expand the project using two robots and bring in additional research partners, including Stanford's Center for Ocean Solutions, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, the University of British Columbia, as well as stakeholders such as Taylor Shellfish Farms and the Lummi Nation.