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World’s Most Advanced Ship For Monitoring Harmful Algae Completes Survey Of Irish Waters

25th August 2018
Microplastic particles observed in phytoplankton samples from net hauls on the month-long survey of UK and Irish waters Microplastic particles observed in phytoplankton samples from net hauls on the month-long survey of UK and Irish waters Photo: Marine Institute

#MarineScience - Blooms of toxin-producing algae and unprecedented levels of microplastic particles were detected in a recent oceanic survey carried out by scientists from the Marine Institute.

Bristling with sensors and state-of-the-art technology, the German research vessel RS Heincke completed a circumnavigation of UK and Ireland this August in a month-long survey.

A team of six Irish phytoplankton, biotoxin and oceanographic scientists joined the survey, which was conducted by the Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research in collaboration with the Marine Institute and the University of Oldenburg Institute for Chemistry and Biology of the Marine Environment.

A total of 75 stations were surveyed using instrumentation aboard the ship, which was primarily designed to investigate Azaspiracid toxins produced by a number of micro-planktonic species of the family Amphidomataceae.

“This research is important for us as Ireland remains the most affected country in the world by shellfish poisonings caused by toxins produced by these species,” said Joe Silke, senior scientist on the survey from the Marine Institute.

These toxins, which were first discovered 23 years ago during routine monitoring of Irish shellfish, have resulted in annual temporary closures of Irish shellfish production areas, with resulting economic loss from loss of sales and markets.

Recent research has identified that the Amphidomataceae, unlike many other toxic algae, are pelagic plankton found in the open sea to the west of Ireland. These can accumulate in specific cases of currents and wind direction, creating toxin problems in the shellfish production bays along the West coast.

This was the first time that near real-time analysis was possible underway due to the advanced equipment available for the survey, including a fully equipped chemistry lab capable of measuring and identifying trace levels of toxin produced by the plankton using a liquid chromatography mass spectrometry instrument. Only 30 minutes after taking plankton samples aboard a full characterisation of the toxins present was possible with this equipment.

“IrishIrish and German scientists aboard the RS Heincke for the HE516 phytoplankton survey of the North Sea, English Channel and Atlantic Shelf | Photo: Marine Institute

The team of scientists on board were able to confirm the presence of these phytoplankton at several offshore and nearshore stations, and collected an integrated data set comprising oceanographic, bio-optical, meteorological, plankton and sediment data accompanied by taxonomic determinations, toxin measurements and DNA analysis.

“Having the capability to carry out near real-time analysis of microscopic plankton while at sea to reveal the species present and their toxins is a huge leap forward in opportunities for our research programmes,” Silke said.

Simultaneous research activities included taxonomic analyses of the filtered plankton. Scientists used high resolution microscopy, further supported by real-time analyses of the plankton using molecular biological technology designed to recognise the DNA fingerprint of individual species.

Automated instruments on board such as a FerryBox carried out physico-chemical analysis of underway water, and a Flow-Cam carried out automated particle measurements and image analysis of phytoplankton samples. Full bio-optical properties of the water were measured using instruments on the ship measuring spectral properties both above and in the water.

In the course of the survey, several other blooms of algae were detected along the oceanographic fronts traversed by the ship’s track. These included large blooms of the usual late summer phytoplankton that we commonly see in coastal waters. These comprised mostly diatoms and dinoflagellates, such as Dinophysis acuta that produce DSP shellfish toxins, and Karenia mikimotoi that can cause fish and invertebrate mortalities if it accumulates in coastal areas.

The survey also revealed several species of Azadinium, the target group for this survey. These included some rare species, and some that have not been recorded previously in Irish waters.

One unexpected observation in the plankton net hauls was the diverse and frequent observation of microplastic particles in the same size range as the phytoplankton. While the survey was not looking for these in particular, it was evident that their occurrence is more widespread than observed in previous surveys in offshore waters, and would also appear to be diverse in nature based on shape and colour.

The European Food Safety Authority stated recently that plastic particles of this nature are less likely to pass to humans through fish, because the they do not pass through the intestine into other tissues of finfish, and the digestive tract is normally discarded. They may, however, pass to the food chain through filter-feeding shellfish species where the GI tract is consumed.

The sizes of particles observed on this survey would lend support to this, although the risk of exposure to humans and its consequence on health requires more research.

Published in Marine Science
MacDara Conroy

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MacDara Conroy

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MacDara Conroy is a contributor covering all things on the water, from boating and wildlife to science and business

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Marine Science Perhaps it is the work of the Irish research vessel RV Celtic Explorer out in the Atlantic Ocean that best highlights the essential nature of marine research, development and sustainable management, through which Ireland is developing a strong and well-deserved reputation as an emerging centre of excellence. From Wavebob Ocean energy technology to aquaculture to weather buoys and oil exploration these pages document the work of Irish marine science and how Irish scientists have secured prominent roles in many European and international marine science bodies.

 

At A Glance – Ocean Facts

  • 71% of the earth’s surface is covered by the ocean
  • The ocean is responsible for the water cycle, which affects our weather
  • The ocean absorbs 30% of the carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere by human activity
  • The real map of Ireland has a seabed territory ten times the size of its land area
  • The ocean is the support system of our planet.
  • Over half of the oxygen we breathe was produced in the ocean
  • The global market for seaweed is valued at approximately €5.4 billion
  • · Coral reefs are among the oldest ecosystems in the world — at 230 million years
  • 1.9 million people live within 5km of the coast in Ireland
  • Ocean waters hold nearly 20 million tons of gold. If we could mine all of the gold from the ocean, we would have enough to give every person on earth 9lbs of the precious metal!
  • Aquaculture is the fastest growing food sector in the world – Ireland is ranked 7th largest aquaculture producer in the EU
  • The Atlantic Ocean is the second largest ocean in the world, covering 20% of the earth’s surface. Out of all the oceans, the Atlantic Ocean is the saltiest
  • The Pacific Ocean is the largest ocean in the world. It’s bigger than all the continents put together
  • Ireland is surrounded by some of the most productive fishing grounds in Europe, with Irish commercial fish landings worth around €200 million annually
  • 97% of the earth’s water is in the ocean
  • The ocean provides the greatest amount of the world’s protein consumed by humans
  • Plastic affects 700 species in the oceans from plankton to whales.
  • Only 10% of the oceans have been explored.
  • 8 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean each year, equal to dumping a garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute.
  • 12 humans have walked on the moon but only 3 humans have been to the deepest part of the ocean.

(Ref: Marine Institute)

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