Forecast to help shellfish growers weather toxicity

December 19, 2019

The same technology that powers facial recognition and self-driving cars may soon help Maine's shellfish industry protect people from the dangerous effects of harmful algal blooms. A recent paper reports how researchers can use these deep learning algorithms to forecast shellfish toxicity, just like meteorologists forecast the weather.

"Deep learning approaches have become incredibly sophisticated, and using them creatively can allow us to address all sorts of challenges," said Senior Research Scientist Nick Record, a modeler and the senior author of the paper. "This work unites the expertise of the industry, resource managers, and Bigelow Laboratory researchers, and I believe that by working together we can solve this problem."

Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences works with Maine's Department of Marine Resources (DMR) to test thousands of shellfish samples for toxins each year, using an advanced chemical method that Senior Research Scientist Steve Archer pioneered in 2014. These measurements help DMR judge when an area is safe for shellfish harvests. Over the years, this method has also created a dataset that reveals when and where toxins have occurred around the state - providing a unique opportunity to anticipate when they will show up in the future.

The research team used this dataset to train an algorithm to recognize the chemical "fingerprints" of the toxic compounds that some algae produce. These toxins can quickly concentrate to harmful levels in shellfish, which eat by filtering large quantities of water.

Their model utilizes neural networks, a sophisticated machine learning approach based on brain structure that can process huge volumes of data to recognize complex patterns. As it churned through more and more data, their algorithm became highly accurate at predicting oncoming toxicity. Isabella Grasso, a Southern Maine Community College Student and 2018 Research Experience for Undergraduates intern at Bigelow Laboratory, helped lead the research project and presented the results to industry and management leaders at the 2019 Northeast Shellfish Sanitation Association Annual Meeting.

"Toxic shellfish events can cause significant problems in Maine and around the country, but we think we can greatly reduce their impact," Record said. "The ability to predict these sporadic events could allow farmers to prepare and adjust the timing of their harvest, helping protect the industry and consumers."

The Maine Department of Marine Resources monitors shellfish throughout the year to ensure that no harvesting occurs while toxin levels in the water are high. While this makes certain that all seafood sold is safe to eat, the fishery closures can cause major disruptions to the state's seafood industry.

Archer and Record recently received a grant to work with DMR and Maine shellfish growers to test and refine the forecast. Individual partnerships with growers will allow the researchers to receive and incorporate feedback on whether the forecast is working accurately and providing useful information.

Researchers predict that large-scale blooms of algae may become more common as the Gulf of Maine continues to warm, potentially favoring toxic algal species. The team hopes that live, real-time forecasts will be in place to aid monitoring efforts and shellfish harvests throughout the Gulf of Maine in a few years.

"It's a huge responsibility to monitor the full coast of Maine, and the implications for human health are not something to be taken lightly," said Kohl Kanwit, the director of public health for the Maine Department of Marine Resources. "This forecast could help us optimize our sampling efforts, and it likewise could help other states in their efforts to predict and manage harmful algal blooms."
Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences is an independent, nonprofit research institute on the coast of Maine. Its research ranges from the microscopic life at the bottom of marine food webs to large-scale ocean processes that affect the entire planet. Recognized as a leader in Maine's emerging innovation economy, the Laboratory's research, education, and technology transfer programs are contributing to significant economic growth. Learn more at, and join the conversation on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences

Related Public Health Articles from Brightsurf:

COVID-19 and the decolonization of Indigenous public health
Indigenous self-determination, leadership and knowledge have helped protect Indigenous communities in Canada during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, and these principles should be incorporated into public health in future, argue the authors of a commentary in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association Journal)

Public health consequences of policing homelessness
In a new study examining homelessness, researchers find that policy such a lifestyle has massive public health implications, making sleeping on the street even MORE unhealthy.

Electronic health information exchange improves public health disease reporting
Disease tracking is an important area of focus for health departments in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pandemic likely to cause long-term health problems, Yale School of Public Health finds
The coronavirus pandemic's life-altering effects are likely to result in lasting physical and mental health consequences for many people--particularly those from vulnerable populations--a new study led by the Yale School of Public Health finds.

The Lancet Public Health: US modelling study estimates impact of school closures for COVID-19 on US health-care workforce and associated mortality
US policymakers considering physical distancing measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 face a difficult trade-off between closing schools to reduce transmission and new cases, and potential health-care worker absenteeism due to additional childcare needs that could ultimately increase mortality from COVID-19, according to new modelling research published in The Lancet Public Health journal.

The Lancet Public Health: Access to identification documents reflecting gender identity may improve trans mental health
Results from a survey of over 20,000 American trans adults suggest that having access to identification documents which reflect their identified gender helps to improve their mental health and may reduce suicidal thoughts, according to a study published in The Lancet Public Health journal.

The Lancet Public Health: Study estimates mental health impact of welfare reform, Universal Credit, in Great Britain
The 2013 Universal Credit welfare reform appears to have led to an increase in the prevalence of psychological distress among unemployed recipients, according to a nationally representative study following more than 52,000 working-age individuals from England, Wales, and Scotland over nine years between 2009-2018, published as part of an issue of The Lancet Public Health journal on income and health.

BU researchers: Pornography is not a 'public health crisis'
Researchers from the Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) have written an editorial in the American Journal of Public Health special February issue arguing against the claim that pornography is a public health crisis, and explaining why such a claim actually endangers the health of the public.

The Lancet Public Health: Ageism linked to poorer health in older people in England
Ageism may be linked with poorer health in older people in England, according to an observational study of over 7,500 people aged over 50 published in The Lancet Public Health journal.

Study: Public transportation use linked to better public health
Promoting robust public transportation systems may come with a bonus for public health -- lower obesity rates.

Read More: Public Health News and Public Health Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to