Update on New Phone App to Forecast Red Tide in the Gulf of Mexico

Last year we shared a press release from NOAA on a three-year $1.1 million grant from NASA for scientists from Mote Marine Laboratory, the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to fine-tune current red tide forecasts with the goal of offering public health managers, coastal residents and visitors a forecast that better reflects coastal conditions on more localized scales. The objective was to help people make healthy choices about where to spend recreation time, increasing protections for public health and coastal economies.

Currently, there are several reporting systems to alert the public about red tides in the Gulf of Mexico, and each has its own limitations.

• Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Research Institute (FWRI) provides twice-weekly reports on red tide based on cell counts from water samples but they can take
several days to complete, delaying updates for the public.
• Mote Marine Laboratory’s daily Beach Conditions Reporting System provides subjective information about beach conditions and is not available for every beach.
• Texas Red Tide Rangers, citizen science volunteers who gather and test water samples operate only during blooms and do not cover the entire coast.
• The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Harmful Algal Bloom Operational Forecast System issues red tide advisories, via bulletin, website and Beach Hazards
Statements (issued through the National Weather Service). However, these reports typically cover county-wide geographic areas and are often not precise down to specific beaches.

Key to improving the forecast was the development of a smartphone application (app) by Robert Currier, Research Specialist and Product Developer for the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System (GCOOS). The app would allow trained beach observers with special low-cost smart-phone microscopes to collect videos of water samples that can be uploaded to a cloud-based server for automated evaluation. This system would then provide a real-time response on the presence or absence of K. brevis, along with information about whether the quantities are enough to warrant a health concern.

The cell phone microscopic app called the “HABscope,” is now in its pilot stages. Mote scientists are working with volunteers from their Beach Conditions Reporting System, to collect water samples, use the HABscope and take a video of the sample. The app calculates the cells per liter, which in turn determines the level of red tide in the water. Their plan is to have a volunteer at every Beach Conditions site throughout Manatee and Sarasota counties.

Dr. Barbara Kirkpatrick, the Executive Director of the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System, said “”the HABscope project will engage local residents by having them provide daily red tide samples- a critical gap in our ability to forecast the severity of the red tide toxic aerosols at a specific beach. Prior to the HABscope project, we could only forecast aerosols at the County level. This will allow beachgoers to make an informed decision about which beach they should go to when a red tide is onshore.”

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