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Department of Communications/
News Bureau
22 Davis Hall, 10 Lippitt Road, Kingston, RI 0288
Phone: 401-874-2116 Fax: 401-874-7872


News from URI's Graduate School of Oceanography...

URI Graduate School of Oceanography Collaborative Study Reveals Toxic Organisms in Gulf of Maine

Narragansett, R.I. -- March 26, 2001 -- A two-year survey of Gulf of Maine coastal waters has revealed the presence of toxic marine organisms that can lead to contaminated shellfish and diarrhetic shellfish poisoning (DSP). These organisms are present at several sites along the coast, but pose no immediate concern to the general public.

GSO biological oceanographers Lucie Maranda and Paul Hargraves and their colleagues from the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences and the Maine Department of Marine Resources collected samples of organisms associated with mussels and sediments and found the toxic alga Prorocentrum lima . Cells of the toxic organism were found at eleven sites along the coast including a shellfish nursery site. Although the survey suggests that the toxic organism is relatively rare at most sampling stations, its presence indicates the need for increased monitoring.

These toxins accumulate in shellfish that have been feeding on the organisms. The ingestion of shellfish containing the toxins can lead to DSP, a severe gastrointestinal illness in humans.
"We still need a better understanding of the population dynamics of Prorocentrum lima, and of the relationship between its abundance and shellfish contamination along the coast of New England," said Maranda. "In the future we plan to work in close collaboration with shellfish farmers to find out when and to what extent this DSP potential could be realized and under what conditions. The ultimate goal is to provide adequate information that can be used for the sensible management of a resource: protection of public health and protection of an important fisheries."

In a recent article in the Journal of Shellfish Research, Maranda reports that she was prompted to conduct the study of Prorocentrum lima as the result of three incidents pointing to the presence of the toxic organism in Gulf of Maine waters.

The first incident occurred in the late 1980s, when several shipments of oysters originating from Maine and sent overseas tested positive for DSP and were refused at a great economic loss to shellfish farmers. The source of DSP toxins was not determined and remains controversial. In 1990, the first confirmed DSP event in North America involved cultured mussels on the Atlantic coast of Nova Scotia, Canada, in waters contiguous to the Gulf of Maine. The DSP toxicity was linked to populations of Prorocentrum lima. In 1994, the same toxic organism was found in the Gulf of Maine in an offshore plankton net sample collected in the Great South Channel, west of Georges Bank.

Besides Maranda, other members of the scientific team include the late Maureen D. Keller of Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in West Boothbay Harbor, Maine, John W. Hurst, Jr., Laurie L. Bean, and Jay D. McGowan of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, and Paul Hargraves of the URI Graduate School of Oceanography. The research was funded by a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The URI Graduate School of Oceanography is one of the country's largest marine science education programs, and one of the world's foremost marine research institutions. Founded in 1961 in Narragansett, RI, GSO serves a community of scientists who are researching the causes of and solutions to such problems as acid rain, global warming, air and water pollution, oil spills, overfishing, and coastal erosion. GSO is home to the Coastal Institute, the Coastal Resources Center, Rhode Island Sea Grant, the Ocean Technology Center, and the National Sea Grant Library.

Contact: Lisa Cugini, (401) 764-6642, lcugini@gso.uri.edu

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