■ BY SUE ERWIN
Water samples, microscopes and the latest technology kept a few volunteers busy at the Mote Marine Laboratory office on the island last Friday morning, March 16.
Mote Staff Biologist Devin Burris was onsite to provide training on the new HABscope system.
The HABscope system was developed by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and GCOOS (Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System).
It combines a new smartphone app with a low-cost microscope adapted to work with a smartphone.
The app, developed by Robert Currier, GCOOS research specialist and product developer, is designed to allow trained beach observers with specially adapted smartphone microscopes to collect videos of water samples that can be uploaded to a cloud-based server for automated evaluation. The server uses TensorFlow, Google’s open-source deep-learning library, to identify red tide (Karenia brevis) algae cells in water samples from the beach. This system then provides a real-time response on the presence or absence of K. brevis, estimated cell counts and information about whether they warrant a health concern.
At the training, Burris showed examples of data taken for the HABscope program that were uploaded from a cell phone.
To no one’s surprise, samples taken from the beach last week had very high concentrations of red tide.
700,000 cells per liter means red tide levels are medium to high.
“It’s very difficult to understand when a bloom will occur, because there is a whole range of environmental conditions that are constantly changing,” Burris said.
Burris works on a team led by Dr. Tracy Fanara, manager of Mote’s Environmental Health Program.
Fanara investigates the effects of marine and freshwater chemicals on the environment and public health. She helps the public separate myth from fact regarding the impacts of Gulf of Mexico red tide, K. brevis, which produces toxins that can kill marine life and cause respiratory illness in humans.
Fanara and her colleagues have made exciting progress this year with new tools for monitoring K. brevis red tide.
And more volunteers are needed, specifically at Gasparilla Island State Park.
“We would really appreciate having more volunteers from Boca Grande,” Burris said. “When our volunteers from Sarasota come to the island, it takes up a good part of their day.”
As of December 2017, 11 Mote volunteers in nine different locations have been trained to sample once per week when no red tide bloom is detected. When elevated cell counts of K. brevis began to be detected by HABscope and other monitoring efforts this fall, volunteers sampled three times a week.
Fanera and Burris are currently working with the Barrier Island Park Society on providing a phone and microscope for volunteers to use when taking water samples from the area parks and beaches and submitting data right from the park.
For more information, visit mote.org.