Marine innovation is blooming in Cork

18 Oct 2013

Marine biologist Dr Julie Maguire, research director at the Daithi O'Murchu Marine Research Station

How do you know when an algal bloom is headed your way? Dr Julie Maguire from the Daithi O’Murchu Marine Research Station in Bantry, Co Cork, spoke to Claire O’Connell about award-winning technology to forecast blooms, how she became a marine biologist and how Ireland can be a hotspot for marine innovation.

Algal blooms can cause trouble, and knowing when they are likely to hit is a big advantage for shellfish farmers, says Maguire, who is research director at the DOMMRC

“Algal blooms can start anywhere but a lot are formed on the continental shelf,” she explains. “The low biomass blooms come into our bays, and the shellfish filter them.”

This can, in some cases, cause a problem for human health if affected shellfish are eaten, so bays are frequently tested for the presence of algal blooms, but the results can take several days to come back, according to Maguire. 

That’s why the DOMMRC started to work on technology to better forecast harmful algal blooms and help farmers get a better picture of what is going on. The Station at Sheep’s Head has been leading a European project to develop Applied Simulations and Integrated Modelling for the Understanding of Toxic and Harmful Algal Blooms, or ASIMUTH.

The approach, which uses data from satellites, monitoring buoys and in-situ sightings, also takes account of factors such as currents, the three-dimensional nature of blooms, the biology of the organisms themselves and the data from in-situ observations, explains Maguire, who is project co-ordinator for ASIMUTH. 

The forecast, which is available online, is now being used by aquaculture farmers, who can adapt their practices before a bloom arrives, and the technology recently scooped the COPERNICUS (Global Monitoring for Environment and Security) Masters Prize for best earth-monitoring service for European citizens 2013. 

“Now we have a fully formed forecast for these algal blooms which is like a weather forecast – you’d have a slight risk, or moderate risk – and we say that a particular species of plankton is increasing, or another one is going away,” explains Maguire. 

“If there is a high chance of something then we can alert people, or it can let them know when there is nothing to worry about. And there’s other information in there about seawater temperature and salinity – lots of other variables that people might find useful.”

From land to sea

Maguire knows plenty about marine life today, but she admits it wasn’t always the case. The native of Ballylanders in Limerick, which is inland, recalls that on the first field trip to the beach while she was studying zoology as an undergraduate in University College Cork (UCC), she found the territory a little unfamiliar. 

But she took to the marine straight away and went on to do a PhD between UCC and Ifremer in France. Her subject? To figure out whether scallops were happy. It might sound like a strange question to ask, but it’s a practical one because shellfish are a bit poker-faced when it comes to letting you know whether they are in good shape. 

“If you have got a farm of scallops it is hard to know if they are all going to die due to some type of chronic or acute stress – they look the same whether they are sick of not,” explains Maguire. “So I came up with a series of simple stress tests to see if they were OK.”

After a short stint with the Sea Fish Industry Authority in Scotland, Maguire then returned to Cork to continue working on scallops – this time to look at the effects of putting undersized scallops back from a catch. After that she worked as projects officer in Environmental Research Institute in Cork. Then the opportunity came up to join the DOMMRC in Sheep’s Head in 2005, which was being set up at a former UCC station, and she joined the team. It’s a perfect spot for marine research, she explains. “The water quality is good, you have loads of space to do tank trials and there’s a pier just outside the door, it’s ideal for us.” 

Ireland well placed for marine innovation

DOMMRC now runs several projects, and ASIMUTH has seen the station work with Irish partners, including the Marine Institute and SME Numerics Warehouse Ltd in Galway, as well as scientists and SMEs from Scotland, France, Spain and Portugal.

Ireland is well placed for marine innovation, given its natural resources, according to Maguire, citing the ‘real map of Ireland’ which shows that 90pc of Ireland’s territories lie under the sea.

“We are an island nation, so it’s the perfect place to study the marine and we have a huge area offshore that is our own territory,” she says. “Ireland is also an ideal spot for monitoring things like climate change – we are at the southerly limit for a lot of northern species and the northerly limit for a lot of southern species – so it’s a great melting pot for looking at the effects of climate change on species.”

She also points out that the EU is currently supporting ‘Blue Growth’ and notes the burgeoning interest in marine energy, farming and bioactives for health. “There are lots of innovations happening now,” she says. “And there will be jobs in these marine industries in the future.”

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication