by Rhonda Schwinabart, Outreach Coordinator, CHWA CESU and UMCES Appalachian Laboratory
During the hottest days of summer, have you walked by a pond or along the beach at the ocean and seen what looks like bright, neon green or dark red water? If so, then you have witnessed Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs). These blooms result from algae colonies that grow out of control from changing environmental conditions and/or nutrients entering waterways from agricultural and other runoff. These nutrients, combined with heat and direct sunlight, create the perfect environment for the algae to reproduce in a big way.
HABs are a growing concern across the United States as they not only threaten animal and human health but also present serious economic threats to fishing, tourism, and other industries by making water unsafe for human and animal exposure or consumption. Some blooms, known as red tide blooms, produce toxins that directly threaten animals and humans who come into contact with or breathe in the toxins. Other blooms are non-toxic but kill all fish and other living organisms living in the water by consuming all of the available oxygen.
To help find solutions to control HABs, in fall 2021 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a Request for Statements of Interest (RSOI) through the CESU Network to create the US Harmful Algal Bloom Control Technology Incubator (US HAB-CTI). This $7.5 million, 5-year project is a first-of-its-kind center designed to solicit, fund, research and develop commercially viable technologies to control HABs.
The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s (UMCES) Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology (IMET), a unit within the Host University of the Chesapeake Watershed CESU, was ultimately selected to lead this initiative, and the US HAB CTI was officially launched in fall 2022. The project represents the largest funded initiative to date facilitated through the Chesapeake Watershed CESU.
“We were attracted to the uniqueness of the project and the problem to be solved. We knew the science to evaluate technologies and Mote had the experience running a similar project at the state level that could be scaled up. I knew there was no one better than Mote to assess ideas and bring their past experience to the Incubator, and we needed to bring them in as partners,” said Dr. Al Place, UMCES Professor and lead PI on the US HAB-CTI.
US HAB-CTI Partners and Activities
Mote refers to the Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium, a key partner in the project. Mote, located in Sarasota, FL, has led the Florida Red Tide Mitigation & Technology Development Initiative since 2019. Through this initiative, they have gained invaluable experience testing technologies to control red tides in the state of Florida. This experience, coupled with their decades of research on red tide blooms, make them an integral part of the new incubator.
IMET, too, has relevant experience, in their case, decades of research HAB reduction in freshwater bodies and the challenges in navigating regulations, required permits, and other aspects of new technology research and development.
Using the Florida initiative as a blue print, the new US HAB CTI seeks to facilitate the development of technologies to control HAB on a national level. The Incubator will be giving away approximately $1 million per year over the next 5 years. Additionally, the initiative will offer an online clearinghouse to provide additional resources to funded projects including information on permitting, necessary contacts at the state and national levels, and relevant policies. Finally, both IMET and Mote will provide research space, services and support at cost to test the resulting new technology’s ability to control HAB, and in the case of red tide, degrade or eliminate the toxin produced by the algae.
While the US HAB CTI’s project funding cycles have recently started, the management structure is still in development. In the coming months, two operational directors will be in place will be managed by two operational directors, one at IMET and one at Mote. Interns and graduate students will be involved at both sites.
An RFP for HAB control projects will be released annually over the next 4 years.
Challenges and Next Steps
The work in setting up the Incubator has not been without its challenges, though.
“It was a very weird situation for an academic who spent his career seeking funding to suddenly be giving away funding. As an institution we hadn’t given away funding like this either and lacked procedures and a mechanism for managing payment to funded projects, so there were a number of big challenges to overcome at the start,“ said Place.
The lead PIs also have to contend with a very different type of project goal than they normally encounter in their work. The only goal of the US HAB CTI is to bring in new ideas to control HAB not to reduce nutrients, which is usually the goal of funded research initiatives related to HAB. While projects funded through the incubator must show a reduction in the algae and a degradation or elimination of harmful toxins associated with red tide blooms, the Incubator itself is only concerned with demonstrating the successful development of new technologies.
The US HUB CTI recently finished its first Request for Proposals (RFP) cycle. Following a webinar where 110 participants attended, sixty-five (65) letters of intent were submitted, and of those invited to submit full proposals, twenty-five (25) responded. Seven (7) projects were ultimately funded.
Those projects funded have twelve (12) months with no extensions to develop and test their proposed technologies. Funded projects cannot reapply in future cycles.
“We had one molecular project and the rest were proposing technical or mechanical solutions,” said Place. “We’re hoping to see more proposals from across the United States, including Alaska, in future funding rounds.”
The next RFP will be released in spring 2024.
To learn more about the Harmful Algal Bloom Control Technology Incubator (US HAB-CTI) visit https://imet.usmd.edu/harmful-algal-bloom-control-technologies-incubator-hab-cti.