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UNCW Researchers Jennifer McCall and Susan Niven Awarded Two Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium Grants

Friday, November 19, 2021

Two UNCW researchers have received grants, totaling $168,009, from the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium to develop accurate field testing for shellfish farmers and to study Florida Red Tide migration.

Jennifer McCall, an assistant professor in the Clinical Research Program in the School of Nursing in the College of Health and Human Services, and Susan Niven, a research specialist at the Center for Marine Science, are collaborating with Mote Marine Lab to provide better real-time information to shellfish farmers during harmful algal blooms of Florida Red Tide.

Harmful algal blooms produce neurotoxins that are accumulated by shellfish. Farmers may harvest the shellfish when it is unknowingly toxic.

“If a farmer sends a sample off for testing, it usually takes several days to get back a result, during which the conditions change and the toxin levels can rise,” said McCall. “The farmers need easy-to-use, on-the-boat or field-deployable tests for these toxins so they know whether their shellfish are safe to harvest and can be sold or whether they should wait for conditions to get better and the shellfish to process or get rid of the toxins.”

McCall and Niven will create a suite of toxins for rugged testing of Mote’s on-the-boat toxin test kits and compare their test kit to several other types of tests for accuracy.

“We are one of the only labs in the world that provide these types of toxins,” said Niven. “We are also creating toxin metabolites (formed as the shellfish process the toxins in their bodies) so that Mote Marine Lab can measure the accuracy of their test kits.”

The research will occur at McCall’s lab in the MARBIONC facility at the Center for Marine Science and in collaboration with Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, FL. The project is supported by funding from the Florida Red Tide Mitigation and Technology Development Initiative and in partnership with the FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Institute and Mote Marine Lab.

McCall said the project also aims to optimize shellfish extraction procedures and degradation of toxins over time in different conditions like temperature and solvent.

“These steps are important to make sure that what the fishermen are testing accurately reflects the toxicity of the shellfish meat,” McCall explained. “Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as swiping the oyster with a test strip. The oyster or other shellfish needs to be ground up and toxins extracted in high quantities so the test kits can detect them. We are helping ensure those testing procedures are as accurate as possible.”

Florida Red Tides don’t typically occur in North Carolina, but it is possible, said Niven She noted a bloom did occur off the coast in 1987. As the oceans warm and currents carry algae, this type of event could occur more often.

“We need to be prepared in case it happens again to help protect our NC fishermen and give them the tools to have real-time information on the safety of their product,” she said. “Also, oysters and other shellfish from Florida and the other Gulf states, where these harmful algae also bloom, do not stay in those areas. There are shellfish in NC available from all over the country. Having more tools available to ensure the safety of shellfish helps protect the health of people who eat this food.”

-- Venita Jenkins

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#RESEARCH

Researchers Jennifer McCall and Susan Niven stand in a lab at the Center for Marine Science

Assistant Professor Jennifer McCall (left) and Research Specialist Susan Niven (right) are collaborating with Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, FL to provide better real-time information to shellfish farmers during harmful algal blooms of Florida Red Tide.