Understanding interannual, decadal level variability in paralytic shellfish poisoning toxicity in the Gulf of Maine: the HAB Index. Academic Article uri icon


  • A major goal in harmful algal bloom (HAB) research has been to identify mechanisms underlying interannual variability in bloom magnitude and impact. Here the focus is on variability in Alexandrium fundyense blooms and paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) toxicity in Maine, USA, over 34 years (1978 - 2011). The Maine coastline was divided into two regions -eastern and western Maine, and within those two regions, three measures of PSP toxicity (the percent of stations showing detectable toxicity over the year, the cumulative amount of toxicity per station measured in all shellfish (mussel) samples during that year, and the duration of measurable toxicity) were examined for each year in the time series. These metrics were combined into a simple HAB Index that provides a single measure of annual toxin severity across each region. The three toxin metrics, as well as the HAB Index that integrates them, reveal significant variability in overall toxicity between individual years as well as long-term, decadal patterns or regimes. Based on different conceptual models of the system, we considered three trend formulations to characterize the long-term patterns in the Index - a three-phase (mean-shift) model, a linear two-phase model, and a pulse-decline model. The first represents a "regime shift" or multiple equilibria formulation as might occur with alternating periods of sustained high and low cyst abundance or favorable and unfavorable growth conditions, the second depicts a scenario of more gradual transitions in cyst abundance or growth conditions of vegetative cells, and the third characterizes a "sawtooth" pattern in which upward shifts in toxicity are associated with major cyst recruitment events, followed by a gradual but continuous decline until the next pulse. The fitted models were compared using both residual sum of squares and Akaike's Information Criterion. There were some differences between model fits, but none consistently gave a better fit than the others. This statistical underpinning can guide efforts to identify physical and/or biological mechanisms underlying the patterns revealed by the HAB Index. Although A. fundyense cyst survey data (limited to 9 years) do not span the entire interval of the shellfish toxicity records, this analysis leads us to hypothesize that major changes in the abundance of A. fundyense cysts may be a primary factor contributing to the decadal trends in shellfish toxicity in this region. The HAB Index approach taken here is simple but represents a novel and potentially useful tool for resource managers in many areas of the world subject to toxic HABs.

publication date

  • May 1, 2014