New Parasite Discovered to be Infecting Cod in Gulf of Maine

Gulf of Maine

BOSTON – September 1, 2010 A team of scientists led by Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sea Grant (MITSG) College Program today announced the discovery of a new, as-yet unidentified parasite that is infecting cod in the waters of the Gulf of Maine.

The parasite is a species of acanthocephalan, or spiny-headed worm. Heavily infected fish sicken and die, making the parasite a serious threat to cod populations.

The parasite was first discovered by local commercial cod fishermen, who began noticing the easily-seen parasite as soon as the Gulf of Maine multispecies fishery opened in spring 2010. “It would have been hard to miss, “said Jack Spade, commercial fisherman and member of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fisherman’s Association (CCCHA). “Those worms are bright yellow.”

MITSG is working with the local fishing community to map the prevalence and severity of infection of the new parasite. Several members of the CCCHA as well as fishermen in Gloucester and other Gulf of Maine ports are providing valuable data to researchers. If left unchecked, the parasite could severely curtail this year’s codfish catch, further damaging an already weakened commercial fishing sector. “We know we have a big role to play here,” said Mr. Spade, “and look forward to working with the researchers to get to the bottom of this.”

MITSC is collaborating with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) parasitologists to identify the species and its native range and life cycle. Although unlikely, it is theoretically possible for humans who eat the infected cod to ingest the parasite and become infected themselves. “We do believe at this point that infection in humans is unlikely,” said EPA spokesperson Sharon McCoy. “The parasite is easily seen and it also lives in the body cavity of the fish, not in the muscle tissue.”

However, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health is looking into whether any sort of restrictions are called for. As with any potentially threat to the food supply, the DPH recommends limiting exposure to possibly infected cod, particularly for young children, those with weakened immune systems and frail elderly.  For the latest updates, check the Massachusetts DPH website. New Hampshire and Maine are not considering any public health actions at this time.

Scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution are also involved in the effort to identify the parasite. Population modelers at the Woods Hole Center for Oceans and Human Health (WHCOHH) are developing projections for how the parasite may affect cod stocks in the near future. To protect consumers, and the livelihoods of fishermen from Maine to Massachusetts, researchers hope to be able to forecast where and when the parasite will next appear. And their work may also lead to answers as to what and why.

Scientists Dennis O’Leary and Zhuchen Le have developed a mathematical model of the parasite’s dynamics —a series of equations that captures the physical and biological factors involved in the movements of the parasite through the cod stocks in the Gulf of Maine.

GoM model 2

O’Leary and Le entered a range of factors into their model: the speeds and directions of ocean currents, water temperature and salinity, winds, surface heat exchanges, tides, river runoff, and the distribution and behavior of the parasite in the water. They also incorporated other computer models that describe waterborne nutrients, solar radiation, and large-scale motions in the North Atlantic Ocean.

“The beauty of a numerical model,” said O’Leary, “is that it can be used to investigate extraordinarily complex systems by posing the problem in terms of a few guiding principles expressed as mathematical equations.”

WHCOHH researchers regularly share their field observations and models with more than 80 coastal resource and fisheries managers in six states as well as federal entities like NOAA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Food and Drug Administration.

“Managers believe that a regional-scale, seasonal outlook can be useful in preparing for contingencies, ” said Dr. Judith Pederson of MITSG. ” This advanced warning, along with updates closer to and during the cod fishing season, can help state agencies prepare for monitoring and assessing public health risks, and also give fishermen the opportunity to shift the timing of their harvest.”  Area restaurants may also benefit from advance warnings by making contingency plans for seafood supplies.

WHCOHH is funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institute for Envrionmental Health Sciences. Additional research is provided by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Maine Department of Marine Resources, New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services, Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.

Research Experience for Undergraduates: Gulf of Maine and the World Ocean

Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences invites undergraduates to apply for the 2010 Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) summer research program, Gulf of Maine and the World Ocean.  We are looking for promising students from colleges and universities around the country interested in gaining hands-on research experience.  Areas of research include the marine microbial food web, ocean biogeochemistry, optical oceanography, remote sensing, sensory biology, climate change and fisheries oceanography.  Eight students will be selected and each paired with a Bigelow scientist/mentor based on mutual research interests.  Participants will spend ten weeks (June 7 – August 13) working closely with their mentors on current research projects. Participants receive a stipend and food, housing, and travel allowances.  Undergraduates in their sophomore year or later may apply; applications are due January 15, 2010.  More information and application materials are available.  Prospective applicants may also contact Rebecca Fowler with questions, or (207) 633-9632.

Gulf of Maine Seascape Modeling Website and Blog

Most of us can imagine scientific discoveries made in field research and in the lab, but some researchers are making discoveries at their computer – by modeling the interactions between marine life and the Gulf of Maine.  By focusing on a few key sets of data, they can better visualize the ecosystem and predict if, and how, it is changing.  According to the developers, “The goal of Seascape Modeling is to provide up-to-the-minute (well, more likely, the month) information on efforts to understand the link between physical and biological conditions in the ocean. As our name suggests, modeling is major thrust of our research, although we interpret modeling broadly to include analytical models, computer simulations, and statistical models.”  The website and the blog are great resources for students, teachers and researchers alike.

Seascape Modeling presents the news, results, and opinions of personnel in the Ecosystem Modeling Lab, a joint effort between the University of Maine’s School of Marine Sciences and the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.

Gulf of Maine Area-Census of Marine Life Newsletter

July 29, 2009

CALENDAR: Gulf of Maine Symposium – Early registration ends July 31st

Early registration ends Friday, July 31st for the Gulf of Maine Symposium, to be held in scenic St Andrews by-the-Sea, New Brunswick, October 4-9, 2009.

GoMA will host a one-day workshop on Biodiversity in the Gulf of Maine on Monday, October 5th.  We invite members of the science, management and conservation communities to join us.

The symposium is sponsored by the Regional Association for Research on the Gulf of Maine, in collaboration with COMPASS, Department of Fisheries and Oceans – St. Andrews Biological Station, Gulf of Maine Research Institute, and the Gulf of Maine Area – Census of Marine Life.

RESEARCH HIGHLIGHTS: Isles of Shoals (NH), Platts Bank (ME), Cobscook Bay (ME) and Discovery Corridor (Canada)

Here are a few highlights of summer research activities from our partners:

Leading a team of students at Shoals Marine Lab, marine archaeologists Nate Hamilton and Ingrid Brack (photo) found evidence of prehistoric Native Americans on Smuttynose Island, Isles of Shoals, New Hampshire.

Studies of biological hotspots – areas teeming with marine life – continue at Platts Bank, an off-shore bank 30 miles east of Portland, Maine.

Sampling of intertidal and nearshore species continues in Cobscook Bay, near the Maine/Canadian border.

A two-week cruise is underway in the Discovery Corridor, from the shores of the Bay of Fundy to the deep sea.  A 2008 National Geographic video shows you what this Canadian project is all about.

PUBLICATIONS: Recent papers on ecosystem dynamics

Gulf of Maine researchers have published two recent papers on changing ecosystem dynamics and fish communities using decades and centuries worth of data:

Using fish survey data from 1963 to the present, Peter Auster and Jason Link co-authored Compensation and recovery of feeding guilds in a northwest Atlantic shelf fish community (April 30, 2009, Marine Ecology Progress Series ).  The abstract begins “Disturbance by fishing activities in marine ecosystems has resulted in significant shifts in the distribution, abundance and diversity of fish communities.” Dr. Auster (photo) is a key contributor to the GoMA Census of Marine Life.

Based on historic records dating back to 1630, a team of researchers led by Stefan Claesson and Andy Rosenberg published their final report on Stellwagen Bank Marine Historical Ecology (2009, Gulf of Maine Cod Project, UNH). Dr. Rosenberg is a project leader for the Historical Marine Animal Populations of the Census of Marine Life. Recent guest lecturers and historians, Karen Alexander and Bill Leavenworth, contributed to the report.

Congratulations to all on their significant contributions to our understanding of the Gulf of Maine ecosystem.

EDUCATION NEWS: Student video wins national recognition

A poignant and well-produced video, Our Oceans, Our World , by high school students Eric Kao and Jorie Heilman of Lexington, Mass. captured the admiration of regional and national judges.  The winning video will be on display at the Smithsonian’s Ocean Hall throughout the year.  The winner and runners-up can be viewed on our website – kudos to all who participated in the contest.

Living on the Ocean Planet video contest is a project of the National Ocean Sciences Bowl, initiated by GoMA and co-sponsored by the Census of Marine Life.

Editor’s Note

A special thanks to Census of Marine Life scientist, Dr. Michael Sinclair of the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Dartmouth, NS for his recent interview for our blog, Celebrating Darwin.  In Part 1, Reflections on Darwin , Dr. Sinclair discussed how scientific theories come to be, and in Part 2, Music and Darwin,  how music inspired – and was inspired by – Darwin.

As part of our ongoing celebration of Darwin’s 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of Origin of Species, we invite colleagues to contribute to our blog in the coming months.  If interested, please contact Susan Ryan.

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Ecosystem Indicator Partnership (ESIP) Fact Sheet Available

The Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment’s EcoSystem Indicator Partnership (ESIP) announces the release of the first ESIP fact sheet. This initial fact sheet introduces the selected priority indicators for the Gulf of Maine. In addition, the webtools available on ESIP’s webpage are discussed with a demonstration utilizing the new Indicator Reporting Tool focused on Maine. Over the next 6 months two more ESIP fact sheets will be released for climate change and eutrophication. To access this fact sheet and other information about ESIP visit the website