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A Blooming Concern: With IAEA Support, Countries in the Asia and the Pacific Region Address Harmful Algal Blooms


Participants of the RAS7026 Coordination Meeting.

As part of the International Atomic Energy Agency's continuous support to address issues related to harmful algal blooms (HABs) in the Asia and the Pacific region, a regional technical cooperation (TC) project which seeks to reduce the adverse impact of HABs on seafood safety has kicked off with a first Coordination and Planning Meeting in the Philippines, June 23-27. The project, entitled 'Supporting the Use of Receptor Binding Assay (RBA) to Reduce the Adverse Impacts of Harmful Algal Toxins on Seafood Safety(RAS7026)', is financed through the IAEA's Technical Cooperation Fund, with supplementaryextrabudgetary funding from the USA.

The first coordination meeting was attended by participants from Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Marshall Islands. Among the institutions represented were the Institut Louis Malarde in French Polynesia, the Cawthron Institute of New Zealand, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Organization of the USA (through online participation), and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (IOC-UNESCO), which is based in Denmark. Local experts, scientists, researchers, and fish industry regulators, as well as IAEA technical officers, also attended the meeting.

In several Member States of the Asia-Pacific Region, such as New Zealand, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Republic of Korea, and Thailand, Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP) remains a prevailing public health issue despite the implementation of a monitoring programme. In addition, Ciguatera Fish Poisoning (CFP) and puffer fish poisonings are emerging threats that needs immediate action. For example, 32 cases of ciguatera were reported in the Philippines in a single month in 2010, and 115 cases of puffer fish poisoning, leading to 15 deaths, were reported as of August 2007 in Thailand.

Seafood tainted with natural algal toxins remains a major public health and socioeconomic challenge for Member States of the Asia and the Pacific region, which includes vulnerable Small Island Developing States (SIDS) that rely on seafood for a major source of protein and economic growth. Reports indicate that blooms of the harmful algae have been increasing both in frequency and intensity over recent  decades, a phenomena attributed to an increased eutrophication of the aquatic environment (through human land-based activities or natural events such as typhoons or hurricanes) and global climate and environmental changes. A recent estimation of ciguatera incidence (from 1998-2008) in 17 Pacific islands and territories reports 194 mean annual cases per 100,000 people - a 60% increase when compared to the 1973-1983 period.

The coordination and planning meeting focused on the strategies that the Member States will apply in order to adopt the AOAC Accredited Receptor Binding Assay (RBA) for PSP toxins as a regulatory and monitoring tool. This tool, developed through a former interregional TC project, has been adopted by AOAC International as a First Action Official Method for the determination of paralytic shellfish poisoning toxins, and has been established in several IAEA Member States with the support of the TC programme.

Nonetheless, relevant skills, competencies, and abilities need to be strengthened to ensure the sustainability of the technology. Extending monitoring capabilities to ciguatera toxins remains a major emerging regional issue, and capacity building efforts under the new regional project will include CFP monitoring. By furthering and strengthening the implementation of RBA technology in the region, the IAEA will be responding to Member State interests and priorities related to fisheries development for economic growth. In light of the recent recommendation of ciguatoxin regulatory levels by the US-FDA, established methods will soon be needed for international seafood exporting. As of today, no method has been validated for this purpose, although the radioligand-RBA offers good potential.

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