Remotely sensing harmful algal blooms in the Red Sea

by E. A. Gokul, D. E. Raitsos, J. Gittings, A. Alkawri, I. Hoteit
Article Year: 2019 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0215463


Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) are of global concern, as their presence is often associated with socio-economic and environmental issues including impacts on public health, aquaculture and fisheries. Therefore, monitoring the occurrence and succession of HABs is fundamental for managing coastal regions around the world. Yet, due to the lack of adequate in situ measurements, the detection of HABs in coastal marine ecosystems remains challenging. Sensors on-board satellite platforms have sampled the Earth synoptically for decades, offering an alternative, cost-effective approach to routinely detect and monitor phytoplankton. The Red Sea, a large marine ecosystem characterised by extensive coral reefs, high levels of biodiversity and endemism, and a growing aquaculture industry, is one such region where knowledge of HABs is limited. Here, using high-resolution satellite remote sensing observations (1km, MODIS-Aqua) and a second-order derivative approach, in conjunction with available in situ datasets, we investigate for the first time the capability of a remote sensing model to detect and monitor HABs in the Red Sea. The model is able to successfully detect and generate maps of HABs associated with different phytoplankton functional types, matching concurrent in situ data remarkably well. We also acknowledge the limitations of using a remote-sensing based approach and show that regardless of a HAB's spatial coverage, the model is only capable of detecting the presence of a HAB when the Chl-a concentrations exceed a minimum value of ~ 1 mg m-3. Despite the difficulties in detecting HABs at lower concentrations, and identifying species toxicity levels (only possible through in situ measurements), the proposed method has the potential to map the reported spatial distribution of several HAB species over the last two decades. Such information is essential for the regional economy (i.e., aquaculture, fisheries & tourism), and will support the management and sustainability of the Red Sea's coastal economic zone.