Cullen Fellow research to improve biotoxin monitoring in shellfish

Stephen McGirr - a Cullen Fellow research to improve biotoxin monitoring in shellfishStephen McGirr is a PhD student at the Institute of Technology, Sligo and a Cullen Fellow at the Marine Institute. Stephen is studying Azadinium, a planktonic single-celled plant that lives in marine waters around Ireland. Under certain conditions Azadinium produces biotoxins which can build up in shellfish that feed on them. If eaten by humans this can lead to shellfish poisoning. Understanding more about the biology of this species will, therefore, help both the shellfish aquaculture industry and protect human health.

"The genus Azadinium was first linked to incidents of shellfish poisoning in the 1990s and both toxic and non-toxic forms of the Azadinium species have since been identified in Irish waters. More knowledge of the biology of the species is needed to support monitoring efforts currently underway to assist the aquaculture industry," Stephen said.

Ireland's aquaculture industry employed 1,925 people on 288 aquaculture production units, according to BIM's Business of Seafood Report 2018. In 2018, it is estimated that Ireland produced 24,200 tonnes of farmed shellfish valued at €56 million.

"Aquaculture is a valuable industry to our national economy as well as for many of Ireland's coastal communities. The closure of aquaculture production sites due to biotoxins produced by organisms such as Azadinium impacts the industry and can also be detrimental to local economies," Stephen said.

Stephen's PhD research is investigating the biotoxin production potential of Azadinium and related species in Irish waters and documenting the biological oceanography of Azadinium in estuaries used for shellfish aquaculture, in particular Killary Harbour and Bantry Bay. The research supports the Marine Institute's National Phytoplanton Monitoring Programme, which monitors phytoplankton populations and dynamics around the Irish coastline.

Stephen says the Marine Institute's Cullen Fellowship Programme is giving him the opportunity to learn and develop his skillset, working alongside scientists who are experts in their field, as well as gaining hands-on experience using state-of-the art equipment in the Institute's laboratories.

"I have joined two surveys on the RV Celtic Voyager along the south and western coastline of Ireland to collect both water column and sediment samples for our analyses. I have also presented my research at international conferences, including the International Conference on Molluscan Shellfish Safety held in Galway and the International Conference on Harmful Algae, held in Nantes, France."

Stephen is currently focusing his efforts on translating the product of his research into articles for peer-reviewed scientific journals. His research supervisors are Joe Silke, Marine Institute and Dr Nicolas Touzet, Institute of Technology Sligo.

The Cullen Fellowship Programme builds marine research capacity and capability by equipping graduates with the skills and expertise in raising awareness about our ocean, as well as Ireland's rich marine biodiversity and ecosystems. The programme has provided grant aid to the value of €2.06 million supporting 24 PhD and three MSc students over the last five years. The research addresses a number of the 15 research themes identified in the National Marine Research and Innovation Strategy 2017-2021.

This project (Grant-Aid Agreement No. CF/15/01) is carried out with the support of the Marine Institute and funded under the Marine Research Programme by the Irish Government.


National Marine Research & Innovation Strategy 2017-2021: Published in 2017, the National Marine Research and Innovation Strategy 2017-2021 focuses on the broad topics identified in existing Government policies and strategies and provides a framework that recognises the complexity of research funding in the marine domain.