Malaysian HABreports: Harmful algal bloom and biotoxin early warning to meet the ODA challenge of providing resilient aquaculture resources in Asia

Lead Research Organisation: Scottish Association For Marine Science
Department Name: Dunstaffnage Marine Laboratory


Phytoplankton are free-floating plants found in marine and freshwaters that form the base of the aquatic food chain. A subset of the phytoplankton may be harmful to human health or to human use of the ecosystem. The species that cause harm are referred to as 'Harmful Algae' with the term 'Harmful Algal Bloom' (HAB) commonly being used to describe their occurrence and effects.

Some HABs can be harmful to humans through their production of biotoxins that are concentrated in the flesh of filter feeding shellfish, leading to a health risk if the shellfish are consumed by humans.
Other HABs can kill farmed fish though toxicity, interaction with the gills or anoxia.

HAB events of either type can have serious financial consequences for aquaculture.

In most locations HABs are natural events with their timing, location, magnitude and toxicity being spatially and temporally variable. Early warning of events can therefore be used to protect health and minimise economic losses.
Moreover, HAB events are not random, but a product of their environment. So through a combination of monitoring of the causative species and their toxins, and expert interpretation of these data and other available environmental information, it is possible to produce short term (~ 1-2 week) risk forecasts of HAB location and severity (akin to a weather forecast).

In the UK we have since 2015 been operating a weekly HAB and biotoxin alert and forecast system. It operates from the web site and contains products that the aquaculture industry can use to better understand the HAB risk in their location and hence take mitigation action to safeguard human health and prevent economic loss.

The alerts are based on the synthesis and graphical presentation of multiple data streams including: the abundance of different HAB species, concentrations different of shellfish biotoxins, satellite derived sea surface chlorophyll (an index of overall phytoplankton biomass), sea surface temperature and meteorological information. Historical trends are summarized graphically in map and chart based format, current conditions are presented on a map and through a high/medium/low risk "traffic light" index and expert interpretation is used to produce a forward looking risk assessment.

In this proposal we intend to transfer this technology to Malaysia, a DAC country in South East Asia with a significant and growing aquaculture industry related to both finfish and shellfish, and which suffers from HABs though fish kills and episodes of shellfish poisoning.

HABs are frequent in Malaysia, with recent events including a fish kill that an estimated to have cost industry $ 2.6 million. In 2013 a paralytic shellfish poisoning outbreak resulted in four deaths and left more than 60 other victims ill after consuming contaminated shellfish.

Early warning of HABs in Malaysia will warn regulator and consumers of potential health risks from contaminated shellfish (or sometimes fish) and allow aquaculture businesses to take mitigation measures, e.g., shellfish can be left in situ until toxin depurates, fish cages can be "fenced" using perimeter skirting, fish can be harvested early or transferred to land facilities.

In this project UK and Malaysian scientists and fishery regulators will work together to transfer the HAB early warning technology operating in the UK to Malaysia. This will allow us to produce a Malaysian HABreports web site and mobile phone app that includes a traffic light (low, medium, high) index of current risk in different locations and an expert interpretation based forecast of risk for the coming week.

Following the project the Malaysian Government will be in a position to continue to produce these risk assessments, providing enhanced ongoing support for the aquaculture industry and public consumers of seafood.

Demonstration of our approach will also lead to its potential application elsewhere in the region.

Planned Impact

The project is impact driven with a primary aim of transferring the knowledge and expertise related to harmful algal bloom early warming and risk assessment developed previously with BBSRC/NERC funding in the UK to the DAC country Malaysia.

The project will directly benefit the following stakeholders:

Consumers of Malaysian aquaculture products (both domestically and exported)

The Malaysian aquaculture industry

The governmental regulators of the Malaysian Aquaculture industry

Malaysian academics working in the field of harmful algal bloom research

Aquaculture insurers

How will they benefit?

The project will provide the public an additional degree of safety in relation to consumption of seafood minimising, and we hope preventing, the shellfish poisoning events that have had significant health impacts in Malaysia in the past.

The on line public information material that will be produced as part of the project will help to educate the Malaysian public on the risks associated with shellfish consumption and the measures that are in place to minimise these.

The app based traffic light high/medium/low risk index will provide a quick and easily interpreted index of current HAB risk in the different aquaculture producing regions of Malaysia. This will benefit producers, regulators and consumers.

The risk forecasts will provide the aquaculture industry with early warning of potential risk in the next one to two weeks allowing them to prepare and take mitigation action if thought necessary. It will also provide regulators with a means of targeting increased sampling frequency or end product testing.

Aquaculture practitioners in Malaysia will have, for the first time, rapid access to all available data related to HABs, biotoxins and associated environmental variables allowing them to make informed decisions related to their management practices.

Aquaculture site operators, investors and their insurers will benefit from enhanced understanding of the environment in which they are planning to operate, and the risks, challenges and benefits that working in different locations may bring.

The development of chart based metrics of the location and severity of HAB events in Malaysia will provide valuable spatial-temporal information for industry, investors and insurers to make informed decisions on expansion of aquaculture in the region. It will also allow regulators to develop coherent regional and national plans for development and expansion of the industry.

The interaction between UK and Malaysian academics will strengthen research linkages and pool expertise to better understand the environmental drivers of HABs in Malaysian waters.

Wider benefits:

We also hope that the project will provide a "proof of concept" that will lead to the uptake of HAB early warning and risk assessment practices elsewhere in South East Asia to the wider benefit of the aquaculture industry in the S.E Asia region and consumers of its products.


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Description We developed an early warning system for marine harmful algal blooms and their associated biotoxins for use in Malaysia. The system utilises best practice from a similar approach taken in Scotland. It is designed to minimise the risk to human health from the consumption of shellfish contaminated with these biotoxins.
Exploitation Route The award has provides an early warning system that can operate post project to safeguard human health in Malaysia. Follow on funding from the Royal Society of Edinburgh is allowing stakeholder engagement to maximise in country uptake of the mobile phone based app that is part of the alert system.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink

Description The award has been severely impacted by covid restrictions as it prevented planned field work in Malaysia and research collaboration and training exchanges between the UK and Malaysia. However, it has facilitated the development of both web and app based HAB early warning tools for use by Malaysian fisheries scientists, aquaculture industry stakeholders and the general public. Post project use of these tools in Malaysia will minimise HAB biotoxin risk to consumers of Malaysia shellfish. Gender equality The research team is gender balanced with the main stakeholder in Malaysia being represented by a woman. The international collaboration fostered by the project is benefitting the careers of research staff of both genders. The outcomes of the project will benefit all genders equally. We had intended to to travel to Malaysia post covid to conduct stakeholder workshops to evaluate feedback on any non intended negative gender-based consequences. However, as the project was not granted a no cost extension to facilitate this, it will not be possible.
First Year Of Impact 2022
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description My-HABs
Amount £10,000 (GBP)
Organisation Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2023 
End 09/2023
Description Real time modelling and prediction of harmful algal blooms to minimise their impact on finfish aquaculture
Amount £218,000 (GBP)
Organisation Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre 
Sector Multiple
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2021 
End 03/2023
Title Malaysian HABpreorts web site 
Description We have developed a prototype web site from which stakeholders are able to access data on the concertation of harmful algal species and their biotoxins. This provides early warning for regulators and aquaculture practitioners of biotoxin risk to human consumers of farmed shellfish allowing them to take mitigation actions. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2021 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact Use of the web site allows regulators and aquaculture practitioners in Malaysia to make more informed decisions related to the harvesting and sale of farmed shellfish, and hence to better protect human health 
Description Harmful algal bloom risk assessment development 
Organisation Government of Malaysia
Department Department of Fisheries Malaysia
Country Malaysia 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution We are developing a harmful algal bloom alert/early warning system to be used in by the Department of Fisheries of the Malaysian government.
Collaborator Contribution The Malaysian Department of Fisheries is providing advice on how to best to produce harmful algal bloom alerts for the Malaysian aquaculture industry and its regulators.
Impact no outcomes yet, system under development
Start Year 2020
Title MyHABs harmful algal bloom early warning web site 
Description An on line early warning system that provides users with early waning of harmful algal blooms and shellfish biotoxins 
Type Of Technology Webtool/Application 
Year Produced 2021 
Impact The system for the first time collates information on harmful algal blooms and associated and shellfish poisoning in Malaysian waters to protect human health and aquaculture business operations 
Title MyHABs iOS app 
Description mobile phone app for the early warning of harmful algal blooms in Malaysian waters 
Type Of Technology Webtool/Application 
Year Produced 2023 
Impact the app provides easy and rapid access to information related to harmful algal blooms and shellfish toxicity in Malaysian waters, hence protecting human health 
Description Arabian Gulf HABs workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presentation on HAB early warning and its potential for application in the Arabian Gulf
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
Description International conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact ICHA internatinal confernece LA Paz Mesxico (on line)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
Description Malaysian Fisheries webinar 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Stakeholder engagement webinar with Malaysian department of fisheries
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
Description SAIC Farmed Fish Health Framework workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Contribution to a SAIC hosted Farmed Fish Health Framework workshop
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2023
Description Salmon Scotland presentation 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Presentation of harmful algal bloom early warning to the industry body Salmon Scotland and its member companies
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022