Aquaculture North America

Research aims to identify the source of fecal pollution in marine waters

June 2, 2024
By Aquaculture North America staff

Photo: Genome British Columbia

A two-year project by researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) and the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) aims to improve the monitoring and identification of fecal pollution sources in marine waters.

The project, Genomic Ecological Microbial Source Tracking for Oceans Nature and the Environment (GEMSTONE) will develop new methods using genomic-derived technology to determine the type and origin of fecal contaminations. It is funded through Genome British Columbia’s (Genome BC) GeneSolve Program.

“We need a better way to identify the source(s) of fecal pollution in marine waters,” said Natalie Prystajecky, a project co-lead from UBC. “Currently, when contamination is detected, harvesting areas are closed quickly. Often, the source of contamination is not known, which means there is no mechanism to prevent the contamination from happening again.”

A 2016-2017 Norovirus outbreak linked to oysters that affected 400 Canadians and caused the shellfish industry about $9.1 million in losses underscores the public health and economic urgency of this research.


The researchers are working on creating a two-step microbial source tracking test. Step 1 will distinguish between human and non-human contamination. If the contamination is non-human, Step 2 will determine what animal is the source. The project will create presentations and training materials to help the industry and Indigenous communities learn how to use the new resources.

The B.C. Shellfish Growers Association and the Malahat Nation are partners on the project. The new test will empower local communities to gain greater control and implement better management options to respond to contamination.

The shellfish industry is a vital part of the local economy in the Comox to Deep Bay region, which produces up to 70 percent of B.C.’s oyster production. According to a press release from Genome BC, permanently addressing contamination sources will help First Nations remove long-term barriers that disproportionately affect their economy, food sources and ceremonial harvesting.

“The real value here is consumer confidence in the industry,” said Suzanne Gill, president, and chief executive officer of Genome BC. “The precision of these tests will serve as an early warning system so that we can improve the safety and viability of B.C.’s shellfish industry.”

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