The countries of Central America struggle with so-called red tides, or harmful algal blooms. This not only threatens their rich ecosystems but also local economies. The MAReS project, funded by Partners for Water, addresses this by developing a scalable service for detecting and monitoring harmful algal blooms using satellite data and citizen science, and considering the needs of end users. Consortium partners Dr. Andrea Suárez Serrano and Dr. Alexander Kaune discuss the innovative MAReS project with us.

Meet the team

Andrea, the general coordinator of the Centro de Recursos Hídricos para Centroamérica y el Caribe (HIDROCEC) at the Universidad Nacional (UNA), Costa Rica, has led various research projects on surface water quality, drinking water and coastal zones. In the MAReS project, the university validates the gathered data and provides scientific and technical support.

Alexander, who holds a PhD in Water Resources Management and has extensive experience in international hydrological and water resources projects, is an independent expert for Kaune Engineering and Science. He coordinates projects, co-develops services, and liaises between project partners and stakeholders.



Water Insight, the Universidad Nacional (UNA), Costa Rica, and Kaune Engineering and Science are involved in a collaborative project related to water quality monitoring and management. The project aims to create a scalable service that provides near-real-time spatial insights into the location of harmful algal blooms (HABs), also known as ‘red tides.’ This project addresses critical issues affecting local economic sectors such as seafood farms and eco-tourism which depend on a healthy sea environment to be sustainable. Eventually, MAReS will deliver timely alert messages and near-real-time maps indicating the risk levels of red tides occurring in the Costa Rican Pacific, aiding in mitigation efforts.

Efficient data measurements

“We use satellite images as the basis of our tool,” says Alexander. “This results in a service that is affordable and scalable”. Alexander explains how the consortium validates the measurements: “To ensure the satellite data matches reality, we validate the measurements with data from Water Insight Spectrometers (WISPstations) placed in the ocean. These Water Insight Spectrometers determine the bio-physical water quality through high-frequency optical measurements of the surface water.” During the pilot project, Andrea’s team at HIDROCEC-UNA validates the data from satellite and  WISPstation through sea water sampling to obtain the concentration of different types of phytoplankton that can produce red tides. Andrea says: “We also receive daily images of the colour of the surface water through a citizen science approach, where people already working in the sea share images with us through an app. In this way, we have successfully managed to obtain data on red tides in the Costa Rican Pacific from four information sources: satellite images, optical instruments, water sampling and citizen science”.

Andrea adds, “The interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary work of the MAReS project is a unique and innovative approach. From an academic perspective, the project is very useful as we work with communities dependent on marine resources. Knowing more about the occurrence and detection of red tides is fundamental in developing early warning mechanisms for these communities as well as for tourism, fishing and the environment.”

Problem-driven innovation

“Initially, we knew we wanted to work on water quality using satellite data, but we were uncertain about our specific focus,” says Alexander. “We decided to consult with individuals who face real challenges in water quality, aiming to respond to a need and develop a solution with direct impact.” From previous research projects, Andrea had two potential beneficiaries: Península Papagayo, a service company coordinating various activities and services for eco-tourism in the North Pacific Region of Costa Rica, and Martec-AquaFoods, a mariculture company producing fish in the ocean. “We met with them to explore how our expertise could meet their needs. They immediately identified a critical need to solve the problem of red tides.”


Designing for the end user

“Our end users want a service that timely alerts and maps potential harmful algal blooms and shows their risk level. They also want to see the variables used to generate this indicator, allowing them to compare with their own observations to better understand these events,” says Alexander. To meet these needs, the consortia have regular meetings and feedback workshops with the end users. Alexander states: “For the tool to be useful, the end users need to understand the information it provides. Only they can tell us if it has added value and what should be changed to improve information delivery.”

“In the beginning, we had to push for a participative approach, employees are busy with their own daily activities. We convinced the management to involve everyone in the process, as those on the ground dealing with harmful algal blooms daily know best what is useful for the tool,” says Alexander. Their effort to include the whole team paid off. “We had successful meetings with the employees who go out on the ocean for tourist tours and daily patrols. They were very critical and provided us with excellent feedback, but also eager to help. From them, we are receiving daily images of the colour of the surface water, that can help us to calibrate and validate our model. That’s exactly what we need to improve our tool.”


Scaling up

“The opportunity to scale up this type of project is vast,” says Andrea. “The Central American isthmus, bordered by the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, requires accurate information for effective decision-making regarding marine resources, which are crucial to the region’s economy. Additionally, our technology could be applied to lakes and rivers that supply water to communities, where monitoring and detecting harmful algae is essential.” Alexander adds, “As long as we can access satellite data, we can monitor the water quality in large areas without needing to take continuous and expensive water samples and provide our affordable service to customers in those areas as well.”

To read a full introduction to the MAReS project, read the first interview here.

Innovation in progress series

During the Partners for Water 2022 – 2027 programme, several projects that received the Partners for Water subsidy will be followed from start to finish. Over the next few years, they will take you with them on their transformative journey. You’ll be able to gain insights into their promising solutions, innovative processes and collaborations with local partners, as well as their struggles, challenges and valuable lessons learned. Stay tuned and follow their journey through the Partners for Water website and our LinkedIn page!

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