To determine water quality, Blue Sources listens to the fish

06/17/2024| Daniel Leaderman

To determine water quality, Blue Sources listens to the fish

06/17/2024 | Daniel Leaderman

One of the best ways to address a problem is to consult with experts. Sometimes those experts happen to be fish.

That is–roughly–the concept behind the Frederick-based Blue Sources , which uses live bluegill fish to provide water security by monitoring water quality and detecting the presence of toxic chemicals in both drinking water sources and toxic waste dumps effluent. Using computer algorithms that measure the biological responses of the bluegill (such as their respiratory rates), the company has developed an early warning system for water quality: the fish can indicate a problem with the water before anyone else might detect it.

Blue Sources, formed in 2015, uses technology developed at the U.S. Army Center for Environmental Health Research at Fort Detrick and licensed from the military. The company joined the Frederick Innovative Technology Center, Inc.  (FITCI) business incubator in 2016 after realizing they needed help getting off the ground.

“We had experience in running an existing business, but had never started a business from nothing,” said Blue Sources Founder Terry N. Collins. Using the resources and programs provided by FITCI as well as seed funding from TEDCO , the company saw its first successful installation in late 2019. Additional product sales quickly followed, and the company was named “Innovator of the Year” by the Fort Detrick Alliance  in 2019.

Production and supply-chain disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 forced the company to push back its assembly and sales timelines, but normal operations resumed in 2021.

At any given time, the company maintains a colony of between 100 and 300 bluegills at two locations, Collins said. Fish between two and three inches long are rotated into special biomonitoring habitats for “tours of duty” lasting about 14 days. The fish are not fed during these tours, but are accustomed to going for weeks without eating during winter, so the temporary fast does not stress them.

These habitats–100-gallon fiberglass tanks not unlike the fish tanks one might find in a home–hold the fish in carefully monitored water while constantly controlling the temperature and water quality.

“It’s important that the fish are not stressed, as stress will impact their health significantly,” Collins said.

When each tour is complete, the fish are moved to a special holding tank where they can rest and enjoy a feast of brine shrimp–a favorite food of bluegills–before being rotated back for another tour of duty. Fish that are exposed to acutely toxic chemicals are euthanized so they won’t suffer; fish that grow larger than three inches “retire” and are moved to a pond at a fish hatchery. Each fish usually makes about four tours before retiring, Collins said.

So, why bluegills?

They’re the right fish for the job. They’re relatively sedentary, as fish go, so it’s normal for them to stay in the same water for extended periods of time. They also grow slowly; other species grow too fast to be effective, and the biomonitor technology was developed using only bluegills, Collins said.

Blue Source’s roster of clients across the Capital Region includes military installations, public water utilities, and an EPA Superfund site. The company will continue to grow throughout the remainder of 2024, expanding its service area and hiring additional employees to expand its sales force and its corporate team.

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