DV-17-15 Expanding the Phytoplankton Monitoring Volunteer Program

Amy Hamilton Vailea
Maine Department of Marine Resources
West Boothbay Harbor, ME

Some species of phytoplankton (microscopic marine algae) can be toxic to humans and wildlife. Excessive growth or “blooms” of these phytoplankton are often called “red tide.” In Maine, species of Alexandrium produce toxins that cause Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning, and result in closures of clam flats and shellfish growing areas. The Department of Marine Resources monitors coastal waters for harmful algae year-round, with assistance from volunteers who collect and analyze algae in water samples.

Alexandrium blooms occur regularly each spring, but they seem to be happening earlier each year, likely due to warmer air and water temperatures. In the future, Maine may experience more extreme phytoplankton blooms than previously seen or different types of blooms altogether. In 2016, an unprecedented bloom of Pseudo-nitzschia occurred in the Gulf of Maine. This species produces domoic acid, which causes Amnesic Shellfish Poisoning. Phytoplankton volunteers provided data on the bloom’s progress and abundance. Researchers are trying to determine the cause of the toxic bloom. Given the challenges of a changing environment and the emerging biotoxin threats, DMR wants to build volunteer capacity and monitor some areas more frequently. Sea Grant funds supported training and equipment for new volunteers, expanding the phytoplankton citizen scientist network to enhance DMR’s understanding of harmful algal blooms and how they affect shellfish toxicity.

The equipment purchased with Sea Grant funds allowed DMR to provide better coverage of the coast by re-establishing monitoring stations (in Georgetown and Freeport) and training new volunteers.

Sea Grant funds: $4,225