Phytoplankton Monitoring

Catie Bursch analyzes phytoplankton samples from Kachemak Bay.

Phytoplankton monitoring in Alaska takes one of two different forms:qualitative monitoring suitable for citizen involvement or high-precision, quantitative monitoring research on harmful algal blooms. In the first method, used by SEATOR and KBNERR, a network of volunteers or employees follow a protocol designed by NOAA’s Phytoplankton Monitoring Network. Each week, samplers horizontally tow a 20 micron phytoplankton net for three minutes at their site, typically a dock or a local beach, while also collecting air and water temperature and other environmental data. The sample is then analyzed under a microscope and abundance of each HAB species is qualitatively classified (e.g. “present”, “abundant”, or “bloom”). Plankton observations are uploaded to a shared database and local managers and public health organizations are notified of any concerning samples. The advantages of qualitative phytoplankton monitoring are the low equipment costs, easy volunteer training, and quick sample analysis, so it is easily implemented across many communities or throughout an area, but the lack of quantitative data makes it less effective for predicting actual toxin levels from a HAB.

For research purposes, quantitative phytoplankton monitoring using official cell counts is best. Quantitative monitoring in Alaska is primarily done by the Kasitsna Bay Laboratory in Southcentral and post-doctoral researcher Elizabeth Tobin in Southeast. For quantitative monitoring, phytoplankton cells are concentrated from a known volume of seawater. A sample is then placed in a specialized slide under a microscope and the target cells are counted, giving a concentration of cells in the water column. Quantitative monitoring is instrumental to understanding HAB initiation and duration since minor differences in cell abundance can then be matched with oceanographic parameters, but time investment and training needed is out of reach for most citizen scientists, so it can be a challenge to analyze more than a few locations.

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