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September / October 2004

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Two if by Sea

Image of the Sarah Gladu

Two if by Sea
Volunteers are on the lookout for ocean invaders

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Some of the smallest organisms in the sea are true giant killers. Take tiny phytoplankton microscopic algae with bizarre but beautiful shapes. While most varieties are harmless and indispensable to healthy marine life, some can generate toxins deadly enough to kill whales.

In the Northeast and elsewhere, these insidious invaders also have contaminated shellfish and sickened people, leading government agencies and citizen volunteers to maintain vigilance. When such toxic species do show up in Maine, Betty Killoran and Ann Bex are among the first to know.

Killoran is a retired New York City physician now living in Rockport, Maine, and Bex, a resident of nearby Camden, once operated a windjammer. They are two of more than 60 volunteers in the Maine Phytoplankton Monitoring Program that is coordinated by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. Motivated by their curiosity and love of the sea, citizen teams monitor coastal waters spring, summer and fall, and thus serve as an early warning system for the coast.

" I look forward to seeing what's in the water every week. I get a lot of satisfaction out of it. It's another world," says Killoran, who has been dipping phytoplankton out of the waters off mid-coast Maine for five years.

Her first brush with toxic algae was in the early 1980s at a medical conference in Rockland, where she heard a victim of paralytic shellfish poisoning describe the symptoms tingling in the face and arms, numbness, headache and nausea. The shellfish the person ate contained high levels of a neurotoxin, produced by a species of phytoplankton.

Volunteers monitor coastal waters at about 40 locations along the Maine coast. In addition to Extension, supporting organizations include Maine Sea Grant, the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences and the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

Sarah Gladu of Extension's Waldoboro, Maine, office coordinates the monitoring program. She says the volunteers show a lot of enthusiasm for a job that puts them at the intersection of public health and marine science. "It's a great way for people to become involved in the outdoors in a way that ties them to a place and is instructive," she says. "There is always more to learn. There are species out there that we've never seen before."

Ann Bex, Betty Killoran and Sarah Gladu
Dockside, volunteers (left to right) Ann Bex and Betty Killoran talk with Maine Phytoplankton Monitoring Program coordinator Sarah Gladu as they start their weekly sampling routine. Spring, summer and fall, they join more than 60 volunteers along the Maine coast, taking measurements and collecting water samples in the incoming high tide. The hour-long process is considered an early warning system for toxic phytoplankton.

For Jesse Leach, a volunteer monitor and former fisherman with an oyster aquaculture lease on the Bagaduce River near Castine, Maine, checking the water regularly for phytoplankton has a practical benefit. "It's (oysters') food," he says. "(That's why) we do all the tests that we can: chlorophyll, currents, water depth. We want to see how much food there is; we're interested in keeping the water clean."

Another group of monitors on Mt. Desert Island, home of Acadia National Park, uses phytoplankton as the key to a broad environmental education program. Jane Disney, executive director of the MDI Water Quality Monitoring Coalition, says the group has been monitoring coastal waters since 1992.

As a high school biology teacher, Disney saw monitoring as a way to give students direct experience with science. Often as not, she says, students' questions cannot be answered with current knowledge. For example, why doesn't the presence of toxic algae in the water always lead to shellfish contamination? "We've never seen a summer when toxic phytoplankton species have not been around," says Disney, yet mussels, clams and other shellfish rarely turn out to be toxic.

Nevertheless, toxic algae have made headlines. They've been linked to deaths of whales in the Gulf of Maine, manatees in Florida and pelicans in California.

These poisonings can start with clams, mussels and other shellfish that eat by filtering phytoplankton out of the water. Although they do not seem to be harmed by eating toxic algae, shellfish can concentrate the toxins in their flesh. Animals, including humans, that eat shellfish can suffer paralysis, diarrhea and temporary amnesia, and even die.

Federal and state shellfish sanitation programs make sure that human poisonings are rare. Regulators test shellfish frequently to ensure it is safe to eat, but they can't keep a constant eye on thousands of miles of coastal waters to see what phytoplankton species are present. That's where volunteers play a role.

The sampling routine is straightforward. Participants receive monitoring equipment and a day of training in the spring, usually at UMaine's Darling Marine Center in Walpole, Maine. On the incoming high tide, volunteers spend about an hour taking measurements and collecting water samples. A cup of water can contain millions of phytoplankton cells. Once they identify the types of cells present, monitors send that information to Laurie Bean at the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

" (Volunteers') work has made a difference," says Bean. "As they've gotten more familiar with Alexandrium, which causes paralytic shellfish poisoning, they've been able to spot it in the water column a week or so before toxin shows up in shellfish."


by Nick Houtman
September-October, 2004

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