Two if by Sea
Volunteers are on the lookout for ocean invaders
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
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
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
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
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
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.