DRA takes part in Maine Phytoplankton Monitoring Program

DRA is now part of the Maine Phytoplankton Monitoring Program, which serves as a first alert system for the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) Shellfish Sanitation Program. The object of the program is to monitor water samples for target species that have the potential to cause harmful algal blooms.

The monitoring program relies on DMR staff and a network of trained volunteers to take water samples and analyze them for the presence of certain species of phytoplankton which create toxins as a by-product of their metabolism.

If these phytoplankton are present in the estuary, there is a chance they can be ingested by local shellfish. And if people eat shellfish that have been feeding on these types of phytoplankton, sickness or death can result.

The phytoplankton monitoring program is not a regulatory program, but rather serves as a way to alert the DMR if the presence of any one of the species of concern is detected. The monitoring complements and informs DMR’s regular testing of shellfish tissue for toxins.

Locally, water samples are taken weekly at Pemaquid Point, where the Eastern Maine Coastal Current sweeps past.

This work is not for the faint of heart. “We were very happy not to be washed away by the waves at Pemaquid Point,” laughed DRA volunteer Dick MacKenzie. “Depending on the weather, it can be a difficult spot to do sampling.”

Once the water sample was collected, MacKenzie and co-volunteer Steve Wallace spent three hours looking at slides under the microscope at DRA’s water quality monitoring lab. Each slide is divided into 1000 squares, 200 of which are scanned for the presence of several potentially toxic species of phytoplankton. In addition, the volunteers are asked to identify the three most prevalent species observed within the set of 200 squares.

“Hopefully as we get better at identification we’ll get through it faster,” MacKenzie remarked.

volunteers looking into a microscope

DRA volunteer Dick MacKenzie observes phytoplankton under a microscope as co-volunteer Steve Wallace looks on.