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Volunteer Opportunities - Maine Phytoplankton Monitoring Program

Engaging Maine Citizens in Science
A collaboration between University of Maine Cooperative Extension, Maine department of Marine Resources, and Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Science

In 1996 the United States Food and Drug Administration, the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR), and the University of Maine Cooperative Extension/Maine Sea Grant developed the Maine Phytoplankton Monitoring Program for the coast of Maine. This is a citizen volunteer program in which community members and students use plankton nets and field microscopes to monitor for phytoplankton that have the potential to cause harmful algal blooms (HABs also known as “red tides”). This volunteer program was designed to act as an early warning system for HABs, which may result in shellfish bed closures due to biotoxins. The volunteers use data sheets to report the relative abundance of target species such as Alexandrium spp., Dinophysis spp., Prorocentrum lima, and Pseudonitzschia spp. to the DMR in real-time. This information is used by the DMR biotoxin monitoring program to assist in prioritizing need of testing shellfish meat for biotoxins. Approximately 75 volunteers monitor 40 sites coast-wide on a weekly basis April through November.

Program Achievements

  • Trained volunteers reliably notify the Maine Department of Marine Resources when there are increases in potentially toxic phytoplankton cells present along the coast of Maine.
  • Education on harmful algae blooms is provided in 40 coastal communities annually.
  • Over 3,500 recorded observations of phytoplankton species in database.
  • Citizen participants range in age and background from high school students to retired scientists.
  • In the fall of 1999, a methodology for counting phytoplankton cells was developed and is being utilized by one of the volunteer groups to provide information about phytoplankton populations to finfish aquaculturists.
  • In 1997-8, using information on the large Dinophysis populations from the volunteer monitoring effort, a NOAA biotoxin team was assembled to determine if diarrhetic shellfish poisoning (DSP) occurs along the coast of Maine. This was the first study demonstrating the possibility of DSP on the Maine coast. Since okadaic acid (Dinophysis toxin-1) was detected in the dinoflagellate Prorocentrum lima, a protocol for volunteer monitors to identify P. lima has been developed and the protocol, after further field testing, will be implemented in the future.

Background and Need

For the success of Maine’s shellfish resources, there needs to be an active monitoring program that can pick out and observe toxic phytoplankton. Phytoplankton species such as Alexandrium spp., Dinophysis spp., Prorocentrum spp., or Pseudonitzschia spp. may pose a threat to shellfish safety. These types of phytoplankton may “bloom” in a given area when conditions are right, and an active monitoring project may be extremely effective in promoting shellfish safety to the public by identifying these organisms and determining when they are present.

If shellfish ingest the toxic phytoplankton they are not infected themselves, but carry the marine biotoxin. If a human ingests the shellfish carrying the toxin, it may result in sickness and, (depending on the toxin involved) some cases death for the human.

In Maine, monitoring for marine biotoxins is conducted by the Maine Department of Maine Resources (DMR), which monitors for Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP) caused by Alexandrium spp. There are, however, other toxic algae that could potentially be present in Maine waters, for which monitoring is not generally conducted. These algae include Pseudonitzschia spp., which causes Amnesiac Shellfish Poisoning (ASP), and Dinophysis spp., which causes Diarrhetic Shellfish Poisoning (DSP). Volunteer based monitoring efforts would prove to be an integral part in harvesting safe shellfish and providing essential data on algae blooms, which would aid the DMR in the methods currently used for quantifying marine biotoxins.

To become a monitor, contact

Alison Sirois
Department of Marine Resources
PO Box 8, McKown Pt Rd
West Boothbay, ME 04575
Wk: 207.633.9401 Fax: 207.633.9579

University of Maine Cooperative Extension
, Maine Sea Grant, Maine Department of Marine Resources, Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, US Food and Drug Administration, Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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