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Lake Guardian: Safety First - But, Are They Harmful?
By Paul F on Jul 9, 2013 at 4:35 PM

After Learning About Yougstown's Geology, The Teachers Get Schooled in Lake Ontario's Algal Issues

Photo: Paul C. Focazio, NYSG

Situated where the Niagara River ends it 36-mile journey at Lake Ontario, Fort Niagara State Park is where our dozen plus Great Lakes educators gathered for this "Shipboard and Shoreline Science" workshop. From down at the docks at the U.S Coast Guard station in Youngstown, NY (pictured below, [1]) is where the Environmental Protection Agency's R/V Lake Guardian (below, [2]) departed, heading out onto Lake Ontario for a week of research sampling, curricula learning and field trips.

Photos: Helen Domske, NYSG

But, before leaving, the teachers became the students for a “Geology and the Niagara River” 101 crash course led by Susan Diachun from New York State Parks at the nearby Niagara State Park Nature Center. During the summer months, Diachun and other state park naturalists are available to answer questions, present nature programs, provide children's activities, or lead nature walks. The nature center, just a short walk from the docks of the Park's Coast Guard station, includes displays highlighting the natural world, exhibits with live animals and lessons on Great Lakes ecology.

The hope is that the teachers will later pass along this information to their own students via science curricula. "Our goal with this interpretive center is to reveal the wonders of the natural world through fun, interactive exhibits, events and activities," said  Diachun.  She informed the educators of the Niagara River Corridor's designation as a globally-significant Important Bird Area. "Thousands of birds pass through here during their annual migrations," she said. "Red-headed woodpeckers make use of old orchard trees, Bald Eagles search for food on the river, and waterfowl delight in the resources of Lake Ontario."

Photo: Helen Domske, NYSG

The Park's terrain is relatively flat with a mixed landscape of woods and field, an ideal locale for such species as white-tailed deer, woodchuck, and coyote. And the foundation, or rock beds, of the Park's surrounding area — the greater Niagara region — is comprised of various sedimentary layers. Down by the Lake Ontario shore, Diachun (above, [3], at right) showed the teachers examples of these rocks, which include dolomites, sandstones and shale.

Photo: Helen Domske, NYSG

After finishing up their lesson at the nature center, the educators as well as workshop staff and researchers aboard — including New York Sea Grant funded investigator Dr. Greg Boyer (above, [4]) from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF) in Syracuse, NY — took part in a brief emergency safety lesson on deck of the R/V Lake Guardian. Those aboard donned life jackets as well as immersion suits, like the one Boyer displays here.

An immersion, or survival suit is a special type of waterproof dry suit that protects the wearer from hypothermia when immersed in cold water, after (and here's hoping we're not jinxing ourselves here) abandoning a sinking or capsized vessel, especially in the open ocean. They usually have built-on feet (boots), and a hood, and either built-on gloves or watertight wrist seals.

Man overboard? Here's hoping not.

Boyer has been immersed in Great Lakes issues for quite some time, as evident in his 15+ years of New York Sea Grant-funded research. Primarily, his studies have focused on Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs), including brown tide, red tide and toxic blooms of the cyanobacteria Microcystis. You can get research summaries of his work by searching the "Investigator" field for his name at

Next week, Boyer will be a featured speaker at the "Harmful Algal Blooms in the Lower Great Lakes" conferences, two all-day (8:30 am - 3:30 pm) discussions organized by New York Sea Grant and sponsored by the Research Foundation of the State University of New York (SUNY) slated for Wednesday, July 17 and Thursday July 18. The discussions will be held at the Ramada Hotel in Amherst, NY (July 17) and Hilton Garden Inn in Auburn, NY (July 18). For more information, see NYSG's related flyer/agenda (pdf).

Since 1985, blooms of the brown tide organisms Aureococcus anophagefferens have caused dramatic loses in Peconic bay scallop industry. Though these blooms appear to be triggered by iron, Boyer and a team of researchers in a 1996-99 NYSG project investigated the role of this trace metal in brown tide blooms. They examined ways to improve how iron could be detected in Long Island's waters and also used the techniques they developed to study the red tide organism Alexandrium tamarense and diatoms of the genus Pseudo-nitzschia, a potentially toxic microalgae whose blooms can trigger Amnesic Shellfish Poisoning  (ASP), a human illness caused by consumption of the marine biotoxin called domoic acid. When accumulated in high concentrations by shellfish during filter feeding, domoic acid can then be passed on to humans via consumption of the contaminated shellfish. The chart above [5] compares some brown and red tide species.

Some of Boyer's cumulative work dating back over more than a decade has focused on studies related to Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP), a major economic problem for the shellfish industry. To prevent toxic shellfish from reaching consumers, he and his researchers have analyzed PSP toxins in the laboratory. "Certain dinoflagellate populations of the genus Alexandrium can bloom," Boyer explained, "causing a toxic 'red tide.' Shellfish that readily feed upon a species of Alexandrium during these blooms become toxic themselves and can cause PSP."

But all of this 'science speak' may not mean that much if you're first wondering what algae is and in what situations it can be and isn't harmful.

So, as Boyer did when he addressed the teachers in a classroom discussion on-board the R/V Lake Guardian, here's the 411 on algae ...

"At its most basic," Boyer said, "algae is a simple, plant-like organism that lives in the water. It uses carbon dioxide and light to grow, contains pigments and can be one of many forms." Those could include, for example, green, blue-green, brown, red algae or diatoms, for example. They — like some bacteria and protistans — harness the energy from sunlight with their pigments to produce sugar, which, through a series of processes, converts to a fuel that it can use to sustain itself. This is the process called photosynthesis.

Blue-green algae is a plant-like bacteria often referred to as cyanobacteria. Though it is also photosynthetic and uses carbon dioxide for its carbon source, it is a poor, food source, as it is not lipid-rich. While there are about 20,000 kinds of cyanobacteria in the world, only about 30-40 species of concern. And, even in that small group, quite often they are not harmful all the time, as their toxins aren't always activated.

Also key here: understanding what makes algae grow into an algal bloom. In order for them to occur, algal blooms require six factors to be present — nutrients, light, warm temperatures, calm winds, seed population and grazing.

Photo: Paul C. Focazio, NYSG

Throught the week, the educators aboard the R/V Lake Guardian will continue to draw water samples from various locations along Lake Ontario (as pictured in the jug, above [6]). Part of the reason for this is to determine at which levels a few nutrients — including nitrogen, phosphorus and silica — are present. If levels of silica are high, that bodes well for the growth of diatoms, which are not only a major group of algae, but also among the most common types of phytoplankton. They are the largest and ecologically most significant groups of organisms on Earth. As phytoplankton, these photosynthesizing microscopic organisms inhabit the upper sunlit layer of almost all oceans and bodies of fresh water, like Lake Ontario. They are agents for "primary production," the creation of organic compounds from carbon dioxide dissolved in the water, a process that sustains the aquatic food web.

If there is not enough silica present in the water, though, it can give green and blue-green algae, among other things, the ecological edge they need to thrive. And if levels of nitrogen and phosphorus are high — nutrients whose sources usually come from land as run-off from things such as fertilizers — that only helps build the case for the algae to proliferate. Other contributors to a successful bloom: Warm temperatures (those above 60 degrees Celsius are ideal), calm winds (to allow the algae to float to the surface), seed population (or “cysts,” which germinate from seabeds starting in early spring and bloom at the water's surface ) and grazing of the algae by zooplankton, which serve as a control for algal growth and help to regenerate nutrients.

Of all of these factors, though, Boyer pointed to one that humans can control: "Nutrient reduction is not the only factor that's important here, but it is the only thing that we can do something about." Ways to help out: less run-off from agricultural soils, fixing failing septic systems, and talking with Soil and Water specialists about best management practices to control the application time, amounts and types of fertilizers used.

"The reason that many algal bloom predictions are made in the spring is because rains in March through May help to determine if nutrients will accumulate at high enough levels to create these blooms," said Boyer. "That's when the indicators fall into place as to the seasonal outlook."

As seen in the pictures above from the last tour above the R/V Lake Guardian, [7] Boyer points to Michelle Tabone, a teacher, holding a glass jar with Cladophora and Zebra mussels. The sample was collected during an early morning field station sample. [8] Cladophora, a common filamentous algae, as illustrated by Cynthia Armstrong for NYSG’s NY Coastlines newsletter,

Another challenge is in trying to differentiate between a simple, non-toxic green algal bloom and one that is caused by a potentially-toxic blue-green algae. "Not every bloom is cyanobacteria," said Boyer. "Some, such as Cladophora, are just green algae." He cautioned that it's probably not a blue-green algae if what you're seeing is: (a) bright green, (b) long and slimy ("If it looks like pea soup, it's more likely a green algae"), (c) attached to rocks (cyanobacteria are usually free-floating), and/or (d) has a leaf or other 'structures.'

And, on the topic of "Are They Harmful?" Boyer said there there have been no deaths in the U.S., though some affects have been seen with pets, especially dogs. "People or animals must drink from marginal water supplies for long periods of time to see a negative impact to their health," he said. As for fish, many of the algal species pose a problem when there is a large bloom die-off, because the algae then tend to use up the water's dissolved oxygen, settle to lower waters and push out or kill fish that have adapted to living in that particular climate.

There are some algal species that produce liver or heptotoxins, others neurotoxins, even ones possessing Alzheimer's-like agents, while some can produce an itch or rash if you come in contact with them. "If you're not sure what you're seeing, stay away from it and refer to a microscope because you can't tell if it's a toxic bloom just by looking at it," Boyer said. "Molecular biology (DNA testing) is what allows us to identify toxic and non-toxic species."

One of the most common cyanobacteria is Microcystis, which Boyer has studied a great deal through his New York Sea Grant-funded projects. It's a species that's a non-nitrogen fixer, meaning that it prefers nitrogen in its organic state. Microcystis forms blooms on the surface waters, has potent toxins (that are very stable even if boiled), and is rather common in places like Lake Erie.

Lake Erie continues to see it's fair share of blooms. And Ohio Sea Grant continues to be on the case, as evident in a news release from July 3, 2013, "NOAA and Partners Issue Second Seasonal Harmful Algal Bloom Forecast from OSU’s Stone Lab." There's also a recent one-page fact sheet you can download on the Harmful Algal Blooms in Ohio's Waters (pdf).

Boyer points to his research, which shows that algae in general is very abundant in New York State's waterways. About half of his samples tested have the potential for its growth as well as produced some toxin. About 10-15 percent of samples are at levels of concern, though, he cautioned. "In areas where algae is more abundant, there is more of a likelihood that it will be toxic," he said.

As for Lake Ontario, Boyer said that though one of his data sets showed low levels of algae toxins in the western basin in the month of July, toxic blooms had moved to that area by August because of the Lake's circulation patterns. "We analyze nearshore versus offshore water quality samples like the ones on-board the Guardian this week to help determine the sources of blooms," he said, pointing to possible culprits like run-off, lake circulation and the mixing of waters from the Lake's tributaries. In this particular data set, Boyer said one bloom was positioned nicely over the top of the Onondaga County water supply intakes, which could have posed a potential issue. That particular concern, though, dates back to a decade ago.

Sodus Bay in Lake Ontario's eastern basin suffered from a Microcystis algal bloom most recently in August 2010. Now, with New York Sea Grant funding, a team of investigators led by Boyer and University of Buffalo's Joseph Atkinson, is developing a model to provide better understanding of the nutrient and algal dynamics of the Bay (pictured above, [9]).

For more, see NYSG's related news items "NYSG Funds Lake Ontario Algal Bloom Research on Sodus Bay" (April 2012) and "On YouTube: Keeping The Algae At Bay In Sodus" (June 2012). Also, see the May 2013 news item, "AUV Journey on Lake Ontario: Photo Gallery."

Tomorrow, we'll have more on the kinds of water samples being taken aboard the R/V Lake Guardian, as well as those drawn from the muds of Lake Ontario's floor.
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