Spring Phytoplankton and the Role of Citizen Scientists
Posted on: May 7, 2021
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Cyanobacteria in the Thunder Bay and Lake Superior Region

Over the past few years the Thunder Bay region has seen an increase in the number of reported cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, blooms on inland lakes and Lake Superior itself.  In particular, the North Shore of Lake Superior has only recently recognized blooms on the Canadian side of Lake Superior. The Apostle Islands on the US side of the border have had algal bloom occurrences seasonally over the past few years.  The situation for inland lakes is much worse as increased development, land-use changes and nutrient loading rapidly changes the trophic state of these smaller lakes, some of which drain into Lake Superior bays and cause further algal bloom occurrences within these bays.

What are cyanobacteria?

Cyanobacteria are small photosynthetic organisms that are able, under certain environmental conditions, to outcompete other primary producers. Primary producers in aquatic ecosystems are called phytoplankton and include a range of organisms such as green, and golden algae, as well as, dinoflagellates, diatoms. The growth of phytoplankton depends on the amount of sunlight and abundance of nutrients available, similar to growing vegetables in your backyard garden. Normally all of these organisms live in water and are the first block of the food chain in our lakes and rivers. Sometimes conditions are ideal and phytoplankton growth explodes resulting in water that looks, tastes, and smells unpleasant. When cyanobacteria dominate the community of phytoplankton they bring an additional problem, they can produce toxins known as cyanotoxins. There are three main groups of toxins they produce: microcystin, saxitoxin, and anatoxin. Some cyanobacteria are associated with a specific toxin and some are able to produce more than one. Cyanobacteria does not always produce these toxins and there is still much to learn about the why and when these toxins produce.

If you suspect a cyanobacteria bloom, call the OMOECP spills action hotline (Toll-free: 1-866-MOETIPS (6638477)) immediately. 

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Why is Cyanobacteria and Increasing Concern?

As climate change progresses the chances of seeing more bloom events increases. The contributing factors are warming air and lake temperatures, increased precipitation (brings more nutrients into rivers,streams, and lakes), and the increase of open water season where more sun allows for a longer growing season of plants and algae. As we see winter fade to spring, snow and ice melt providing an inflow of water and other ‘stuff’ into the areas rivers and lakes. This is called the spring freshet and is known for bringing melt and rain water across land into rivers and lakes. As water travels to its final destination it picks up chemicals along the way. This is a natural process, however, human activity has significantly impacted what chemicals can be picked up as water travels over the land. Spring freshet is the first instance of problematic chemicals like oil, gas, road salt and fertilizers being transported into rivers and lakes.   Although some lakes are monitored by public institutions, the majority of algal blooms in the region are reported by local residents or private citizens using the ‘Spills Hotline’

(if you suspect a cyanobacteria bloom report it to the OMOECP spills action hotline https://www.ontario.ca/page/report-pollution-and-spills Toll-free: 1-866-MOETIPS (6638477).

What is citizen science?

Because of the unpredictable nature of algal blooms, local support for citizen science monitoring is needed to account for the true number of algal blooms occurring in the region, and to gain a better understanding of lake health conditions and the ‘trophic state’ of inland lakes in the area.  Nathan Wilson, who is a PhD candidate at Lakehead University’s Biotechnology Program, is responding to this need and trying to understand the changes to these lakes, and the risks to humans, by initiating a citizen science monitoring program. 

Citizen Science is a way for members of the public to gain knowledge through education and learning, while working with professionals. By enabling the public with enhancement of scientific literacy, observations in the field from the public can help provide better data on the conditions of lakes in the region. By participating in citizen science members of the public will be asked to collect data on a minimum monthly basis. Parameters relating to water quality (i.e. dissolved oxygen, temperature, ph, clearity), and phytoplankton community throughout the open water season (spring -fall) will help establish a baseline for current conditions over the seasons. This is more frequent than current monitoring programs are able to and therefore helps to provide important data currently lacking for most lakes in this region.

If you are interested in learning more about how you might be able to participate in this citizen science program please contact Nathan Wilson at nwilson1@lakeheadu.ca or at bluegreenlabs.ca

See our other posts on cyanobacteria and algae blooms below:

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