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All Eyes on the Water

USC Sea Grant builds capacity for a community network to monitor harmful algal blooms.

By Holly Rindge, USC Sea Grant

Mesh plankton net, bucket, thermometer, pipette, and microscope.  Rowena Valderrama with The SEA Lab in Redondo Beach gathers equipment and prepares to train volunteers on how to collect and analyze plankton samples from the local harbor. They are on the hunt for specific species of algae that may be toxic and lead to harmful algal blooms (HABs). The SEA Lab is a program of the Los Angeles Conservation Corps and her volunteers are mostly underserved young adults. Once a week they become citizen scientists and contribute important data to the Community HABwatch Program. 

HABwatch is a network of scientists and volunteers from science centers, aquaria, marine sanctuaries, and schools in Southern California that monitors local coastal ecosystems for HABs and educates the public about toxic events. HABwatch was formed in 2011 with support from USC Sea Grant, the Center for Ocean Science Education Excellence West, and the Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System. Strengthening relationships between scientists and community members is at the heart of USC Sea Grant’s expertise. 

“These types of partnerships provide multiple benefits,” says USC Sea Grant’s Education Programs Manager Linda Chilton. “It’s an opportunity to build an understanding of scientists, their work, and how that connects with the community.” 

Although we rely on microscopic algae for the oxygen we breathe and the food we consume from the marine food chain, some algae can be problematic. Certain species produce toxins that can accumulate up the food chain, causing severe illness and death in marine mammals, birds, and even humans. Other species can reproduce rapidly, clogging the gills of filter-feeding organisms like mussels and oysters, or using up all the oxygen in a body of water causing hypoxic or anoxic conditions that can cause massive fish kills. 

In Southern California, the algae species of greatest concern are Pseudo-nitzschia spp. and Alexandrium catenella, which can release toxic compounds (domoic acid and saxitoxin, respectively). Since 2000, there have been numerous harmful blooms and 3-4 mass mortality events attributed to HABs where hundreds to thousands of marine mammals and birds have died.  Blooms are typically spotty both geographically and over the length of time they occur, so observing a bloom and linking it to a mortality event is difficult. USC Professor David Caron studies harmful algae and is the lead scientist with the HABwatch program. 

“Our ability to observe and map these species in the ocean, in space and time, on a continuous basis is not really possible,” says Caron. 

This is where the Community HABwatch Program plays a critical role in his research. By collecting samples in more locations than Dr. Caron’s lab can do alone, HABwatch significantly increases the amount of information on the locations and timing of harmful algal species. Participants are trained in scientific methods of collection, observation, and identification of harmful algae. Data collected is shared via web portal with Dr. Caron’s lab, often providing an early warning that something is amiss. When harmful species are detected, HAB researchers can then respond to the event with additional effort and notify officials if there is a risk to human health. Dr. Caron’s research goals are to understand when and where HABs appear, what species and toxins are involved, and what environmental conditions promote the blooms.

“We wish to gain enough understanding of these species and toxic or harmful events to be able to predict them, and ultimately mitigate or possibly prevent their development in the first place,” says Caron.

The HABwatch network spans across Southern California from the rugged Northern Channel Islands to the urban port of Los Angeles, to the scenic beaches of Dana Point. The program was recently revitalized and USC Sea Grant continues to recruit partners, facilitate trainings, and fund and manage the new web portal. Dr. Caron, and members of his lab, develop resource materials and local field identification guides, present at training workshops, and provide guidance to the partners who then engage with the public. 

“Without these additional ‘eyes on the water’, the harmful effects of these events would go without explanation, and an opportunity to study these events could be lost,” says Caron.

In addition to contributing to scientific research, HABwatch increases ocean literacy by ensuring that the public has access to cutting-edge science, and raises the skill level of informal science center staff and volunteers.

“Being part of a network of so many other amazing facilities gives our Corps members a great sense of pride,” says Valderrama. “HABwatch is a perfect program because they are learning so many things about collecting and recording scientific data. It’s very impactful.” 

Possibilities exist to expand HABwatch in the future to include freshwater sampling. This would give a vision of the whole watershed, and profiles of the changing plankton populations over time for Southern California. More information on the program can be found on our website.

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