CyanoCasting seeks to predict bacteria blooms

Island environmental groups team with UNH and citizen scientists to better understand cyanobacteria in local water bodies.

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Cyanobacteria, known more commonly as blue-green algae, is a major environmental concern for Martha’s Vineyard — particularly for groups aimed at protecting the Island’s precious water resources.

In the past several years, massive cyanobacteria blooms have formed in local water bodies like Chilmark Pond, causing concerns that people could unknowingly be exposed to toxins that are created by the bacteria. 

Rising temperatures and increased nutrient loading in Island estuaries have caused a sharp spike in the size and regularity of these kinds of bacteria blooms, which is why the CyanoCasting program was brought to the Island by University of New Hampshire (UNH) researcher Nancy Leland.

Initially, Leland worked on Cape Cod to address water quality issues there, alongside organizations like the Association to Preserve Cape Cod and the Brewster Ponds Coalition.

Now that same initiative is coming to Martha’s Vineyard, and is being managed largely by local biologist and UNH undergraduate researcher Justine Cassel.

The eventual goal of the CyanoCasting program is to predict cyanobacteria blooms before they happen, then inform public health officials so they can take appropriate action.

Cassel is training a number of citizen science volunteers, who will collect water samples from various water bodies around the Island and submit them to the lab for processing. “They’re a big part of this — they’re our boots on the ground,” Cassel said. 

Cassel explained that the scope of this project requires a significant amount of local involvement from individuals who are passionate about Island ecology, and maybe want to learn a little more about marine biology.

Sheri Caseau, water resource planner at the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC), is also working on the CyanoCasting program. The MVC (through Cassel) will collect the samples and analyze them at a lab near the Old Lobster Hatchery.

One of the most important parts of the project is that the information collected during the research and analysis phase will be publicly available on a GIS website that allows people to interact with the data and get a better understanding of the condition of each individual water body.

Although cyanobacteria are commonly found in local estuaries and are not normally a cause for concern in low concentrations, Cassel said, the ecosystem is out of balance due to rising temperatures and other environmental factors, and almost every pond on-Island is being overloaded with nitrogen and phosphorus from things like fertilizers and Title 5 septic systems.

The blooms are easily seen on the surface of the water, and Cassel said if anyone sees the blue-green film, they should steer clear. “We aren’t talking about just normal algae floating on the top of the water — this is very distinctive,” Cassel said. “Just stay away if you see it.”

And just because Martha’s Vineyard is seeing these blooms firsthand doesn’t mean the problem is relegated to our locale. Cyanobacteria blooms can happen anywhere, and are currently a global issue.

There are many different kinds of cyanobacteria, and they each produce different kinds and amounts of toxins. “If you swim in a bloom, you are likely to get acute exposure. There is also chronic exposure, which is when you are exposed to it multiple times, over and over again,” Cassel said. “Some bacteria produce more toxins than others, and can be more harmful.”

This summer, Cassel will be making a model that can predict toxin levels using pigment data. Being able to derive toxin levels from pigment data is important because toxin analysis is expensive and time-consuming, according to Cassel.

“Pigment analysis will be a much more realistic way for Martha’s Vineyard to get fast, frequent data on toxicity. This is a separate, but related cyanobacteria project I will be working on this summer,” Cassel said.

The research happening here is unique because these bacteria haven’t been commonly studied using pigment analysis in brackish waters (a mix of saltwater and freshwater), which a majority of Island water bodies are. 

Two identifiable pigments in particular, called phycoerythrin and phycocyanin, are used specifically by cyanobacteria to capture light and create energy. The ratios of the different pigments found in the bacteria can provide information on the bacteria species, which narrows down what kinds of toxins are produced. 

With pigment analysis, biologists can detect cyanobacteria that can’t be identified under a conventional microscope, which allows for a more accurate prediction of where bacteria are building up.

When surveying a body of water, Cassel said, either she, a member of the MVC, or a citizen scientist will collect two different samples: One is a total water sample, which involves placing a long tube down into the water to collect water at varying depths.

This provides an average of the entire water column.

The other testing method involves a bacteria collection net that is dragged through the water in order to get the broadest representation of bacteria that are present. Because bloom-forming cyanobacteria are much larger than other cyanobacteria, they are easily picked up and identified in the drag net.

“We are really targeting different elements of water quality as they relate to cyanobacteria forming and the kinds of toxins they give off,” Cassel said.

The local citizen scientists are all trained by Cassel, who recently created a Google Docs sign-up page for anyone who wants to be a part of the initiative. 

“The training is quick and pretty simple. I basically bring people to the sampling site, show them how to use the net and the sample tube, then they would sample once every two weeks,” Cassel said.

In order to prevent these kinds of blooms from forming, Cassel said she thinks the Island is going to have to work together to do some “serious watershed management,” which means putting less nitrogen into our ecosystem, and considering proactive measures, instead of reactive closures.

“It’s important to monitor the ponds to better understand which ones are most at risk. However, because these projects take so much money, people need data before they will be willing to spend money,” Cassel said. “That’s where CyanoCasting comes in.”

Caseau said she is happy to be working with Leland, who was one of the first people to express interest in partnering with Island organizations to implement CyanoCasting on the Island.

By the end of this summer, the project aims to reach an understanding of what kinds of bacteria are in the major local ponds, and at what levels are they present. This will establish a baseline for future research and prevention that other entities can refer to when doing similar work.

“This is our year to secure our understanding and get a baseline that people can hopefully use in their own studies, although we don’t have what we think is enough data to tell the boards of health when and where we think blooms will happen just yet,” Caseau said.

Another short-term goal for the CyanoCasting program is to make connections with Island individuals and entities that want to get involved. “We are trying to do an Islandwide study to get as much data as we possibly can, then be able to track the issue from there and share our information with anyone who wants it,” Caseau explained.