Big, brown, and baffling researchers: Unusual algae bloom in the Gulf of Maine
A nearshore Gulf of Maine water sample full of Tripos Muelleri collected in May 2023. (Joe Vallino | Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
What is coffee-colored, more than 100 miles wide, and not something you’d likely want to swim in?
An unusually large bloom of brown algae in the Gulf of Maine has caught the attention of scientists from across New England. So much so, an informal monitoring effort of more than two dozen partners has since formed to keep tabs on it.
Researchers at the University of New Hampshire and other regional players say it’s the first time they’ve seen such high concentrations of the dinoflagellate phytoplankton Tripos muelleri, or microalgae, this time of year spanning from Massachusetts to Maine.
Typically, phytoplankton decline in the summer months, but not in this instance. According to satellite imagery from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, this particular bloom has steadily persisted from Penobscot Bay to Martha’s Vineyard since April.
While the type of phytoplankton dominating the Gulf of Maine bloom doesn’t produce toxins or present any known risks to humans or animals, high volumes can cause low oxygen levels when they decay, potentially impacting marine organisms such as fish, shellfish, and lobster.
The bloom first caught the attention of UNH scientists in the spring, when they noticed significant changes to the ocean carbon dioxide and pH levels where they regularly monitor off New Hampshire’s coast.
“It’s completely normal to see this species in the waters of the Gulf of Maine but never at this intensity,” said Liz Harvey, associate professor of biological sciences at UNH.
Harvey said researchers were intrigued by the bloom’s size and persistence, and started to wonder “how and why and if it is a signal of a potentially changing Gulf of Maine.”
The UNH team started collecting water samples to examine the abnormal bloom, and also heard from other local scientists, marine operators, and fishermen who were noticing the changes, too. Now, a group of more than two dozen partners from Maine to Rhode Island are sharing observations and data as the mystery continues.
Why the bloom formed and became so big is still unclear, but factors such as decreased wind, a mild winter, the Gulf of Maine’s accelerated warming, and heavy rainfall this summer are all being considered.
Meanwhile, inland, New Hampshire’s Department of Environmental Services has said this year is projected to see the highest number of cyanobacteria blooms ever reported in the state. These blooms often manifest as green scum floating on the surface of lakes and ponds, and state environmental officials have said severe rainstorms and rising temperatures can enable populations to thrive.
Cyanobacteria blooms can be harmful: people and animals swimming in or drinking affected waters can become very sick from the toxins. DES maintains a daily “healthy swimming mapper” to show people where there are active cyanobacteria warnings and alerts.
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