Life and death in the Chesapeake Bay have something in common.
Both can be traced to the microscopic realm of phytoplankton where tiny, plant-like organisms float through the water in an artful array of spheres, rods, coils and the occasional blob - all invisible to the naked eye.
For fish, these geometric specks are an aquatic buffet. They support the Bay's entire food chain. But when conditions are right, phytoplankton grow too quickly. They transform into deadly blooms that consume oxygen and kill fish by the thousands.
Scientists and volunteers track phytoplankton in the Bay region on a regular basis. But state programs have lost significant parts of their monitoring capacity because of budget cuts. Now, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wants more volunteers to join their team.
NOAA's Phytoplankton Monitoring Network is a national volunteer program that has been at work in the Bay region since 2008. Currently, 32 volunteers test for phytoplankton at 16 sites spanning the upper, middle and lower Chesapeake Bay.
Volunteers learn to identify 26 species of phytoplankton, some of which can trigger harmful algal blooms. Most of these species, though, are monitored because they indicate the quality of the aquatic food supply.
Scientists say that the types and numbers of phytoplankton in the Bay appear to be shifting toward species with less energy value. This is bad news for the fish that eat them.
NOAA's network coordinator, Matt Brim, is looking for volunteers in Maryland and Virginia who can help expand the number of monitoring sites.
"There are a lot of areas in the Chesapeake Bay without sampling sites that we believe need them," Brim said.
NOAA is looking for volunteers in six upper Bay watersheds that will be studied for overall watershed health in 2011. They include the Corsica, Sassafras, Middle, Rhode, Nanjemoy and Magothy rivers.
Volunteers are also needed for new sampling sites on the Patuxent River, Baltimore's Inner Harbor, the Rappahannock and Tappahannock rivers in Virginia, and both sides of the Potomac River.
"One of the most powerful things about the Plankton Monitoring Network is that our volunteers can be in a lot of places that aren't routinely monitored at the state and federal level," Brim said.
Both Maryland and Virginia have recently lost portions of their phytoplankton monitoring programs to budget cuts.
Virginia's program lost the ability to monitor the growth rate of phytoplankton.
"That was an important thing to look at because we were seeing degrading trends over time, and it was getting worse at pretty much every station," said Rick Hoffman of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. "We're hoping at some point to restart that aspect of the program, but right now we don't have the funds."
Maryland no longer conducts the full suite of Chesapeake Bay long-term monitoring that detects the type and number of species in phytoplankton communities. That monitoring helped to pinpoint the local causes of algal blooms.
"We also used to sample twice a month, but now it's only routine monthly monitoring," said Cathy Wazniak of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "Even if we get back to the long-term monitoring, it won't be at the frequency we used to have."
NOAA's volunteer network isn't a direct replacement for state-level monitoring. But a widespread volunteer network helps to alert scientists and the public to algal blooms that harm fish and can pose threats to human health.
"Volunteers can be out there much more often and can assess the situation on a more robust time table," Wazniak said.
Volunteers in the Phytoplankton Monitoring Network help select sampling sites that are both convenient and provide useful data. They monitor at least twice a month, year-round, testing for salinity, air temperature and water temperature. They collect phytoplankton samples by towing a mesh net through the water for three minutes.
Most volunteers collect samples along the shore or from a dock.
"Then they take their sample into a lab or classroom to use a microscope and determine what phytoplankton are there and their numbers," Brim said.
Volunteers identify the plankton in general categories. If the sample is crowded with specimens or raises an immediate concern, the volunteer ships it overnight to NOAA for immediate study.
Volunteer Stella Sellner sent a sample to NOAA that confirmed a bloom of Karlodinium veneficum in a Patuxent River tributary last spring. This species releases a toxin that severely damages the gills of fish.
No science background is needed to participate. "Anyone who is interested, we're confident we can train them," Brim said.
Volunteers can learn to identify phytoplankton by working with Brim on web-based training that takes about 2.5 hours to complete. This winter, volunteers can also attend training at NOAA's Environmental Science Training Center in Oxford, MD.
NOAA scientist Steve Morton said the monitoring data will also help agency researchers who are trying to predict when algal blooms will occur. Accurate predictions will help government agencies issue timely warnings about fish consumption or other public health worries.
"Ground-truthing some of these forecasts will help us see if these blooms are, in fact, predictable," Morton said. "This volunteer information is critical."