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Volunteer program monitors harmful algal blooms

Cayuga Lake as seen from Ithaca College
Cayuga Lake as seen from Ithaca College. The Harmful Algal Bloom Monitoring Program covers more than half of the lake’s shoreline. BRIDGET HAGEN/ITHACA WEEK

As the weather warms up this spring, the Community Science Institute (CSI) prepares for another year of the Cayuga Lake Harmful Algal Bloom Monitoring Program. Program volunteers monitor sections of the lake’s shoreline for harmful algal blooms (HABs) during the summer.

The volunteers, called HABs Harriers, attend training sessions in June to learn how to identify the blooms. The first HABs are typically observed in July, and in 2020, the last bloom was observed in early October.

What are harmful algal blooms?

HABs are made up of cyanobacteria cells that produce varying amounts of cyanotoxins, which can have adverse health effects for humans and animals, according to the CSI.

Health effects of coming into contact with a HAB vary depending on the type of toxin the bloom contains, from mild skin irritation to more serious reactions.

Nate Launer, outreach coordinator at the CSI, said the most common toxin produced by cyanobacteria in New York is microcystin toxin, which affects the liver.

A harmful algal bloom on top of water
A harmful algal bloom with a blue-green hue sits on top of water. /Photo courtesy of New York State Department of Environmental Conservation

“It can really have some serious health impacts that can involve nausea, stomach sickness, liver failure, even death in some cases — really, really rare, but in really high ingestion it can have those serious effects,” he said.

In 2020, 55 of the 78 blooms volunteers identified on the lake had high levels of microcystin, according to the CSI’s Fall 2020 Water Bulletin newsletter.

Another common toxin in cyanobacteria is anatoxin-a, which is a neurotoxin.

“When you hear about dogs dying because they were exposed to harmful algal blooms, it’s usually because of that anatoxin,” Launer said.

How does the monitoring program work?

HABs Harriers monitor their zones at least once a week. According to the newsletter, 74 zones and 53% of the Cayuga Lake shoreline were covered by the program in 2020.

“At the start of the season in June, we all get together with all the volunteers, and we map out sections of shoreline on the lake that each volunteer commits to monitoring,” Launer said.

Volunteers report blooms they notice to the CSI and collect samples. Quadrant leaders help coordinate the effort and take samples to the CSI lab located in Ithaca to be tested for the microcystin toxin.

To notify the public, the CSI publishes HAB reports on its website in close to real time.

Who are the volunteers?

Launer said many of the volunteers are lakeshore homeowners.

Cayuga Lake from the shore at Allan H. Treman State Marine Park.
Some homeowners living along Cayuga Lake monitor their own shoreline for harmful algal blooms. BRIDGET HAGEN/ITHACA WEEK

“Nobody knows the lake better than people that are living right there,” Glenn Ratajczak, southeast quadrant leader, said. “They really have a good background perspective from being there all the time and just constantly being vigilant looking at the lake.”

John Abel, southwest quadrant leader and treasurer of the Cayuga Lake Watershed Network, has lived on the lake for over 40 years.

“Those of us who live right on the lake often sense when there are conditions that might be amenable to a bloom, so we go down and check,” he said.

Launer said the volunteers’ knowledge of the lake and its patterns helps the CSI improve its science and how it structures its programs.

“Having that public energy and that will and this care about the lake that they love is a really important part of giving the data a voice as well,” he said.

The CSI will be recruiting volunteers for the HABs monitoring program until it begins in June.

“It’s a great way to get involved with a group of people who really care about the lake and its health,” Launer said.

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