Every Thursday, a group of dedicated UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant volunteers collect water samples from the Skidaway River. They process the samples in the lab at the UGA Aquarium, counting and identifying the phytoplankton in each sample as part of the National Phytoplankton Monitoring Network (PMN).

“I absolutely adore it,” said Sandy Haeger, a PMN volunteer. “Thursdays are really special to me because I love getting to see the marine animals at the aquarium, collect data with the team and catch up with the staff.”

Volunteers look at water samples under microscopes to find phytoplankton.

Phytoplankton are critical organisms that serve as the base of the marine food web and they provide at least half the Earth’s oxygen. In a balanced ecosystem, phytoplankton provide food for a wide range of sea creatures including shrimp, oysters and jellyfish. When too many nutrients are available, phytoplankton may grow out of control and form harmful algal blooms. These blooms can produce extremely toxic compounds that have harmful effects on fish, shellfish, mammals, birds, and even people.

The PMN program was created in 2001 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as a system to monitor marine phytoplankton and the potential for harmful algal blooms. The network has 250 sites in 22 states across the U.S., including Skidaway Island, Georgia. PMN volunteers collect ecological data and send it to NOAA, state and federal agencies and industry professionals in true citizen science fashion.

“The more information we have, the better we can understand (algae blooms) and organisms and hopefully better protect people from their harmful effects,” said Jennifer Maucher, one of NOAA’s PMN program coordinators. “Our volunteers are instrumental in this effort.”

PMN volunteers gather a variety of important data used for long-term phytoplankton monitoring.

The monitoring program at Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant is one of the organization’s longest running volunteer efforts. Since 2003, volunteers have gathered data such as water and air temperature, salinity and tidal flow in addition to the water samples collected every Thursday morning. The volunteer program has been so successful that a new monitoring site was added in 2019 in Oglethorpe Bay, the waterway behind Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s Brunswick facility.

“These are not folks that came into this with the knowledge to do this monitoring. They were interested in contributing, and we do our best to support them through it,” said Katie Higgins, Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant’s volunteer coordinator.

Higgins works to ensure that each volunteer is trained in the data collection process before starting. They learn to collect samples by towing a plankton net for three minutes at a time. Then, they bring their samples into the lab and analyze them under a microscope where they look for 12 target organisms, or phytoplankton organisms with potential hazards. The volunteers will take the data they have collected and enter it into the national NOAA database for future analysis and studies.

“At the first meeting I attended, I hadn’t been near a microscope in almost 50 years, so it was a steep learning curve for me, but everyone was so helpful,” said Haeger. “Learning is so important, especially life-long learning which is what this volunteer program is for me.”

All PMN volunteers are given training in microscope usage and phytoplankton identification.

The life-long learning and citizen science component of the program is what makes it so special, Maucher, Higgins and Haeger all say. Regular people with an interest in scientific efforts, their immediate environment, public health and safety, or climate change and its effects can play a role in phytoplankton monitoring whether or not they have a background in it.

According to Higgins, one of the biggest successes of the PMN program is how volunteers have shifted into playing an education role within the organization. UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant hosts a variety of educational public programs, some of which are tailored around teaching the general public, both adults and children, about phytoplankton monitoring.

On numerous occasions, volunteers like Haeger have taken the lead on teaching aspects of the programs since they are doing the work weekly and know firsthand its impacts.

“[UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant] utilizes not just citizen scientist volunteers but incorporates PMN into their summer camps for kids,” said Maucher.

Anyone interested in being a part of this program is encouraged to join. To find out more about the Phytoplankton Monitoring Network volunteer opportunities, visit https://gacoast.uga.edu/phytoplankton-monitoring-network/