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Understanding algal blooms in Liberty Bay, WA

Liberty Bay experiences intense and episodic algal blooms, which is of concern to local residents who perceive that the blooms are ‘getting worse.’ Without a continuous record of monitoring estuarine conditions and algal bloom events, evaluating change over time is difficult. In 2017, we established a community volunteer program to conduct year-round monitoring to document: 1) frequency, timing, and magnitude of phytoplankton blooms, 2) key oceanographic factors, and 3) progression of phytoplankton and zooplankton taxa throughout the seasons, to gain ecosystem-level insight into Liberty Bay’s estuarine dynamics and primary/secondary productivity. However, due to availability of volunteers and equipment failures, several gaps in data collection occurred, and also the data itself was not being managed.

This 2018 CREOi award supported a team of dedicated college student researchers to conduct an entire, uninterrupted year of monitoring at the main study site, manage the data, and continuously train volunteers. Monitoring occurred 2 times per week, every week, for the entire year, to capture episodic events and multiple time scales. During summer 2019, an additional site was added, near the mouth of Liberty Bay for comparison. This work has allowed us to identify inter- and intra-annual patterns of phytoplankton and zooplankton abundance and community composition, as well as of abiotic features, such as salinity, water temperature, and water column structure (stratified/well-mixed), from the beginning of summer 2017 – end of summer 2019. The continued monitoring facilitated collaboration and training to identify harmful algal bloom species (HABs).

To make the project and data accessible to the public, we developed a website for public access of the data (, a display in the SEA Discovery Center public aquarium with volunteer interpreters who engage visitors with plankton under microscopes and a whiteboard with the most current data, and a hands-on K-12 lesson module. In the lesson, classes of K-12 students from school districts collect data following the monitoring protocol, then enter and view their data on the website portal. The K-12 students learn about algal blooms, estuarine ecology, and the scientific practices of data collection, analysis, and interpretation. Teachers can contribute their class’ data to a repository of student field data.

The college student researchers gained professional development experience through presenting their results at a professional scientific conference and meetings with scientists. The students also presented the findings to local community stakeholders via open public lecture at the SEA Discovery Center at the end of August 2019. Over 60 community members attended the lecture, including members from local government and waterfront businesses. Key findings were presented as well as how to access and explore the data website. ($20,000)