by Alicia Pimental
September 01, 2007
Algae are a vital component of the Bay's ecosystem—these free-floating plants make up the base of the food chain. Their size ranges from tiny microscopic cells floating in the water column (phytoplankton) to large mats of visible "macroalgae" that grow on bottom sediments. Algae behave much like land plants, soaking up the sun's rays to produce energy while converting carbon dioxide to oxygen during photosynthesis.
However, when algae populations explode to unusually high numbers they create what are called harmful algae blooms (HABs), which can:
- Block sunlight that is vital for underwater bay grasses.
- Impede filter-feeders from obtaining food.
- Produce smelly surface scum.
- Consume dissolved oxygen when the algae die and decompose.
In addition, certain algae can also produce harmful chemicals that are toxic to humans, wildlife and aquatic life. Fortunately, of the more than 700 species of algae in Chesapeake Bay, less than two percent of them are believed to have the ability to produce toxic substances.
HABs are primarily fueled by excess nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorous) in area waterways, which come from agriculture, air deposition, septic systems and sewage treatment plants, and runoff from lawns, gardens and paved surfaces.
While phytoplankton form the base of the food chain, the amount of nutrients now entering the Bay is overwhelming the system. Oysters and other filter feeders can't consume all the phytoplankton in the water. Unconsumed phytoplankton sink to the bottom of the Bay and are decomposed by bacteria in a process that depletes the water of oxygen. Decomposing phytoplankton, combined with high summer water temperatures, can cause large swaths of the deepest parts of the Bay's mainstem to have little or no oxygen to support fish, crabs and other marine life.
Residents of the Bay watershed can help give the Bay's crabs, fish and other species some relief from HABs by taking simple actions to reduce nutrient pollution, including driving less, upgrading septic systems, picking up pet waste and reducing the use of lawn fertilizers.
Bay Program partners actively monitor the region's waterways for HABs, so that if one occurs the public can be notified to protect human health. Citizens are also asked to keep a watchful eye out for possible HABs and are urged to report suspected HABs to their respective state environmental agency:
- To report HABs in Maryland call (877) 224-7229.
- To report HABs in Virginia call (888) 238-6154.