Phytoplankton – Canary in the coal mine

highlight_planktonSeveral weeks ago, CNN did a story about the toxic effects of oil and dispersants in the Gulf. Researchers from the University of South Florida used the same toxicity test that San Diego Coastkeeper uses to monitor the health of our local waterways. The QwikLite test method uses a type of naturally occurring plankton to indicate how healthy the water is. The particular species we use is bioluminescent; it glows much like the organisms that cause the red tides we are all familiar with. Like a canary in a coal mine, this plankton is very sensitive to contaminants in the water. When the phytoplankton gets stressed or dies, the amount of light emitted is reduced, and we are able to estimate how toxic the water is to these organisms.

In the Gulf, the researchers found that the dispersants used were very toxic to the plankton. As a primary producer in the food web, this is really important to understand, as the consequences to the ecosystem are profound. As the base of the marine food chain, the plight of the plankton is felt all the way up to our dinner plates. The millions of gallons of oil aren’t going away just because it isn’t washing up on the shore.

The same principal works in San Diego. Our inland waterways drain into the ocean. They often carry with them toxic pollutants such as oil, pesticides and heavy metals.  Our monitoring efforts hopefully will be able to identify when these pollutants reach toxic levels. To get involved with our monitoring efforts please contact our volunteer coordinator.