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Algae Conference at SUNY ESF

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We did get a chance to head over to the public session of the algae conference yesterday, and the entire public session is available on Live Stream.  While the issue is often referred to as “blue-green algae,” the public health concern is actually cyanobacteria.  Because they are photosynthetic and aquatic, people often refer to cyanobacteria as blue or green algae and it remains a convenient way for the public to talk about organisms in the water that make their own food but it can result in confusion.  The state has adopted the term harmful algal blooms (HABs) to bridge this gap when addressing public health concerns.

Public Session

The first takeaway from the public session is the staggering amount of people who came out, the press is reporting around 300 but my quick unscientific count was closer to 400, either way, that is great to see so much attention to water quality issues in New York.  Harmful algal blooms (HABs) began making news after the state Department of Health documented thirty-five illnesses from exposure to those either swimming or boating in 2015.  These blooms have been documented on 340 New York State water bodies in the last six years, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s Scott Kishbaugh who works for the DEC’s Bureau of Water Assessment Management.

As part of the state’s strategy, the Citizens Statewide Lake Assessment Program (CSLAP) has been created to supplement the information collected by state officials.  CSLAP is a long-term volunteer lake monitoring and education program managed by the DEC and the New York State Federation of Lake Associations (NYSFOLA).  These trained volunteers collect lake water samples, participate in special studies, and promote lake stewardship to provide critical information about short-term local problems, such as harmful algal blooms and long-term issues, such as invasive species and climate change impacts.  Per the DEC’s handout, Oneida Lake is not presently one of the lakes in this program.

A selection of lakes, representative of all lakes in the state, has been selected for additional studies.  In central New York, these lakes are Cayuga, Owasco, and Skaneateles lakes.

At The Where and When Stage

The conference participants have begun framing the big issues at play, including agricultural practices, septic issues, climate change, treatment options, monitoring strategies, governance, land use, invasive species, food web disruptions, and public education.  However, they were no closer to explaining why the extent, duration, and impacts of harmful algal blooms (HABs) continue to explode across the state.  For example, elevated phosphorus and nitrogen (nutrient pollution) levels in lakes are often associated with HABs, yet often in lakes with these higher levels no blooms exist.  Furthermore, HABs have broken out in lakes with low levels of phosphorus and nitrogen levels and also in lakes such as Skaneateles with relatively small watersheds.  “It’s completely unexpected,” said John Halfman, a water quality specialist and professor of environmental studies at Finger Lakes Institute at Hobart William and Smith Colleges.  Kishbaugh also acknowledged “there are many factors that we don’t know,” and “many residents who lived on lakes for decades have never seen blooms until now.”

So What About Fishing

Algae naturally occur in lakes and out of 200,000 species of algae over 100 are known as harmful to aquatic systems.  Interestingly, algae represent about 1% of all plant biomass while producing 50% of the oxygen we breathe.  The cyanobacteria causing the beach closures, killing fish, and threatening the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers are photogenic.  Fed in part by nutrients coming off land, dense blooms decrease light penetration in lakes and can eliminate submerged aquatic vegetation, which is an important refuge for juvenile fish and eventually works its way up the food chain to the sport fish we all so enjoy.  Kishbaugh notes these lakes are “where somebody taught their children to fish, held a sweetheart’s hand, and skipped stones,” and concludes that is why “we are trying to understand why some of these stories have gone dark.”

The urgency behind Governor Cuomo’s initiative reflects the thinking that HABs, if not dealt with quickly may signal a tipping point of a larger environmental crisis that would certainly impact tourism and fishing in New York.  The state is providing $58 million in grant funding to execute plans to deal with this issue, including new monitoring and treatment technologies.

As all outdoor types know, healthy conditions at the base of the food web are important.  While we often criticize the government, I can say the state has assembled a talented group of people, provided them with resources, and charged them with the urgency to address what will only be a long-term approach to understanding and eventually coming to a solution to this problem in a transparent manner.





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