Red Tides Hit the Lower Chesapeake Bay: Algae, not Russians

First came the nettles. Now, algae blooms are coloring the lower Chesapeake Bay. They happen every summer but Virginia Institute of Marine Science is reporting it’s the most intense and wide spread in a decade.

The aerial photos of Chesapeake Bay algae blooms by VIMS professors are stunning.

Algae bloom at Sarah's Creek in Chesapeake Bay
SARAH’S CREEK – The bloom was exceptionally dense in and around Sarahs Creek. (Photo by Professor Wolfgang Vogelbein)
Algal bloom at mouth of Perrin River
PERRIN RIVER – A dense bloom in the mouth of the Perrin River on 8/17/2015 . © W. Vogelbein/VIMS.
Algae Bloom on north shore of the York River mouth
NORTH SHORE YORK RIVER MOUTH – The bloom was exceptionally dense in and around Sarahs Creek and Perrin Creek and along the north shore between the two. (Photo by Professor Wolfgang Vogelbein)

They found that the blooms reach from the York River to the mouth of the Rappahannock River, across the Bay to within about four miles of Cape Charles. They reach down to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. And the York River seems to be the “epicenter,” reports David Malmquist with VIMS news.

VIMS map of algae blooms

Algal blooms are also called “red tides.” They’re a dense cluster of tiny marine plants called algae that contain reddish pigment. Some algal species also produce chemicals that generate light and sometimes you can see the “bioluminescence” at night.

Algae blooms at night in the lower Chesapeake Bay (photo courtesy VIMS)
Algae blooms at night in the lower Chesapeake Bay (photo courtesy VIMS)
The "red tide" turns blue in the moonlight (photo courtesy VIMS)
The “red tide” turns blue in the moonlight (photo courtesy VIMS)

“Reports of algal blooms in the lower York River started around July 22nd,” Malmquist writes.

This situation has become common over the years, scientists say, because of more nutrients — mainly fertilizer and sewage — being washed into the Chesapeake Bay. This summer, they’ve found the western side of the Bay is blooming most densely.

Researchers have been looking at the issue since a bloom was reported in the mid-1940s. Another was conclusively found in the mid-1960s. Algal blooms have now become an annual summer traditions, but not to this extent or density.

Water sampling by VIMS professor Wolfgang Vogelbein. He's looking for algae in Chesapeake Bay samples. Photo courtesy VIMS
Water sampling by VIMS professor Wolfgang Vogelbein. He’s looking for algae in Chesapeake Bay samples. (Photo courtesy VIMS)

The blooms are made up of a mix of algal species. Some may be toxic while others may not be. It could depend on environmental conditions. VIMS researchers are still trying to figure it out. They’re working with NOAA along with other agencies and research centers to determine the impact of the bloom on oysters and other Chesapeake Bay creatures.

VIMS researcher testing for algal bloom damage on oysters
VIMS professor Wolfgang Vogelbein pulls up a crate of oysters to test for harmful effect of algal booms (Photo courtesy VIMS)

VIMS has a series of videos showing the algae blooms, including the one below of staff kayaking at night through bioluminescence in the waters of the York River caused by a dense bloom of the alga. They also have video of what these algae look like close up.

Photos, map & video used with permission of Virginia Institute of Marine Science.


The Chesapeake Bay Program created this video to explain algae blooms and their impact.

 

 

 

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