Coastal Column: Plankton in Our Bay

Sable Odry, Coastal Programs Coordinator

What are plankton? Why should we care? And what do they have to do with our Bay?

As described by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), plankton are marine drifters. They are any organism that is “carried by tides and currents, and cannot swim well enough to move against these forces… usually microscopic, often less than one inch in length, but they also include larger species like some crustaceans and jellyfish.” The name plankton originates from the Greek word for “drifter” and they can be found in any aquatic environment. Plankton are generally broken into two large categories based on whether they are plants (phytoplankton) or animals (zooplankton), and may include life stages of organisms that will one day outgrow that label. Many different species of plankton can be found in Humboldt Bay, from fish eggs, to copepods, to Alexandrium, which in large numbers can lead to harmful algal blooms (HABs), known to cause paralytic shellfish poisoning (PSP) in humans.

Copepod | Credit: Janeklass via Wikimedia

NOAA has been implementing a Phytoplankton Monitoring Network (PMN) across the nation, which has been helpful in monitoring HABs. The network is made up of community-based volunteers that get hands-on opportunities to engage in scientific data collection. “The PMN enhances the nation’s ability to respond to and manage the growing threat posed by HABs by collecting important data for species composition and distribution in coastal waters and creating working relationships between volunteers and NOAA HAB researchers and state managers.” My predecessor, Ivy Munnerlyn, started implementing the program with the NEC for plankton monitoring within Humboldt Bay. Though in general the network primarily focuses on phytoplankton, the NEC hopes to also include microplastic identification in our program. Databases such as these are useful for tracking season occurrences as well as adaptations and impacts from climate change.

Alexandrium monilatum (light micrograph) | Credit: FWC Fish and Wildlife Research Center via Flikr

As several major projects are currently being proposed in Humboldt Bay, we feel it’s important to utilize an array of monitoring approaches for keeping an eye on the health of the Bay. Plankton sampling is helpful for understanding the ecology of the Bay, what species may be present that were not in previous studies, and what species may be on the decline or rise. It can be helpful for setting a baseline understanding of the condition and makeup of the Bay prior to the introduction of any new projects or industries, so that their effects and impacts can be accurately measured and adjusted.

For example, the Nordic Aquafarms recently approved discharge permit requires baseline monitoring for at least two years prior to discharge. The project is also required to conduct annual monitoring for at least five years, as well as specific analysis on plankton impacts. Though these monitoring requirements will be carried out by Nordic Aquafarms, the NEC thinks it’s important for community participation in data collection and monitoring. Beyond its usefulness in measuring the health of an ecosystem, plankton monitoring can determine food sources for aquatic industries like the mussel production in Humboldt Bay, as well as native and threatened species.

I’m excited to be a part of bringing Ivy’s vision of PMN in Humboldt Bay to fruition this spring! We will be hiring a plankton monitoring intern who will start taking regular samples, as well as engaging the public in volunteer and educational opportunities. Keep an eye out for chances to check out what they bring into the office, workshops on plankton monitoring and identification, and for opportunities to join in plankton sampling excursions!

If you’re interested in our plankton monitoring internship, or know someone who might be, send us an email at It will be a paid internship opportunity, BIPOC and LGBTQIA folx encouraged to apply! Keep an eye on our social media and website for more upcoming info on the internship.

We hope to one day include microplastic identification and monitoring as a part of our PMN program. To learn more about microplastics and plankton, check out our previous EcoNews article on the subject at

Microplastics in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed | Credit: Chesapeake Bay Program via Flickr