Blog by Rosemary Hartman, Data by Tiffany Brown, Sarah Perry, and Vivian Klotz. Photos from BSA submitted to DWR.
The base of the estuarine food web is phytoplankton – microscopic, floating, single-celled organisms drifting on the currents (“phyto” meaning “plant” and “plankton” meaning “drifter"). Most people know that trees produce oxygen, but phytoplankton put them to shame. Phytoplankton in rivers, lakes, and oceans worldwide produce an estimated 80% of the world’s supply of oxygen. Phytoplankton are also the base of the aquatic food web – providing food for zooplankton, other invertebrates, and fish. They are also the source of the omega-3 fatty acids that make seafood so good for you!
The Environmental Monitoring Program, a collaborative team of scientists and technicians from DWR, USBR, and CDFW, have been collecting phytoplankton samples to monitor the status and trends of phytoplankton in the San Francisco Estuary for the past forty years, and just recently made their data from 2008-2021 available online!
How are the data collected?
- The monitoring program crew go out on DWR’s premier research vessel, the Sentinel, once per month and visit 24 fixed stations and 2-4 ‘floating’ stations across San Pablo Bay, Suisun Bay, and the Delta.
- At each station, scientists collect a 60 mL water sample from 1 meter depth and stain it with Lugol’s iodine solution to make the phytoplankton easier to see.
- The samples are shipped to a lab where highly-trained taxonomists identify and count the phytoplankton under high-powered microscopes.
What do the data look like?
For each sample, we see the count (number of cells) for each type of plankton as well as the size (biovolume) of these cells.
- Each phytoplankter is identified to genus or species, but we often lump them into larger taxonomic groups to make it easier to see trends in the data. These groups are based on genetic and morphologic similarity, so they have similar shapes, pigments, motility, etc. Our understanding of the microbial tree of life is constantly evolving, so it is vital that we keep our entire data set up to date on the latest science as we categorize these groups.
- The phytoplankton samples are collected at the same time as water quality, nutrients, and zooplankton samples, so you can put all the data together if you want to see the bigger picture.
What trends do we see?
- There was a big change in average biovolume and relative abundance of cyanobacteria in 2014 when we switched contracting laboratories. Differences in methods made a big difference in the data, and we’re still trying to work out the consequences (See Figure 1 and Figure 2).
- We always catch more critters in the spring and summer, when days are long and temperatures are warm (Figure 3, Figure 4).
- Cyanobacteria are very small in comparison to other phytoplankton, so even when we catch a lot of them we don’t get much biovolume. Looking at the graphs, Figure 3 shows the biovolume of each phytoplankton group in each sample while Figure 4 shows the number of organisms in each group in each sample. The cyanobacteria are hard to see in the biovolume graph, but they totally dominate the number-of-organisms graph!
- Environmental factors frequently impact abundance of phytoplankton. For example, if we plot the abundance of each group versus net freshwater flow coming through the Delta, we find higher concentrations of most groups during months with higher flow (Figure 5).
There are lots more questions we could ask with this dataset. Are certain taxa more common in wet years or dry years? Do certain taxa occur more frequently in salty water or fresh water? How have abundances of certain taxa changed over time? With a dataset like this, the sky is the limit! If you see anything interesting in the data, we encourage you to join the Water Quality and Phytoplankton Project Work Team to share what you see!
What’s your favorite phytoplankton? These are some of the most common taxa in our samples:
- Cyanobacteria - Bacteria that photosynthesize! Some can even fix nitrogen out of the atmosphere. Others can produce toxins harmful to fish and wildlife, but most are harmless.
- Centric Diatoms - Big critters that look like wagon wheels and have a case (also called a ‘test’) made of glass-like silica. Considered very tasty and nutritious for zooplankton.
- Pennate Diatoms - Closely related to centric diatoms, these guys also have a silica shell and are highly nutritious. Unlike centric diatoms, they are shaped like canoes and frequently live on surfaces instead of being part of the plankton.
- Green Algae - Green cells that can be single or colonial and also have some flagellated species. They are also the distant ancestors of land plants.
- Cryptophytes - Single-celled algae with a pocket in one end with two flagella sticking out of it.
- Euglenoids - Single cells with a flagellum that are frequently heterotrophic – they can eat other cells or photosynthesize to produce energy.
- Crysophytes - Also known as “golden algae”, these guys have two flagella and many are encased in a silica cyst.
- Dinoflagellates - These single-celled algae have two flagella, one that circles their “waist” and one streaming off the side. They are more common in marine waters than freshwater, and can cause “red tides” which are harmful to fish.
- Barros, A.E. 2022. Interagency Ecological Program Zooplankton Study ver 11. Environmental Data Initiative.
- Battey, M. and S. Perry. 2022. Interagency Ecological Program: Discrete water quality monitoring in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay-Delta, collected by the Environmental Monitoring Program, 1975-2022. ver 8. Environmental Data Initiative.
- Brown LR, Kimmerer W, Conrad JL, Lesmeister S, Mueller–Solger A. 2016. Food webs of the Delta, Suisun Bay, and Suisun Marsh: an update on current understanding and possibilities for management. San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science. 14(3).
- Cloern JE, Robinson A, Richey A, Grenier L, Grossinger R, Boyer KE, Burau J, Canuel EA, DeGeorge JF, Drexler JZ et al. 2016. Primary production in the Delta: then and now. San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science. 14(3).
- Lehman P. 2022. The increase of cyanobacteria and benthic diatoms over 43 years in upper San Francisco Estuary, California. Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science. 275:107988.
- Lehman PW. 2007. The influence of phytoplankton community composition on primary productivity along the riverine to freshwater tidal continuum in the San Joaquin River, California. Estuaries and Coasts. 30(1):82-93.
- Perry, S.E., T. Brown, and V. Klotz. 2023. Interagency Ecological Program: Phytoplankton monitoring in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay-Delta, collected by the Environmental Monitoring Program, 2008-2021 ver 4. Environmental Data Initiative.
- Twining CW, Brenna JT, Hairston Jr. NG, Flecker AS. 2016. Highly unsaturated fatty acids in nature: what we know and what we need to learn. Oikos. 125(6):749-760.
- Wells, E. and Interagency Ecological Program. 2023. Interagency Ecological Program: Benthic invertebrate monitoring in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay-Delta, collected by the Environmental Monitoring Program, 1975-2022. ver 3. Environmental Data Initiative.