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Too Much of a Good Thing?

Harmful Algae Blooms

Person walking on a dock carrying buckets.
Graduate student Katie Sweeney heads to the lab after a day of sampling algae in Vancouver Lake, Clark County WA. Photo Alisha Jucevic.


On any given summer day, people windsurf, boat and birdwatch at Vancouver Lake, near the Columbia River, just west of Vancouver, Washington. But the lake has been closed to recreation during some summer months in recent years due to harmful algae blooms (HABs). HABs may contain toxins that can cause sickness or even death in people, pets, fish, birds, and wild animals.

Green algae on water surface in lake with grass on shore.
Cyanobacteria bloom in Vancouver Lake. Photo Jennifer Duerr Boyer, WSU.

A “bloom” doesn’t mean flowers in this case but refers to an explosion in algal growth. The main causes of algae blooms include excess nutrients (most from human activities such as faulty septic systems, landscape fertilizing, and stormwater runoff), sufficient sunlight, poor water circulation, and warm water temperatures. Algal blooms occur naturally every spring in lakes at our latitude. Most blooms are harmless, but they can be unsightly, smelly, or slimy, especially as they decay. But sometimes the blooms produce toxins that are harmful, and that’s a problem.

Dr. Gretchen Rollwagen-Bollens, who co-directs the WSU Aquatic Ecology Lab in Vancouver with Dr. Stephen Bollens, and her colleagues, have spent more than a decade taking a deep look at the shallow Vancouver Lake. They are focused on identifying the factors contributing to cyanobacterial blooms in the lake.

Cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, are microorganisms related to bacteria that are capable of photosynthesis. They are common in aquatic systems throughout the world and are an important part of the food web. Cyanobacteria occur naturally and typically aren’t a problem. But over the past several decades, there have been an increasing number of excessive blooms, and that is a cause for concern because some cyanobacterial species produce toxins that may cause illness or fatalities to humans and/or pets after ingestion or exposure. Cyanobacterial blooms may also diminish water quality and decrease dissolved oxygen levels. This leads to fish kills, decreased biodiversity, and the disruption of ecosystems and food webs. Harmful cyanobacterial blooms have recently become a worldwide problem, and the frequency and magnitude of these events is likely to increase in the future due to the warming of water bodies caused by climate change.

Woman in lab.
Sweeney works in lab. Photo Alisha Jucevic.

Rollwagen-Bollens and her colleagues are examining the interaction of different factors that drive cyanobacterial blooms, including interactions within the food web which may increase or decrease a harmful bloom.

The Vancouver Lake food web primarily consists of:

  • Phytoplankton, that photosynthesize to produce their own food from sunlight and nutrients in the water;
  • Cyanobacteria, a special type of phytoplankton that can sometimes produce toxins;
  • Microzooplankton, tiny grazers that eat phytoplankton (including cyanobacteria);
  • Zooplankton, “medium-sized” grazers such as copepods (aquatic crustaceans), that eat both phytoplankton and microzooplankton;
  • Fish, that eat the zooplankton.

The researchers have found a relatively consistent seasonal succession of phytoplankton and zooplankton species and a pattern of interacting factors that influence cyanobacterial bloom dynamics. They propose that blooms occur in a relatively similar fashion during mid- to late-summer each year.

Computer screen with person pointing to a small oval objects on the screen.
Images of microzooplankton. Photo Alisha Jucevic.

Cyanobacterial blooms typically start on warm sunny days when nitrogen-containing nutrients are low but phosphorus-containing nutrients are elevated in concentration. Under these conditions, cyanobacteria can grow very rapidly, especially when copepods shift their diet away from their favorite prey, microzooplankton, and instead consume phytoplankton other than cyanobacteria, which removes the cyanobacteria’s competitors for nitrogen. During a large bloom, cyanobacteria may begin to produce toxins if they experience environmental stress when nutrient levels get reduced too much or too quickly.

In the weeks following the blooms’ peak, both nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations drop and the copepod feeding rates fall to near zero. At this point, the very small microzooplankton organisms ramp up their consumption of cyanobacteria, and the bloom is dissipated. These findings are consistent with patterns observed in other large, shallow lakes.

Rollwagen-Bollens and her fellow researchers have found Vancouver Lake to be an excellent environment for studying cyanobacterial bloom dynamics in order to develop bloom management strategies which may be applicable across a wide range of temperate, eutrophic lake systems (those that are rich in nutrients and thus support dense algal populations). These studies are critical to better understanding harmful algal bloom events, so effective mitigation strategies can be used in reducing their risk to people, pets, and wildlife.

For more information about the work being done at WSU Aquatic Ecology Lab in Vancouver visit


Rollwagen-Bollens, Gretchen, T. Lee, V. Rose, and S. M. Bollens. 2018. Beyond Eutrophication: Vancouver Lake, WA, USA as a Model System for Assessing Multiple, Interacting Biotic and Abiotic Drivers of Harmful Cyanobacterial Blooms. Water  10(6), 757.  DOI:10.3390/w10060757

Stayner, Wyatt. September 30, 2019. WSUV research at Vancouver Lake part of efforts to solve global problem. The Columbian.

Washington Sea Grant, Harmful Algae Blooms. 2019 University of Washington.

Washington State Toxic Algae. 2012. King County, WA.