From space, the Atlantic Ocean off the New Jersey coast looked like an artist’s canvas in early July, 2014, brushed with dramatic strokes of milky blue and green. But it wasn’t paint that colored the usually deep blue waters – it was a large bloom of phytoplankton.
Several species of tiny chlorophyll-containing organisms (phytoplankton) live off the New Jersey shore year-round, but only occasionally create large blooms. Under normal conditions, these microscopic plants are beneficial and form the base of the marine food chain, and thus promote healthy harvest of fish and shellfish. At times, however, some blooms may contain harmful toxins, which may harm swimmers or shellfish. Bivalves, such as clams, oysters and mussels, can accumulate such toxins, and become unhealthful to eat. /p>
Because the “Jersey shore” contains well-used beaches in populated areas, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection administers the New Jersey Cooperative Coastal Monitoring Program which publishes daily reports of the health of the beach water quality from May until September. In addition, the Bureau of Marine Water Monitoring (BMWM) monitors phytoplankton each summer as part of the National Shellfish Sanitation Program (NSSP), which helps assure that shellfish are safe for human consumption.
As part of the monitoring efforts, aerial surveillance flights pass over the near off-shore water on a regular basis. On June 30, the report noted good conditions, with no debris visible, and several schools of dolphin and fish were observed. On July 1, the water was equally clear visually, but an increase in chlorophyll A was noted.
On July 2, the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) aboard NASA’s Terra satellite captured this true-color image of the massive bloom. No observation flights were scheduled to be flown on that day, but the increased chlorophyll counts led the BMWM to collect samples on that same day. The result of sampling revealed a bloom of non-toxic phytoplankton dominated by Heterosigma akashiwo. No toxic phytoplankton species were detected.