Assessment of Surface Phytoplankton Biodiversity and Species Density

Updated July 19, 2021

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Philippines being one of the world’s largest archipelagos (United Nations Development Program, 2019), is home to a rich marine biodiversity (Suarez, 2015). Locally, Biliran Island contains many of Eastern Visayas’ fish sanctuaries meant to protect and preserve endangered fish and other marine species (Akter, Hoque, Kashem, & Nath, 2016). Sambawan Island is one of Biliran’s famous marine sanctuaries. Hence, a thorough assessment on the state of the marine sanctuary raises awareness on an important marine site and is significant. Comment by Claire Caneja: Reliable source

Phytoplankton are photosynthetic planktons found in most bodies of water, freshwater or saltwater alike, and are commonly found on the surface (Alberro, 2014; Gutierrez, 2018). Phytoplankton are the primary energy link through various food chains making it the chief producer which, directly or indirectly, supports almost all marine life (Gireesh, Varghese, & Thomas, 2015). Even the smallest changes to phytoplankton composition would affect the marine food web and marine life (Yap-Dejeto, et al., 2016).

These microorganisms are sensitive to a wide range of pollutants thus capable of detecting early warning signals that reflect the status of aquatic systems (Singh, Ahluwalia, Sharma, Jindal, & Thakur, 2013). Although, these phytoplankton undergo the usual cycle, some species reproduce exponentially that may cause blooms which then become possible danger to the ecosystem as they release toxins (Gireesh, Varghese, & Thomas, 2015). Harmful algal blooms are one of the most common toxic blooming (Yap-Dejeto, et al., 2016). Therefore, a thorough assessment of the island is imperative to prevent a harmful algal bloom incident. Moreover, the results of this study will serve as a reference for other researchers to sustain the marine biodiversity in Sambawan Island as tourism progresses in this marine sanctuary.

This study aims to conduct a thorough assessment on the phytoplankton biodiversity and species density in Sambawan Island, Biliran. Specifically, it intends (1) to measure the physico-chemical parameters including the water Ph, salinity, dissolved oxygen, turbidity, and air temperature; (2) to identify the species composition of the phytoplankton present; and (3) to obtain the species density of the phytoplankton in Sambawan Island, Biliran.

Phytoplankton and their Ecological Role

Phytoplankton are aquatic microorganisms that can live both in fresh and salt water (Lindsey & Scott, 2010). They are chlorophyll bearing organisms mainly composed of algae (Kumar & Khare, 2015). Since phytoplankton have chlorophyll to capture sunlight, they use photosynthesis in converting it into energy thus consuming carbon dioxide and release oxygen as a by-product (Lindsey & Scott, 2010). More than 95% of the photosynthesis in the ocean is performed by phytoplankton (Castro & Huber, 2010).

On Earth, at least 50% of the oxygen or the photosynthetic activities are generated from phytoplankton (Castro & Huber, 2010; Basu & Mackey, 2018). Aside from giving off oxygen in the atmosphere, phytoplankton also have an important role in our marine food web. As the primary producers, phytoplankton are the foundation of the marine food web, feeding microscopic organisms to the largest ones (Lindsey & Scott, 2010). They are vital to sustain life on earth since they are the primary producers in the food chain and are also capable in affecting climate change (Agar, 2018). Thus, planktonic organisms as environmental indicators contributed a useful tool in managing the ecosystem health (Hemraj et al., 2017).

Phytoplankton Biodiversity as Bioindicator

Phytoplankton usually float in the surface part of the ocean, where the water is penetrated by the sunlight (NOAA, 2018). Although they provide food for the entire wide range of marine creatures, phytoplankton may grow out of control and form as blooms that produce extremely toxic compounds, which are called Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) (NOAA, 2018). Phytoplankton are infinitely small size compare to the marine organism; however these creatures provide elements necessary to survive and play key roles in helping all other organism in the marine environment (Alberro, 2014).

According to Roberts et al. (2002), the Philippines is said to be one of the world’s centers of multitaxon marine endemism and marine biodiversity (Cabral et al., 2014). However, its marine resources are experiencing the highest level of climatic threats, as stated by Roberts et al. (2002) and Burke et al. (2012) (Cabral et al., 2014). Every organic entity inside a biological system provides a massive indication regarding the condition of its surroundings such as plankton responding to the changes taking place in the marine environment and serving as an important biomarker for assessing the quality of water and its pollution (Parmar et al., 2016).

Marine Sanctuaries and Biodiversity

A marine sanctuary is a specific type of Marine Protected Area (MPA) in which a special section of ocean is put on limit by the government on several human activities (National Geographic, n.d). It seeks to protect samples and special habitat of marine organisms and help restore the use of the oceans and lessen further degradation (Kenchington et al., 2003). According to the UN’s World Database on Protected Areas, as of 2018, more than 15,600 MPAs protect more than 25 million square kilometers, which is nearly 7% of the ocean. (Protected Planet, 2019).

Various reviews of the literature encompassing sanctuaries have been undertaken, which results to a conclusion that marine sanctuaries of any size harbor more diversity and higher abundance (Kenchington et al., 2003). Without measures of marine sanctuaries, Marine biodiversity is likely to be lost before we know its existence and importance to human life (Kenchington et al., 2003). Preserving marine life and sustaining biodiversity remains the main driver behind the creation of MPA’s, specifically the marine sanctuaries (Shreya, 2018). Although marine sanctuaries can be a big and only help in preserving the entire marine life, it can have a negative effect on several local communities located in MPAs.

These effects can be both socioeconomic and sociocultural (Noel et al., 2007). Phytoplankton, the very small yet in many ways support and control the large, it has a photosynthetic ability that play a key role as the source of this crucial process which provide the elements necessary for nearly all other living organisms to survive (Alberro, 2014). Phytoplankton contains a highly patchy concentration both in space and time, therefore it is proposed that more consideration concerning its potential impact should be accounted in marine sanctuaries (Tweddle et al., 2018).

Phytoplankton as Harmful Algal Bloom Indicator

Algal bloom is a proliferation of microscopic algae within an aquatic ecosystem (Scott, 2017). They can cause difficulties in the marine community by blocking sunlight and hinder growth of other aquatic plants (Scott, 2017). An example of these blooms is the Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB), also known as the red tide. Harmful algal blooms are natural phenomena caused by a rapid mass growth of phytoplankton in water bodies (Sanseverino et al., 2016). They pose serious threat to the environmental sustainability, human health and marine life due to the release of toxins or the increasing biomass (Sanseverino et al., 2016).

According to Backer and McGillicuddy (2006), various species of algae are noxious because they naturally produce toxins (Andreatta et al., 2012). Some algae, as stated by Graham (2007), have a direct impact on the health of human especially when exposed to algal toxins by consuming water accidentally while doing water activities or ingesting intoxicated fishes or shellfishes (Andreatta et al., 2012). About 90 marine planktons produce toxins and most are dinoflagellates, which are also responsible for the red tide (Sanseverino et al., 2016). Since algal blooms are the result of proliferation of microscopic algal populations specifically phytoplankton species, we can use the phytoplankton as potential bioindicator for harmful algal blooms (L’Annunziata, 2016).

Phytoplankton as Fisheries Source Indicator

As stated by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), ten to twelve percent of the world’s population depends on aquaculture, fisheries and other marine related activities as their primary livelihood (Chuenpagdee et al., 2016) In the last 30 years, various livelihoods has been conducted in the fishing and coastal communities in the Philippines (Pomeroy et al., 2017). Since phytoplankton are the primary source or the producers (Lindsey & Scott, 2010), the growth of those useful planktons could be an important factor for the production of fishes (Pradhan et al., 2008). A study by Smith & Swingle (2011) showed that there is a direct relationship between plankton production and fish production.

Phytoplankton Studies in Eastern Visayas, Philippines

A study conducted by Francisco and his group (2001) showed that in the deepest portion of Lake Mahagnao in Burauen, Leyte, 81 species were identified as primary producers. With a depth of 18.75 meters, a mean pH of 6.58, a surface temperature of 27°C, and water visibility of 1.64 meters, the deepest waters of Lake Mahagnao was claimed to have the highest phytoplankton density at 4,716 cells/mL (Francisco et al., 2001). The most abundant found in all sampling stations was cyanobacteria (Francisco et al., 2001).

Another research was conducted by Dejeto and Batula (2016) about the potentially harmful phytoplankton in San Pedro Bay in Leyte. In the study, it was showed that San Pedro Bay is one of the sites of episodic Pyrodinium bahamense var. compressum blooms which caused toxic shellfish poisoning in its close coastal communities (Dejeto & Batula, 2016) Since this bay was subjected to storms and because of Typhoon Haiyan, the harmful phytoplankton in this area were cleared although the first record of bloom of the cyanobacteria Trichodesmium erythraeum was observed (Dejeto & Batula, 2016). During Dejeto and Batula’s (2016) sampling period, they found 19 potentially harmful and toxic phytoplankton in the bay including a haptophyte, the diatom Pseudonitzschia, Phaeocystis globosa and 17 other dinoflagellates.

The preceding review of related literature has heightened the research to study the composition and cell density in Sambawan, Biliran.

Study Site

Sambawan Island one of the largest marine sanctuaries in Eastern Visayas (Juarez, 2017). With geographical coordinates of 11.7663° N, 124.2639° E, Sambawan Island is under Type IV based on the Modified Coronas Classification System of Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAG-ASA) with rainfall evenly distributed throughout the year (LGU Biliran, 2016).

A total of 3 evenly distributed sampling stations will be chosen on the area with 3 samples to be collected for each sampling site. The coordinates will be traced with a GPS. Field samples will be collected once a month, from March to April.

Sample Collection

For the phytoplankton sampling collection, the researchers will use both the qualitative and quantitative method. In the qualitative method, a phytoplankton net will be used to obtain the said samples (Findlay & Kling, 2003). The phytoplankton net will be towed vertically 0.5 to 1.0 meter, allowing it to settle for 15-30 seconds. Later, the samples will be placed on a 1L sampling bottle. Comment by Windows8: Please check the availability of this equipment at the zoo lab, ask Ma’am Lorelie

Meanwhile, discrete-depth water-bottle sampler will be used for the quantitative method (Findlay & Kling, 2003). The water bottle sampler will also be lowered 0.5 – 1.0 meter in depth to obtain the samples. The collected samples will also be placed on a 1L sampling bottle.

Physico-Chemical Parameters Sampling Analysis

Physico-chemical measurements will be established based on the proximity uses within and around the island. Physico-chemical parameters play a major role in studying various components of biodiversity (Sharma et al., 2007). Abiotic parameters will be measure in situ, including chemical parameters such as water pH, salinity and dissolved oxygen and physical parameters such as surface water temperature and turbidity (Baloloy et al., 2016). The researchers will equip a Multi-Parameter Test Kit for the chemical parameters and water temperature and a Secchi disk for water turbidity. Physical factors like weather condition such as air temperature and resource used within the field stations will be documented. Comment by Windows8: Please check the availability of the materials in lab.

Preservation and Preparation of Samples

All collected phytoplankton samples will be fixed with Lugol’s solution (Baloloy et al., 2016) and will be stored at 4°C to 10°C in order to slow down physical and chemical reaction that may lead deteriorations of species cell structure. Samples will be acclimatized at room temperature for 24 hours for better random distribution in the Sedwick-Rafter counting chamber (Yap et al., 2004). All field samples will be checked after a few days for oxidation of solution in order to have a ‘tea’-like color. For samples that do not have a ‘tea’-like color, continuous addition of Lugol’s solution shall be done until color is regained. The researchers will then obtain a 200-mL sample and transfer it to a 250- mL graduated cylinder and allow it to settle further to attain a 20 to 50 mL concentrated sample (Yap-Dejeto et al., 2010).

Phytoplankton Species Identification and Density Determination

The phytoplankton species will be identified up to the genus or species level (lowest taxon possible) with the use of a compound light microscope. Three 1-mL aliquots will be distributed to the gridded Sedgwick-Rafter counting chambers from the 20 to 50 mL concentrated samples. The number of cells counted will be averaged and the density will be obtained with the use of the following formula:

Species Density

For the phytoplankton species identification, guides and manuals will be used such as Identifying Marine Phytoplankton (Tomas, 1997) and Phytoplankton Identification Manual (2004). An expert will be consulted to confirm the findings.


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