BGSU faculty track harmful algae across continents


The bright, green water in the bay was all too familiar to the visiting scientists from Bowling Green State University. It indicated a harmful algal bloom. But, instead of Ohio’s Lake Erie or Sandusky Bay, this bloom was in Kisumu Bay in Kenya’s Lake Victoria. As scientists have discovered, toxic algae know no national or geographic boundaries and can cause problems wherever conditions are favorable.

With a Kenyan colleague (second from right) aboard a research vessel are, left to right, Timothy Davis, Kefa Otiso, George Bullerjahn and Michael McKay.
With a Kenyan colleague (second from right) aboard a research vessel are, left to right, Timothy Davis, Kefa Otiso, George Bullerjahn and Michael McKay.

Aboard the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute research vessel in April were BGSU biologists George Bullerjahn, Timothy Davis, Michael McKay, and Jeffrey Miner, along with Kefa Otiso, an urban geographer in BGSU’s School of Earth, Environment and Society who is originally from Kenya and previously conducted urban environmental research in Lake Victoria’s catchment basin. Working alongside researchers from KMFRI and nearby Kisii University, Mr. Bullerjahn, Mr. Davis, and Mr. McKay collected water samples from the lake and some of its feeder rivers while Mr. Miner caught a number of fish, including the invasive Nile perch, for further study.

The BGSU researchers were in Kenya this spring for a special joint symposium on water quality at Kisii University in southwest Kenya, a collaboration facilitated by Otiso. The symposium, “Bridging the Gap: Current State of the Science and Future Research Opportunities between the North American and African Great Lakes,” allowed researchers from BGSU, Kisii University, Egerton University, and KMFRI to discuss harmful algal blooms and the challenges facing sustainable tourism development around Lake Victoria.

Kisii Vice Chancellor John Akama, whose scholarly interests are in sustainable and cultural tourism, also participated.

Mr. Bullerjahn, Mr. Davis, and Mr. McKay led a half-day workshop for Kisii students at KMFRI’s aquaculture center near Kisii town, teaching them techniques for measuring water quality parameters.

Mr. Bullerjahn brought biochemical kits to detect different toxins.

“Unsurprisingly, we detected high levels of microcystin toxin (the toxin that caused the 2014 Toledo water crisis) and trace amounts of saxitoxin (a neurotoxin that can cause Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning in marine environments),” Mr. Bullerjahn said. “We were able to show students as well as faculty the results of the harmful algal analysis and demonstrate the toxin assays.”

Both Kisumu, which gets its water from Kisumu Bay and Lake Victoria, and Toledo, whose water comes from western Lake Erie, have undergone water shutdowns due to high levels of toxic algae.

“In the U.S. in the last 10 years at the regional water plants, it’s become quite routine for plant operators to test samples regularly,” Mr. McKay said. “But in Kenya the technology has not been widely available and is expensive. It was nice to share these kinds of approaches with the students and faculty.”

“The good news is that we have obtained a lot of knowledge about water quality issues in the United States and we can work with colleagues in that area to improve their water quality,” said Mr. Davis, who is part of the BGSU team focusing on water issues here and abroad.

The U.S.-Kenya connection is vital because about 40 percent of the Earth’s surface fresh water is held collectively in the great lakes of North America and Africa, two of Earth’s most important available surface freshwater systems, Mr. Davis said. The lakes’ health is critical to the socioeconomic systems of both continents and the well-being of the populations.

Kenya and Lake Victoria share the same environmental problems as our Great Lakes regions, but there is also a general lack of awareness and understanding on the part of the public about the role played by human interactions with the environment. It’s more difficult for the electorate to make connections between land use and water quality for a variety of reasons, Mr. Otiso said.

A major difference between the U.S. and Kenya is that Kenyans do not see waterways as recreational areas to the same degree as in the U.S., hence the relative underutilization of Lake Victoria for recreation. Moreover, since African rivers, including the Nile and the Congo, are generally unnavigable because of their shallowness, intense rapids, and high waterfalls, they are of much less use as transport than U.S., European and Asian rivers, which has been a major contributor to Africa’s economic underdevelopment.

“The turbulent nature of many African rivers has contributed to the cultural perception that water bodies are dangerous, except in coastal and lake areas,” Mr. Otiso said. “Even then, Africa’s oceans and lakes are primarily used for fishing. Culture is a confluence of the physical environment and the humans around it. It determines how you see resources and how you use them.”

The BGSU-Kisii University collaboration also opens new avenues of research for many BGSU faculty, including the senior biologists.

“We’ll be using the data from the samples we collected on the Kisumu Bay cruise to do high throughput, next-generation DNA sequencing to identify all the organisms in the water and all the toxic organisms,” Mr. Bullerjahn said. “Since this is new knowledge, we’ll be submitting a manuscript for publication with our Kisii colleagues as a pilot study to attract future research funding.”

The partnerships between BGSU and Kisii University came about because of Mr. Otiso, who is from the area and was twice the recipient of Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowships. In 2015, he won the inaugural award and returned to Kisii University to help develop the geography curriculum. Then in 2016, he received the Carnegie African Diaspora Alumni Fellowship.

Kisii representatives later visited BGSU in May, 2017, and toured the biology department, facilitated by Marcia Salazar-Valentine, director of International Programs and Partnerships, who always makes it a priority to connect the BGSU team with international visitors who also have interests in water quality, Mr. McKay said.

“It just naturally fell out of the meeting that water quality is a fundamental issue, and fisheries are a fundamental issue, so why don’t we initiate a collaboration?” Mr. Bullerjahn said.

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