COA senior Analise Wittenberg '20 holds up a fresh sample of water from the Bar Harbor town p...COA senior Analise Wittenberg '20 holds up a fresh sample of water from the Bar Harbor town pier that she will use for her study of plankton in Frenchman Bay.

With plankton net, filter, and water monitoring equipment in hand, Analise Wittenberg ’20 makes her way down to Bar Harbor’s town pier. Nearby fishermen take curious glances and inquisitive tourists steal peaks, but Wittenberg is unphased; she is determined to document the planktonic life lurking in the waters of Frenchman Bay. Quickly, she sets up her gear and begins the plankton tow. After ten liters of water has filtered through, she takes the sample back to Mount Desert Island Biological Lab (MDIBL) for analysis.

For Wittenberg, a senior at College of the Atlantic (COA), the classroom is not bound by four walls. Her self-designed senior project analyzing year-round plankton communities in Bar Harbor and Winter Harbor has meant her classroom is in the wind, waves, and sun. Under the advisory of COA professors Dr. Sean Todd, Dr. Helen Hess, and Dr. Reuben Hudson, and with the collaboration of Kaitlyn Mullen and the MDIBL, Wittenberg has been collecting plankton samples and water quality data at the Bar Harbor town pier and elsewhere. Just a few months into her year-long study, she has already found distinct plankton species at the two different sampling sites.

Analise Wittenberg '20 (left), gets some help from Sumner Memorial High School student Skye H...Analise Wittenberg '20 (left), gets some help from Sumner Memorial High School student Skye Howard using a plankton net to collect seawater samples off of Bar Harbor's town pier. Data on the amount and type of plankton in the water will be analyzed as part of Wittenberg's self-designed senior project at COA.
“I want to make sure people know what’s in their water,” said Wittenberg. Plankton are crucial, fundamental components of marine ecosystems according to Brierley’s 2017 article in Current Biology. They energize the powerplant of the ocean and are ultimately responsible for attracting more well-known megafauna such as whales, pelagic bird species, ocean sunfish, and basking sharks. 

“In Bar Harbor, there’s a lot of photosynthetic phytoplankton consistently,” said Wittenberg. In Winter Harbor, the predominant findings have been zooplankton, specifically copepods, barnacle larvae, and jellyfish larvae. But patterns can change, which is exactly what she found in her most recent sampling. 

“At the beginning of sampling, this pattern was true, but this week Winter Harbor had no zooplankton but a super diverse community of phytoplankton,” said Wittenberg. “Bar Harbor had a lot of zooplankton. Just the booms and busts I’m looking for!”

Analise Wittenberg '20 (right) says she is looking for booms and busts of phytopl...Analise Wittenberg '20 (right) says she is looking for "booms and busts" of phytoplankton and zooplankton throughout her research.

According to Brierley’s 2017 paper published in Current Biology, plankton consists of two major groupings: phytoplankton and zooplankton. Phytoplankton consists of single-celled organisms responsible for roughly 45% of the world’s photosynthetic production. Phytoplankton are eaten by multicellular zooplankton. 

“It’s important to know how many photosynthetic plankton there are to how many zooplankton there are because the more photosynthesis you get, the more oxygen is taken out of the water,” said Wittenberg. In severe cases, that can lead to anoxic or dead zones according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Dead zones are just one of many reasons plankton communities should be monitored. 

“I’m looking at the booms and busts of plankton species… Right now, we are seeing a lot of pseudo-nitzschia,” said Wittenberg. Pseudo-nitzschia is a genus of phytoplankton, which according to the EPA contains species capable of producing domoic acid. Domoic acid is a toxin known to cause amnesic shellfish poisoning. Thankfully, Wittenberg confirmed that the particular species currently blooming in Frenchman Bay do not produce domoic acid. 

Marine science classes at COA and working on a local ferry for a summer inspired Analise Witten...Marine science classes at COA and working on a local ferry for a summer inspired Analise Wittenberg '20 to study plankton for her senior project. Here, Sumner Memorial High School student Skye Howard helps her sample water off the Bar Harbor town pier.“I’ve always thought that plankton are really cool,” said Wittenberg. Her academics at COA including classes in oceanography and marine biology have cultivated her passion for plankton, but it wasn’t until working aboard the Schoodic Ferry in 2018 when she was inspired to undertake a year-long plankton project. 

“We started taking baseline data and there were significantly different communities and nutrients on either side of the bay. So I decided that I wanted to do a year-round analysis of Frenchman Bay.”

For data analysis, Wittenberg will be integrating skills attained in courses such as Geographic Information Systems, Data Science I, and Data Science II. In the future, Wittenberg hopes her data can provide a baseline and reveal any trends around Bar Harbor and Winter Harbor. For Wittenberg, the project is so much more than a graduation requirement; it is a passion and one of many important steps towards a career studying the ocean’s powerhouse — plankton.