Two weeks ago, Catie Bursch, marine educator and illustrator for the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve, began getting calls about something red in the water. The initial concern expressed was red tide, a common term used to describe a harmful algal bloom.
Bursch knew where to turn to solve the mystery.
“I coordinate a program where locals volunteer to collect water samples to look for toxins that could result in toxic shellfish,” said Bursch. “It’s cool because I have this volunteer pool I could call for samples from around the bay. And I got them very quickly.”
She also received word quickly of the spread of the unidentified substance. She heard of sightings from Whiskey Gulch, north of Anchor Point; observations in Bear Cove, toward the head of Kachemak Bay; and from communities on the south side of Kachemak Bay.
“People were even reporting it on lakes in Kenai and Soldotna,” said Bursch.
Through Bursch’s connections in the scientific community, she began closing in on the answer.
“Conrad Field, a well-known naturalist here in town, said, ‘You know, there’s this rust stuff on spruce trees,” said Bursch. “Then we got an email from the Parks Service and they’d seen it in Lake Clark Last year. It was the same thing that was in the news last year in Kivalina. They were calling it ‘orange goo.’”
A close look at a spruce branch indicated the substance wasn’t coming from the tree itself, but from a fungus that uses the spruce tree as a host.
The answer: Chrysomyxa ledicola Logerh, more commonly known as spruce needle rust.
“This stuff kind of forms little blisters on the new needles. It loves the new needles, not the old ones,” said Bursch.
The life cycle of spruce tree rust begins with two seasons on a Labrador tea plant before moving on to a spruce tree.
“It likes temperatures under 60 degrees and a wet summer,” said Bursch. “Then, when it warms up, those blisters come open and it releases the spores and starts the cycle all over again.”
Bursch’s findings have been verified by a plant pathologist with the U.S. Forest Service.
Is it something to worry about?
“No. It’s a natural, harmless plant fungus,” said Bursch.
The spruce tree rust is not to be confused with spruce tree pollen, “but that happens earlier in the year,” said Bursch, who drew two messages the experience she wanted to share.
“Sometimes toxic algal blooms are red and sometimes they’re not, so it’s not a real good indicator, but everybody kind of knows about red tide and worries about it,” she said. “That’s why we had so many calls, but this had nothing to do about that.”
The second message is not to hesitate to contact Bursch.
“We like having the role of being the go-to place. That’s our mission: to study about Kachemak Bay and educate about it,” she said. “So if there’s something on the bay, we like to figure out what it is.”
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McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at email@example.com.