Paradox versus paradigm: A disconnect between understanding and management of freshwater cyanobacterial harmful algae blooms

Andrew J Bramburger, Christopher T. Filstrup, Euan D. Reavie, Cody S. Sheik, Gordon Douglas Haffner, David C. Depew, John A. Downing

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Freshwater cyanobacterial harmful algae blooms (cHABs) are a major threat to human and environmental health and are increasing globally in frequency and severity. To manage this threat in a timely manner, science must focus on increasing our ability to predict the growth and toxigenicity of specific taxa of cyanobacteria. Recent molecular research has revealed striking genomic and metabolic diversity among the many morphologically indistinguishable sub-species and strains of cyanobacteria. Assemblage-level molecular metabolic capability surveys promise to improve our ability to predict cyanobacterial responses to environmental forcing, but many of these cutting-edge techniques are not widely available or cost-effective enough to be employed in routine monitoring programmes to support management decisions. Taxonomic ambiguity, cryptic functional specialisation, incongruence between genomic capability and phylogeny, and genomic flexibility impose severe challenges to our ability to ascribe autecological attributes at a level of taxonomic resolution that is attainable under current management strategies (i.e. Linnaean species). This lack of knowledge prohibits reliable predictions of species' responses to environmental stressors. Cyanobacterial species comprise consortia of metabolically diverse, morphologically indistinct strains that span a range of ecological specialisation. Under current, broadly applied taxonomic concepts, these species functionally embody a generalist ecological strategy—persisting and/or proliferating where other specialised competitors are negatively impacted. We postulate that within current management frameworks, characterising of cyanobacterial species as competing generalists, as well as considering abundance trajectories of well-characterised, non-cyanobacterial specialist phytoplankton will generate more scalable, mechanistic, and management-relevant insight into increasing cHAB frequency and severity in suitable time frames. Here we recommend that cHAB management considers the competitive framework of phytoplankton communities, including cyanobacteria, wherein diverse environmental changes lead to deterministic responses by readily identifiable, documented specialist taxa. Characterising these changes in community structure will quantify the relative importance of altered stressors and resource availability that can be exploited by metabolically flexible cyanobacteria.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)191-201
Number of pages11
JournalFreshwater Biology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2023

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 His Majesty the King in Right of Canada and The Authors. Freshwater Biology © 2022 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Reproduced with the permission of the Minister of Environment and Climate Change.


  • community ecology
  • harmful algae blooms
  • lakes
  • phycology
  • phytoplankton


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