Different approaches and limitations for testing phytoplankton viability in natural assemblies and treated ballast water.
Shipping is recognised as an unintentional efficient pathway for spreading non-native species, harmful organisms and pathogens. In 2004, a unique IMO Convention was adopted to control and minimize this transfer in ship's ballast water. This Convention entered into force on 8th September 2017. However, unlikely the majority of IMO Conventions, the Ballast Water Management Convention requires ships to comply with biological standards (e.g. concentration of organisms per unit of volume in ballast water discharges). This study aimed to apply different techniques developed to measure concentrations of viable phytoplankton in natural and treated ballast water samples and compare them with the established flow cytometry method and vital staining microscopy. Samples were collected in the English Channel over one year and on-board during ballast water shipboard efficacy tests. Natural abundance of live phytoplankton varied from 23% to 89% of the total, while for cells larger than 10 µm (a size defined by the BWM Convention) the percentage varied from 3% to 60%. An overall good correlation was seen between the measurements taken with the two fluorometers and in comparison with the flow cytometry analysis, as found in previous studies. Analysis of treated ballast water samples showed a large variation in the number of viable cells, however indicating a low level of risk on all occasions for regulatory purposes. One of the key aspects to bear in mind when sampling and analysing for compliance is to be aware of the limitations of each technique.