Interested in volunteering? Find out what is involved.

We are looking for new volunteers all across the U.S. to monitor coastal or freshwater environments for potentially harmful phytoplankton.

Are you interested in sampling local waters twice a month and identifying the phytoplankton that are found? It’s okay if the last time you used a microscope was back in high school! No Science Experience Required!

  • Anyone can participate! Parks, 4-H clubs, Homeschoolers, Master Naturalists, Individuals, etc...
  • PMN provides volunteers with ALL the necessary equipment, except for the light microscope.
  • Volunteers must have access to a basic light microscope with total magnification up to 200x, preferably 400x. The PMN may be able to help you locate a microscope to use in your community.
  • Volunteers commit to sampling their site at least once every two weeks for at least one year.
  • Sampling sites can be anywhere, as long as there is easy, safe, and legal access to the site.
  • For marine monitoring, sampling sites must have a salinity of 10-15 ppt or greater throughout most of the year. (If you're not sure of the salinity, the PMN can loan you a refractometer to determine the salinity.) There is no salinity requirement for freshwater sites.
  • Volunteers must have computer access for training purposes and to enter data into the PMN online database.

New volunteers interested in getting trained for the first time, please fill out the Schedule Training form below, and we'll get you started!

Frequently Asked Questions

PMN volunteers are an asset to the community through the knowledge gained and shared. Volunteers are the primary investigators for the local waters and community public health and directly contribute to a greater understanding of when and where potential harmful algal blooms may be occurring. The program works well as a community group initiative or can be incorporated into the classroom.

Volunteers are given an instructional training course (either in-person or online) by one or more PMN staff members, depending on group size and staff availability. The PMN staff member(s) gives a presentation that explains the program, introduces phytoplankton and explains their ecological importance, and ends with a tutorial on phytoplankton identification. After the initial training, all new volunteers then practice their ID on their own and have at least one “check out” session to ensure that their practice identifications are correct. After that, volunteers sample at least every other week, enter their data, and have their ID’s verified through either submitting photos or by sending their samples in for confirmation.

Initial training takes the most time and varies by volunteer/volunteer group, typically lasting between 2 – 3 hours for marine monitoring and 1.5 hours for freshwater monitoring. Once training is complete, each sample collection takes approximately 5-10 minutes. Sample identification with the microscope can take anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours to identify. As volunteers become more comfortable with identification, the time needed to properly identify the sample decreases. Data entry takes only a few moments and can be done online or via the PHYTO app. Additional time factors include travel time to the sampling site and the number of sites monitored. We do ask that you volunteer for at least a year (but hopefully longer) in order for a meaningful data set to be generated for each site.

Volunteers are never left on their own! Volunteers make weekly/biweekly plankton tows and identify the samples independently after the initial training(s), but PMN staff are available to help with identifications at any time, especially if photos are taken of the sample. Taking photos helps not only in the confirmation of volunteer IDs, but also allows PMN staff to help ID any unknowns or IDs that volunteers are not sure of. The PMN regional coordinator is always available to work with volunteers in any way possible via email or phone.

A great initial step is to form a phytoplankton monitoring team and establish a consistent sampling schedule. Perhaps have the team leader or project leader get the sample the same day every week and pick a convenient time and location to analyze the sample. Consistent sampling is vital to getting useful information about the phytoplankton we are monitoring!

There are several ways to take photos of your samples. The easiest is to use your cell phone camera! The link here is a great start to showing you how. There are also adaptors to hold the phone steady over the eyepiece (email to see if we have any to loan you!).  You may have also get a camera that fits over the eyepiece of your microscope or have a microscope with a built in camera (however, neither of these options are provided by NOAA).

After PMN staff confirm the data entry, it goes to our publically accessible database here.  You can go back anytime and see data for just your site or you can explore data from other volunteers across the country.

Email us at or call Steve Morton: (843)762-8857.