Two groups of algae form almost all the mats: green and blue-green algae. These mats mostly form on the bottom, utilizing nutrients at the sediment-water interface, then move upward as they trap their own photosynthetic gases or accumulate gas released from the sediment under thick tangles of filaments. These mats may continue to grow for a time at or near the surface as a function of stored nutrients from their time on the bottom or from additional nutrients in the water column. Yet ultimately they tend to wind up on the surface, often blown to the edges by wind, in large decaying masses that turn various colors from yellow to blue and may be quite malodorous. In great quantities, they can really detract from the lake experience.
One partial exception includes the “cotton candy” or “cloud” growths of certain filamentous greens, mostly in the Spirogyra group. These algae do get their start at the bottom, but grow upward in a loose, slimy affiliation that looks like a mass of light green cotton candy or a cloud in the water. When you try to grab it, there is not much to grab, but your hand feels slimy. These algae produce a lot of mucilage, hence the slimy feel, and have enough structural strength to expand into these underwater, microscopic, “tinker-toy” conglomerations.
Sometimes a green mat will remain anchored to the sediment while part of it floats upward, creating a pillar in the water. Blue-green mats of Plectonema are brown to black and don’t rise in New England lakes until late summer, if at all, but from about Maryland south they can be a major impediment to lake use from early summer on. In New England, blue-green surface mats are most often chunks of Oscillatoria that break free of the bottom; these are very dark blue to black, often with brown sediment on the underside (still attached from the bottom) and they often have a distinct and unpleasant odor.
Algae mats are a clear indication that nutrients have accumulated in the sediment in water shallow enough for light to penetrate to the bottom. Once formed, algae mats are very hard to kill, as the outer filaments protect the inner filaments to a large degree. Removing the sediment is the most effective approach, but is very expensive and involves an often tedious permitting process. Treating the sediment with a phosphorus inactivator or algaecide before dense mats form is often effective, but results are not permanent.
Green algal mats
Blue-green algal mats