Peering over the side of the R/V Joseph E. Payne, Staff Scientist Mike Doan could see schools of small fish swimming in the water below, while the red hood of a lion’s mane jellyfish floated by on the other side of our Baykeeper boat. What caught Mike’s eye, however, was not the sight of marine life, but rather the fact that his view was unobstructed: for this time of year, the waters of Casco Bay are exceptionally clear.
There are many factors that can affect the clarity of the water in Casco Bay. One major determinant is the abundance of phytoplankton – the tiny marine plants at the base of the ocean food web. Just like plants on land, phytoplankton contain chlorophyll, the green pigment that enables photosynthesis. When phytoplankton are abundant the Bay is a greenish-blue hue. In their absence, the water is often clear and bluer, reflecting the color of the sky above.
The importance of phytoplankton to the health of Casco Bay and the world at large is difficult to overstate. Globally, phytoplankton are estimated to produce 50 percent of the oxygen in the air we breathe. In addition, phytoplankton are key in the food web as they are grazed on by zooplankton, which in turn are fed on by small fish and progressively larger animals. In short, tiny phytoplankton have an oversized impact, providing foundational support for nearly all marine life.
Phytoplankton derive their name from the Greek words “phyto” (plant) and “plankton” (wandering, drifting) because they are unable to swim against the flow of the water and instead drift where currents carry them. As phytoplankton have no choice but literally “to go with the flow,” their activity and abundance fluctuate throughout the year as the characteristics and properties of water quality change with the seasons.
As we reported in March, spring in Casco Bay kicks off with a phytoplankton bloom. Warmer waters, more sunlight from longer days, and increased nutrient availability from melting snow and runoff are among the factors that create ideal conditions for this seasonal boom in phytoplankton activity. The spring bloom declines as phytoplankton deplete the available nutrients from the water and are consumed by zooplankton.
We track phytoplankton blooms in Casco Bay by measuring chlorophyll levels at our Continuous Monitoring Stations. This year, our data suggest the spring phytoplankton bloom occurred early, peaking in February and trailing off into March. Our data show a similar pattern in 2019. These early blooms stand in contrast to the larger spring blooms of 2018 and 2020, both of which peaked in March and carried over into April.
“Science has shown there is variability in the timing, duration, and size of spring phytoplankton blooms, so these ‘early’ blooms we’re seeing in our data may be entirely typical,” says Mike. “At the same time, factors like weather, water temperature, and ocean chemistry have large effects on phytoplankton, so marine scientists are concerned that spring blooms may be sensitive to climate change. Because phytoplankton are at the base of the marine food web, a significant change to the timing of the phytoplankton bloom could have implications for every level of Casco Bay’s ecosystem.”
If climate change is affecting the spring phytoplankton bloom in Casco Bay, we will be among the first to know. While Maine has decades of data that show the temperatures of our coastal waters are increasing and that our seas are rising, identifying trends in seasonal phenomena such as the spring bloom requires a detailed, long-term data set – just like the data we are collecting with our Continuous Monitoring Stations. We can track phytoplankton blooms in addition to some of the factors that impact them, such as water temperature or the quantity of spring runoff.
“We’re still in the beginning stages of this effort,” says Mike. “With five years of data from one station, we’re beginning to get a sense of the seasonal changes we can expect to see in the Bay. As more data accumulates, we may have a deeper understanding of how climate change is contributing to changing conditions in the water. With these scientifically grounded insights, we’ll be better prepared to advocate for the policies and practices that will protect the health of the Bay.”
9.) We launched the public phase of our $1.5 million Climate Change and Casco Bay Fund. We are now less than $15,000 from crossing the finish line! And we will soon be launching two more continuous monitoring stations, thanks to the Fund!
We had a lively and informative What Casco Bay is telling us: a Casco Bay Matters Event as more than 100 Friends joined us for the conversation. Here is a video of the event, for those of you who were not able to attend live or would like to relisten.
If you don’t have time to watch the entire event, here are some key moments that you may want to check out:
In this 3½ minute clip, Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca shares her observations on what the Bay was like during this very strange year.
Staff Scientist Mike Doan shares temperature data from our Continuous Monitoring Station (2½ minutes).
Mike explains how we can get a sense of the productivity of the base of the food chain and offers his thoughts as to why our waters have been so clear this season (3 minutes).
Ivy thanks our volunteer Water Reporters for the many ways they have helped us keep watch on the health of the Bay (2½ minutes).
Ivy reflects on what we must do to confront the impacts of climate change on the Bay (2 ½ minutes).
Last but not least, Cathy, Ivy, and Mike explain how our Climate Change and Casco Bay Fund is a game-changer for our work (4 minutes). [We are delighted that we have raised 94% of our $1.5 million goal for the Fund, with the help of many of you. If you have not yet made a contribution to the Fund, help us past the finish line!]
For Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca, the summer has been full of moments of concern and moments of magic.
How was your summer?
Summer means being on the Bay! Staff Scientist Mike Doan and I continued to collect our seasonal data on the health of Casco Bay by land and sea. As we collected water quality data, we had the opportunity to speak with people who rely on the Bay for their livelihoods and deepened our conversations about what we were seeing and how to use our data to shape our advocacy work.
How did the pandemic affect your Baykeeping work this summer?
We kept up with water quality monitoring by limiting crew on our Baykeeper boat, R/V Joseph E. Payne, to just two of us at any one time. We continued to collect hourly data from our Continuous Monitoring Station. We kept up with all water quality monitoring, including responding to the unexpected.
What changed and what we really missed was inviting others out on the boat with us. We love using the boat as our summer office, a way to gather people who can work together to find solutions to problems that impair the health of the Bay. It makes a big difference to view issues from the water and have people aboard with expertise and authority to address problems. We couldn’t do that this year.
What was the most concerning issue you saw this summer?
What stands out was a day in mid-July when we saw a large area of brownish water extending from the mouth of the Royal River. Mike and I thought it might be a phytoplankton bloom. But when we put our sonde in the water, it measured low salinity levels that were startling, extending out almost to Moshier Island. We had captured a stormwater plume from a recent major rainstorm.
What we saw this summer reaffirmed for me the urgency of our collective work to document change, reduce the causes of climate change, and prepare for its consequences at community, regional, state and national levels.
How about some of your favorite moments of the summer?
There are always moments of astounding beauty on the Bay. Every day on Casco Bay is magical. Watching terns feeding, bald eagles soaring above the boat, leaping sturgeons in a school of bait fish, or the sunlight reflecting like a mirror on the water are moments of magic that underlie why we work to protect this amazing place.
I really enjoyed becoming more deeply connected to our volunteer Water Reporters. Their posts track important issues and give us a great view of what is happening around the Bay. Working with Community Engagement Coordinator Sarah Lyman, I spent some socially-distanced time with Water Reporters, following up with them as they tracked algae blooms, marsh conditions, reported pollution, and posted about other changes they were seeing in the Bay. It’s awesome knowing that there is a whole team of people in the community helping with our Baykeeping work.
Our Continuous Monitoring Station has been collecting hourly data on the health of the Bay for more than four years.
Data from the station show that this summer has been the hottest one we have recorded since our “Cage of Science” has been in the water.
This graph compares water temperatures from 2016 to this month. The lavender-colored line represents the daily averages for this year.
Staff Scientist Mike Doan says “The data are concerning. This summer’s temperatures were on average the warmest we have seen at the station.”
You can find the most recent data for all the parameters we measure at our Cage of Science here.
In addition to collecting hourly data, for nearly 30 years, we have been spot-checking sites in the Bay. The temperature data from our three Sentinel Sites (see graph below for annual average, data collected May through October each year) show an upward trend as temperatures in Casco Bay have risen by 2.4° Fahrenheit [1.3° Celsius].
“Casco Bay is changing and changing quickly,” reports Executive Director Cathy Ramsdell. “That’s why we have launched the Climate Change and Casco Bay Fund, which will help us put two more Continuous Monitoring Stations in the water, one near Portland and one near Harpswell, and operate all three stations for ten years.”
The $1.5 million Climate Change and Casco Bay Fund will be used over the next decade to understand the ways in which our waters are changing, while we engage the community in assessing and adapting to climate change. Friends of Casco Bay has raised 87% of its goal for the Fund. You can read more about the Fund, our 10-year plan, and make a secure donation here.
Before we started monitoring the water quality of Casco Bay, no one knew how healthy or polluted the Bay actually was. Thanks to the data we have been collecting at dozens of shoreside and offshore sites, we can state that the water temperature of Casco Bay has risen by 2.5°F, on average, since 1993.
Our long-term data set is enhanced by our Continuous Monitoring Station that has been monitoring the health of the Bay hourly, 365 days a year, since 2016. Anchored below a pier in Yarmouth, it provides the frequent, high-volume stream of data necessary to accurately track changes that may impact the oysters, clams, lobsters, and eelgrass within the Bay.
“Climate change is happening so rapidly, we needed to add to the way we collect data,” observed Research Associate Mike Doan. Since July 20, 2016, our Continuous Monitoring Station has been gathering data around the clock, all year long. Each month, we post information on 10 measures that document water quality at our monitoring site in Yarmouth, near the coastal midpoint of Casco Bay.
Our Monitoring Station is fondly nicknamed the “Cage of Science” because its high-tech sensors are housed inside a converted lobster trap. These instruments measure temperature, salinity, oxygen, pH, carbon dioxide, and more.
These data help us gain new insights—and new questions–on the health of the Bay. Others are finding these data useful, too. Scientists use our data to inform their own research. Policy makers refer to our data to support legislative action on climate change. Classroom teachers have their students analyze our data to launch discussions on what humans can do to improve water quality. Recently, we discovered that young visitors to the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine measure the temperature and salinity of the Museum’s touch tank and compare their readings to our real-world data on Casco Bay.
We have posted our data online for all to see. Visit cascobay.org to see for yourself how Casco Bay is changing month by month.
The news media have recently reported on our plan to expand our array of Continuous Monitoring Stations to get a better understanding of the dynamics of Casco Bay:
Peering over the side of the R/V Joseph E. Payne, Staff Scientist Mike Doan could see schools of small fish swimming in the water below, while the red hood of a lion’s mane jellyfish floated by on the other side of our Baykeeper boat. What caught Mike’s eye, however, was… Read more
More than 700 Friends have contributed $1.5 million to help maintain three stations for a decade. Casco Bay is invaluable to the economy and quality of life in Maine. Our coastal waters provide us with food, recreation, transportation, inspiration, and economic opportunities. But Casco Bay is changing and changing quickly.… Read more
As spring settles on Casco Bay, ospreys return to their nests, and alewives leave the sea and swim upriver to spawn in freshwater. The arrival of spring has always brought seasonal shifts to Casco Bay, but today climate change and human influences are impacting our coastal waters at a scale… Read more
We have great news to share: we reached the $1.5 million goal for our Climate Change and Casco Bay Fund for Technology, Monitoring, and Community Engagement! We launched the Fund to be used over the next decade to establish and maintain three oceanographic Continuous Monitoring Stations to collect data on… Read more
We are hosting an online event to share data from all three of our Continuous Monitoring Stations and to celebrate the ways the Climate Change and Casco Bay Fund will enhance our efforts to improve and protect the health of the Bay for years to come. On Wednesday, June 16,… Read more
As winter comes to a close and the days get longer, an annual awakening occurs in Casco Bay. Populations of phytoplankton – microscopic algae that form the base of the ocean food web – rapidly reproduce as longer days leave more time to harness the sun’s energy for photosynthesis. The… Read more
Summer is going swimmingly here at Friends of Casco Bay, and we have a lot of good news to share:
Our priority legislative bill to create a state-level Climate Change and Ocean Acidification Council was incorporated nearly word-for-word into the Governor’s comprehensive Climate Change Council bill. An Act to Promote Clean Energy Jobs and to Establish the Maine Climate Council passed with strong bipartisan support. In recognition of her yeoman’s work on this issue, Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca was invited to attend the bill signing by Governor Janet Mills on June 26th.
Our water quality sampling season is well underway, as we continue to add to our long-term dataset at 22 shoreside and deepwater sites around the Bay. You may see Research Associate Mike Doan and Casco Baykeeper Ivy making the rounds by land and by sea every few weeks from April through October.
July 20 marks the third anniversary of the launch of our Continuous Monitoring Station in Yarmouth. Our Monitoring Station is fondly nicknamed the “Cage of Science” because its high-tech sensors are housed inside a transformed lobster trap. The instruments measure temperature, salinity, oxygen, pH, and carbon dioxide.
Together, they collect data once an hour, every hour, year round. At this time of year, Mike has to scrape off a new array of marine hitchhikers whenever he hauls up the Cage of Science to download data.
‘Tis the season to think about what not to put on your lawn! With five workshops behind her, Associate Director Mary Cerullo has scheduled another five BayScaping presentations for August and beyond. She is happy to talk with neighborhood groups about green yards and a blue Bay.
There has been such a demand by community groups to volunteer for coastal cleanups and storm drain stenciling projects that Community Engagement Coordinator Sarah Lyman and summer intern Alexis Burns have been very busy. They already have hosted seven events with 106 participants who collected an estimated 238 lbs. of trash and stenciled 238 storm drains!
Our new pumpout boat, Headmaster, was launched on June 10th to pump raw sewage from the marine toilets of recreational boats. Captain Jim Splude, our congenial pumpout boat coordinator, can go about his business more efficiently now with a new boat that has more than twice the holding capacity of the old one.
Our Water Reporter volunteer project is expanding as we hoped and planned. Nearly 40 enthusiastic volunteers attended our Water Reporter training on June 24. Volunteers continue to sign up to keep watch over specific areas of the Bay.
July 10 was the first anniversary of Friends of Casco Bay’s launch of the Water Reporter app. To date, 162 volunteers in this observing network have made more than 500 posts. We call that a great start!
Thank you to everyone who made our Nabbing Nitrogen day a success!
We had 97 dedicated volunteers come out and 90 Nitrogen samples were collected!
To all of our Nabbing Nitrogen volunteers—THANK YOU for braving the chilly rain to sample with us. We were amazed by your enthusiasm and dedication.
We want to also thank the 55 boaters, kayakers, canoers, and paddleboarders who planned on Nabbing Nitrogen with us—we are sorry that the weather did not cooperate with us. The fog, mist, winds, and early morning rain made it unsafe to ask dozens of boaters and kayakers to cross the busy harbor. It was better to be safe than sorry.
You can see photos from the event on our Facebook Page. Thank you to our photographers Dave Dostie and Sonny McAlpin for capturing the day.
For those who signed up to be Nabbers: Since this is our first time completing this event, we would appreciate any feedback you have on the effort. If you signed up for the event, whether or not you participated, you can fill out our feedback form below or click here to open it in a new window. You can also email Sarah at slyman [at] cascobay [dot] org with any feedback you have.
Thank you to the businesses and organizations that allowed us to use their private access points on the water or sampled themselves: Centerboard Yacht Club, Chandler’s Wharf, DiMillo’s Restaurant and Marina, Gowen’s Marine, Maine State Pier, Portland Company, Portland Harbor Master, Portland Water District, Portland Yacht Services, South Port Marina, Sprague Energy, Sunset Marina, the U.S. Coast Guard, Union Wharf, and Waynflete.
Thank you to Mill Creek Hannaford and Gulf of Maine Research Institute for allowing us to use their parking lots as coordination sites. Thank you to Andy’s Old Port Pub for hosting our debriefing.
Our intern, Joshua Clukey, was essential in the success of this event. Thank you, Josh, for your tireless efforts.
Our Nabbing Nitrogen effort is a partnership between Friends of Casco Bay, Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the City of South Portland.
This project has been funded in part by Davis Conservation Foundation, Birch Cove Fund at Maine Community Foundation, Horizon Foundation, Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund, Elmina B. Sewall Foundation, Seth Sprague Educational and Charitable Foundation, RBC Blue Water Project, Casco Bay Estuary Partnership, the Bowdoin College Common Good Grant, and other generous supporters.
Sign up has been closed. We invite you to fill out our volunteer application to learn about our other volunteer opportunities and get put on our email list for the specific volunteer opportunities you are interested in.
Why are we picking on Nitrogen?
Too much nitrogen can turn Casco Bay from a healthy blue to a slimy green. All living things need nitrogen to grow, but an overdose can trigger excessive growth of nuisance algae, reduce water clarity, and lower oxygen levels. This process also releases carbon dioxide, creating acidic conditions that can make it harder for clams and mussels to build and maintain their shells.
By nabbing nitrogen with us, you will help us map nitrogen levels in the Fore River and Portland Harbor—one of the most heavily populated regions in the state. This may allow us to identify problem areas and explore sources of pollution. This effort will provide the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) with data needed to ground truth its nitrogen model, used to predict nitrogen sources and distribution in this region. Your effort will help our advocacy efforts to establish a limit on how much nitrogen may be discharged into coastal waters.
Where does nitrogen pollution come from?
Excess nitrogen comes into Casco Bay from three different sources, almost in equal proportion—from sewage, from stormwater runoff, and from air pollution (see pie chart). Water quality sampling by Friends of Casco Bay has shown that nitrogen pollution is most severe in areas that are close to shore, near river mouths, at sewer overflow pipes, and other locations where stormwater runoff reaches the Bay. That is why we have created this event to “Nab Nitrogen.”
Nitrogen is contained in human, pet, and animals wastes, in decaying plants and animals, and is released during the combustion of fossil fuels. Sewage discharges from wastewater treatment plants, combined sewer overflows, and leaky septic systems add nitrogen from human waste. Stormwater runoff from land flushes oil and dirt from paved surfaces, pet wastes, and fertilizers from lawns, farms, parks, golf courses, into the ocean. Nitrogen also descends from tailpipes and smokestacks, chimneys, and power plants.
Why at this date and time?
Sampling on an outgoing tide is the best time to measure the influence of land-based sources of nitrogen pollution to Casco Bay. We hope 130 community members, especially sea kayakers and boaters, will volunteer and sample simultaneously at 10:10 a.m., just before low tide. These samples will help us create a snapshot of nitrogen concentrations in the Fore River and Portland Harbor, allowing us to better understand land-based sources of nitrogen pollution in this region of Casco Bay.
How many sites can I sample?
I can’t sample at 10:10 a.m. on July 10. How can I participate?
Nitrogen Nabbing can be done only at the specified time so that samples are collected simultaneously, to help us create the snapshot. If you want to help out with preparation in the weeks prior to the sampling event, there are other ways for you to be involved. Emailslyman [at] cascobay [dot] org to let us know you are interested.
Why are you sampling only in the Fore River and Portland Harbor?
The Maine DEP is refining a model on nitrogen inputs into our coastal waters and needs more data in the Fore River and Portland Harbor. By nabbing nitrogen, you are helping ground truth this model while helping cities, like Portland and South Portland, identify sources of nitrogen moving into Casco Bay.
While this initial effort on July 10 will take place only in Portland and South Portland, we hope to nab nitrogen in the future, in other communities around Casco Bay.
What ifweather is an issue?
In case of dangerous weather, you will be asked to monitor our website www.cascobay.org for any notifications regarding weather conditions. Please provide us with a cell phone number that we can text to reach you. Weather contingencies include the following:
• If there is a small craft advisory, we will nab only by land and not by sea.
• If heavy weather is predicted or approaching (hurricane, thunderstorms), we will reschedule the effort to July 24 from 6 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. (on that day sampling will take place at 8:24 a.m. due to the difference in tides).
What if I have some other issue that arises on July 10?
Please call our office at (207) 799-8574 in the event that you need any help with any contingencies that may arise.
When will we see the results, the snapshot of nitrogen levels in Portland Harbor on July 10?
The samples will be frozen and sent to a laboratory for analysis. After we receive the results, we will construct a map, plotting the various levels of nitrogen at sites around the harbor. We expect to be able to share the results this fall.
What can I do to prevent nitrogen pollution?
Don’t use fertilizers on your lawn.
Plant or retain bushes and trees to keep water from running off your property and into waterways. Go to cascobay.org/bayscaping for more tips on how to grow a green yard to keep Casco Bay blue.
Conserve energy, both in terms of electrical usage and gasoline consumption decreases the nitrogen oxides that lead to acid rain formation.
Buy local—locally produced goods have not been transported significant distances, reducing gas consumption and refrigeration during transportation, which also decreases nitrogen emissions.
Eat organic foods. Because they are not treated with commercial fertilizers, further decreasing nitrogen pollution.
Maintain your septic system by having an annual inspection of the tank and having regular pump outs by a licensed professional.
Empty your boat’s holding tank at a pumpout facility at your marina or through Friends of Casco Bay’s mobile pumpout service.
Burn less oil, wood, and coal to reduce pollution from smokestacks.
Keep your car tuned up to reduce pollution from tailpipes.
This effort is a partnership between Friends of Casco Bay, Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the City of South Portland.
This project has been funded in part by Davis Conservation Foundation, Birch Cove Fund at Maine Community Foundation, Horizon Foundation, Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund, Elmina B. Sewall Foundation, Seth Sprague Educational and Charitable Foundation, RBC Blue Water Project, Casco Bay Estuary Partnership, the Bowdoin College Common Good Grant, and other generous supporters. You can support this effort by making a donation here.