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!
Data collected over the past decade by Friends of Casco Bay has revealed a significant downward trend in pH in bottom water samples at our sentinel sites, as well as a marked difference in nitrogen concentrations between nearshore and offshore sites.
What’s a Sentinel Site?
Friends of Casco Bay’s staff scientists collect water quality data from the surface to the bottom year round at ten profile sites across Casco Bay. In some months, especially during the winter, bad weather prevents us from getting to all ten sites. Even so, as stalwart mariners, we have managed to visit three of the ten sites every month of the year for over 23 years. We call these sites our sentinel sites. We chose to analyze data from the bottom depths of these three sites, where conditions are less affected by wind, waves, and weather:
Broad Sound, our deepwater site
Clapboard Island, Falmouth, our “suburban” site
Fort Gorges, our “urban” site in Portland Harbor
pH Is an Important Factor
pH is a measure of the acidity or alkalinity of water. The pH scale is logarithmic, ranging from 0 to 14. Each whole pH value below 7 (neutral) is ten times more acidic than the next higher value. Though seawater at 8.2 is basic, the ocean’s chemistry is shifting toward the acidic side of the pH scale.
In coastal systems, many factors contribute to variations in pH. The major driver of pH change in seawater is the addition or removal of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide and water react to form carbonic acid. The more carbon dioxide, the more acidic the water (and the lower the pH), while the removal of carbon dioxide reduces acidity (and pH is higher). Carbon dioxide is added and removed from seawater in a number of ways, some of which are naturally occurring and some of which are exacerbated by human activity.
Oxygen is essential to marine life. Friends of Casco Bay staff and volunteers test for dissolved oxygen, a measure of how much oxygen is available to marine life. Generally, dissolved oxygen values in Casco Bay are good. But not all areas of the Bay have healthy oxygen levels all the time. The lowest oxygen levels can be found during the early morning in the late summer at river mouths and narrow embayments. In these locations, Friends of Casco Bay has detected oxygen levels that would cause fish, lobsters, and other marine life to be stressed or killed. Low levels of dissolved oxygen in the water contributed to massive die-offs of pogies in the upper New Meadows River and Quahog Bay in the early 1990s. Long-time residents of eastern Casco Bay still remember the awful smell of rotting fish from those die-offs.
The pH of Water in Casco Bay Varies Between Night and Day
Algae can have a huge influence on pH levels in the water. On a daily basis, seaweed and phytoplankton photosynthesize, taking up carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen; this process causes pH to rise throughout the day. But at night, during respiration, algae take up oxygen and release carbon dioxide into the seawater, which lowers pH. These two processes generally result in lower pH in the morning, after a night of respiration, and steadily higher pH by late afternoon. Much of the variability of pH in Casco Bay can be explained by changes caused by photosynthesis during the day and respiration at night. Since oxygen is produced through photosynthesis and removed by respiration, we can see the dynamic in our data when we compare levels of dissolved oxygen in the water to pH: the higher the oxygen levels, the higher the pH; the lower the oxygen levels, the lower the pH. This data is available because of the efforts of our intrepid water quality volunteers, who sample both at 7 a.m. and then again at 3 p.m. on scheduled monitoring days.
The swing in pH from morning to afternoon—the diurnal difference—can be an indication of productivity. The more algae in the water, the greater the diurnal change. A healthy and productive water body will have a relatively modest change in pH from morning to afternoon, but a large swing in pH may indicate that a site is overly productive, or eutrophic. This happens when excess nitrogen over-stimulates algal growth.
The pH of Water in Casco Bay Varies Seasonally
Seasonally, mean pH on a monthly basis drops over the course of the summer. Two dynamics are in play. As waters warm during the summer, mean pH values decline. In addition, algae blooms peak in the spring, then die and decompose through the summer into early fall. Bacteria responsible for decomposition respire and add carbon dioxide to the water and sediments. The overall effect is gradually declining pH values as we head into fall.
Our Staff Is on the Bay Year Round
Friends of Casco Bay staff scientists use our Baykeeper boat to sample our research sites monthly, all year long. By January, our vessel is usually the only boat left in the slips at Breakwater Marina, South Portland. Bundled up in work suits lined with flotation gear, Citizen Stewards Coordinator Peter Milholland and Research Associate Mike Doan shovel snow off the deck and leave early to complete the 75 nautical-mile circuit of the Bay by nightfall. Many winter mornings the air is colder than the ocean, creating a bank of sea smoke that wraps around the islands. The only other vessels encountered are commuter ferries, Coast Guard boats, and oil tankers, their bows caked with frozen sea spray. Our boat stops at each sampling station for about 20 minutes, long enough for hands to become numb. “It’s important to sample all year round in order to understand the overall health of Casco Bay,” explains Peter. By the time the crew returns to Breakwater Marina, the last rays of the setting sun momentarily blind them, a final reminder that nothing is easy on the water in winter. Yet, these stewards agree that being on Casco Bay at this time of year is magical.
Big Daily Swings in pH Can Spell Trouble
While we expect pH to be variable, large changes in pH over the course of a day can be cause for concern. The average diurnal difference of pH in Casco Bay is about 0.1 pH units. However, some of our monitoring sites experience an average diurnal difference of as much as 0.3 units—this is a huge swing. This indicates that parts of the Bay could be eutrophic, meaning those regions will suffer from lower oxygen levels, increased carbon dioxide levels, increased acidity levels, nuisance algae outbreaks, and potential fish and shellfish die-offs.