Home » More Than 165 Volunteers Get Their Hands Wet for Casco Bay

More Than 165 Volunteers Get Their Hands Wet for Casco Bay

Friends of Casco Bay volunteers took part in Nabbing Nitrogen, a Clean Water Act day of action, collecting 178 water samples to help address nitrogen pollution

Alicia Richards, Friends of Casco Bay’s 2022 summer intern, scoops water into a sample jar at Nabbing Nitrogen. Samples collected at the Nab will improve our overall understanding of how much excess nitrogen is coming from various sources around the Bay.

More than 165 volunteers from 26 communities across the Casco Bay region converged on Portland Harbor on Sunday morning, August 7, as part of a major community science event called Nabbing Nitrogen. Friends of Casco Bay organized the Nab to collect much needed data on sources of nitrogen pollution in the Harbor. 

“Nitrogen pollution is a real threat to the health of Casco Bay,” says Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca. “We know that it comes from many different sources, such as urban streams, stormwater outfalls, combined sewer overflows, and wastewater treatment plants. By Nabbing Nitrogen, we can better understand how much these various sources are contributing to nitrogen pollution overall, and find solutions to address them.” 

At precisely 9:30 a.m., volunteers scooped water into sample jars from the shores of Portland and South Portland, as well as the harbor-facing shores of Peaks Island, Cushing Island, and Little Diamond Island. More than 50 volunteers collected water samples by boat and kayak in the harbor. Once collected, water samples were promptly put on ice to preserve sample quality before being sent to a laboratory for total nitrogen analysis. 

A chart of Portland Harbor shows the locations where Nabbing Nitrogen volunteers collected 178 water samples. Data from these samples will be used by Friends of Casco Bay to address nitrogen pollution.

For volunteer Nicole Favreau and her 8-year-old son, taking part in the Nab was a way to help care for the waters they both love. “My son is just beginning his obsession with fishing and he already understands that fish need healthy habitats to survive. Protecting this important estuary where he hopes to land the state’s largest striper someday is a priority for him,” says Nicole. “For us, the Nab was a great time to think about how we were just a small part of a big picture, helping to keep Casco Bay healthy.”

Friends of Casco Bay organized Nabbing Nitrogen as a day of action in honor of the 50th Anniversary of the Clean Water Act. The effort focused on Portland Harbor because it is showing signs of stress from nitrogen pollution. The data will be used to create a detailed map of nitrogen levels across the harbor, an exciting prospect for Staff Scientist Mike Doan.

“Having so many samples collected at the same moment will give us a comprehensive look at the levels of nitrogen pollution in the harbor,” says Mike. “We’re grateful to the volunteers who stepped up to help. The Nab was not a project our staff could do alone, it required scores of people working together.” 

Some algal blooms are so thick that they can smother mudflats and suffocate the marine life that lives in them. Josh Clukey, our 2016 summer intern, holds a clump of algae from a dense bloom in Mill Cove, South Portland.

The data from the Nab will support Friends of Casco Bay’s work with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to set nitrogen criteria for the state. These criteria will describe the levels of nitrogen that water bodies can safely absorb. They will also influence nitrogen discharge limits in Clean Water Act permits.  

Friends of Casco Bay Executive Director, Will Everitt, says that Nabbing Nitrogen showed the strength of our community. “For so many of us, Casco Bay is home. We understand that the health of the Bay and the health of our communities are intimately connected,” says Will. “In the age of climate change and warming waters, these Friends of the Bay showed that we are ready to help protect the health of the coastal waters that sustain us all.” 

Laboratory results from the Nab are expected in the coming months. We will keep you updated on the analysis of the data and our work to reduce nitrogen pollution moving forward. 

Why Does Nitrogen Matter?

Nitrogen is naturally found in marine waters. A healthy amount of nitrogen fertilizes algal blooms that form the base of the food chain in Casco Bay. But excess nitrogen from human sources such as wastewater, fertilizers, stormwater, and air pollution can cause excessive algal growth that harms the health of the marine environment. Some of the impacts of nitrogen pollution include shutting down shellfisheries, degrading eelgrass beds (which are critical fish nursery habitat), exacerbating coastal acidification, and lowering oxygen levels.