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The looming question for the future— How is Casco Bay changing?

Photograph by Kevin Morris • Aerial support provided by LightHawk

We see water itself as fundamental habitat. When water quality deteriorates, eelgrass, plankton, clams, and other marine creatures suffer. Thanks to our 25-year data set on water quality in Casco Bay, we now have a better overall understanding of the health of the Bay. We understand when and which areas of the Bay are likely to exhibit challenged water quality conditions.

Armed with this baseline data, we can now begin to address the question How is the Bay changing?—thus, the establishment last year of our first automated Continuous Monitoring Station. We will also continue to monitor selected sites at the surface, to supplement the historical data set compiled by our Citizen Stewards Program. And, we will look more intensively, using surface-to-bottom transects, at those regions of the Bay which present challenged conditions. New data and observations may help us begin to understand how climate change, excess nitrogen, and the changing chemistry of Casco Bay may be impacting the ocean food web.

Our Nabbing Nitrogen event in 2016 signaled to us that there is a huge reservoir of goodwill from people who want to help protect the health of the Bay and are willing to do that in short bursts of data collection efforts. We foresee new volunteer opportunities in this type of data collection, as well as in expanding other community service projects, such as coastal clean-ups, storm drain stenciling efforts, and issue-education events to inspire Champions for the Bay.

Citizen Steward volunteers will continue to be key to our organization as they help us move into this next phase of work to improve and protect the environmental health of Casco Bay. Casco Bay belongs to all of us, and this Bay is fortunate to have so many Friends.

Cathy L Ramsdell, CPA, CGMA
Executive Director

Cathy Ramsdell Interview

What we have learned from 25 years of water quality data

Since 1992, more than 650 volunteers have gotten their hands wet in our Citizen Stewards Water Quality Monitoring Program, complementing the work of our staff scientists in assessing the environmental health of Casco Bay. This science is the foundation of much of our community engagement and advocacy efforts.

Volunteer Citizen Stewards measured dissolved oxygen, temperature, salinity, water clarity, and pH at nearly 40 shoreside sites on the same date and time on ten Saturdays from April through October, to create a simultaneous snapshot of surface conditions around the Bay.

Our staff scientists have monitored offshore at 10 stations, from surface to sea floor, aboard our research vessel, every month of the year.

The data allowed us to address these questions:

  • How healthy is the Bay?
  • Where are problem areas?
  • What influences the health of the Bay?

 

What we have learned

  • Casco Bay is generally healthy, compared with other estuaries.
  • Year after year, our data has identified Portland Harbor, the New Meadows embayment, and the mouth of the Harraseeket River as the most environmentally challenged areas in Casco Bay.
  • The healthiest regions of the Bay are Broad Sound, Maquoit and Middle bays, and the offshore waters near Halfway Rock.
  • By sampling both along the shore and offshore, we determined that land-based origins contribute significant sources of excess nitrogen.
  • The bottom water of the Bay has become more acidic, a worrying trend that mirrors what is happening worldwide.
  • Summer is lasting longer beneath Casco Bay. Water temperatures are staying warmer into the fall.
  • In order to better understand how the Bay is changing, we are increasing the frequency of data collection.
Continuous Monitoring Station

Monitoring a Changing Casco Bay 365 Days a Year

Continuous Monitoring Station
When we haul up the Continuous Monitoring Station to download data and recalibrate the equipment, we also track marine creatures that may have found a home on our “cage of science.”

Covered with sea squirts, sea stars, and other marine hitchhikers, the newest member of our monitoring team looks like an abandoned lobster trap. It may be homely, but we are pretty impressed with what it does, collecting water quality data hourly, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It is our Continuous Monitoring Station, which will help us answer the question “How are our coastal waters changing over time?” Research Associate Mike Doan calls it “the cage of science.”

It has been just over a year since we placed a carbon dioxide sensor and a data sonde—an electronic device that records temperature, pH, and other characteristics of water quality—inside this modified lobster trap and moored it in healthy waters near the center of Casco Bay off Cousins Island in Yarmouth.

After one full year, we have over 8,760 hours of data on oxygen levels, carbon dioxide, pH (the level of acidity of the water), salinity, temperature, chlorophyll fluorescence (estimated phytoplankton abundance), water clarity, and water depth.

Thanks to our 26-year data set on water quality in Casco Bay, we understand when and which areas of the Bay are likely to exhibit challenged water quality conditions that require further study. Armed with this baseline data, we can now consider how to address the question, How is the Bay changing?

The steady flow of data from the Station already is helping us detect and document how climate change and emerging coastal stressors may be affecting the Bay. Hourly data helps us identify daily, seasonal,
and annual trends to better understand the extent to which ocean acidification may be impacting the water chemistry of Casco Bay. In future years, we hope to deploy two more “cages of science,” one in challenged waters in Portland Harbor and one near Harpswell to help detect the influence the Kennebec River has on Eastern Casco Bay.

What is a data sonde?
A data sonde, such as the one being used by Research Associate Mike Doan, is an oceanographic
monitoring instrument that takes multiple measurements of water quality simultaneously. In
addition to being used as part of our Continuous Monitoring Station, data sondes are used by
staff scientists in other water quality monitoring efforts from shore and by boat. The data is
downloaded to a computer and analyzed to provide a long-term picture of water quality over
time. We thank Casco Bay Estuary Partnership and our generous members for helping fund
our Continuous Monitoring Station’s first year.

Casco Bay: Then and Now

THEN—Sewage, Sappi, and oil spills

Early on in our history, Friends of Casco Bay confronted the fact that millions of gallons of raw sewage emptied into Casco Bay each year from overflowing sewer pipes. Sewage from boats was also a concern, leading us to establish a marine toilet pumpout service for recreational boats. Our advocacy for regulations to prevent cruise ships from discharging polluted water right at the dock helped make Casco Bay one of the most protected bays in the nation from vessel sewage and other wastewater.

We battled pollution on many fronts, all while building an organization based on scientific credibility and a “work with” approach. By pushing to enforce existing environmental regulations, we helped to eliminate the biggest source of pollution to Casco Bay—pulp wastes from the Westbrook paper mill. This wastewater sucked the oxygen from the Presumpscot River and delivered toxic water to Casco Bay.

As one of the busiest oil delivery ports on the East Coast, Portland needed to prepare for the very real possibility of an oil spill. Friends of Casco Bay lobbied for more training and cleanup equipment. This preparation enabled responders to recover 78% of the 180,000 gallons of oil spilled when the Julie N tanker hit the Casco Bay Bridge in 1996.

To learn about pollution in the past, click here.

NOW—Nitrogen pollution, ocean acidification, and sinking oil—threats we didn’t even think about a generation ago

Today, Casco Bay faces new challenges. Our research shows that parts of Casco Bay are acidic enough to dissolve juvenile clams. The cause? Carbon dioxide from emissions from tailpipes and smokestacks and nitrogen pollution from sewage discharges, fertilizers, and stormwater runoff. Excess nitrogen triggers algae blooms that result in more carbon dioxide and less oxygen in seawater.

We are again warning that Portland Harbor needs to be better prepared for an oil spill, including spills of heavy crude oils, which may sink to the bottom of the Bay, making our current cleanup tools ineffective.

We often say, “Think local, act local”, a mantra that we find ourselves using more and more, as local communities become the change agents for environmental activism/progress to combat pollution and climate change. We help municipalities craft ordinances on pesticides, plastics, stormwater pollution, and other issues that later are adopted by neighboring cities and towns.

While our focus remains Casco Bay, we recognize that global climate change threatens every water body, and indeed, every individual on the planet. The impact of rising seas, warming water, and acidifying oceans is truly a game changer, creating environmental and social challenges faster than anyone anticipated.

MOCA Partners

MOCA is on the Move

With increasing research showing that coastal acidification is a threat to Casco Bay, here’s what we’re doing about it.

The all-volunteer Maine Ocean and Coastal Acidification Partnership (MOCA) has held two symposia, organized working groups, and met with coastal legislators, all in its first year.

Why do scientists and sea farmers worry about acidifying seawater? Studies by researcher Dr. Mark Green and oyster grower Bill Mook have found that increasing the acidity of seawater can stress sea creatures such as clams, oysters, and mussels. Some shellfish farmers in Maine have already begun storing seawater to use during times when stormwater runoff makes the water unsafe for developing oysters.

Climate researchers have found that the ocean absorbs over 25% of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by smokestacks and tailpipes. This is called ocean acidification. In addition, carbon dioxide ends up in coastal waters from nitrogen pollution from fertilizers, pet wastes, stormwater runoff, and sewage discharges. This nitrogen overdose stimulates a population explosion of tiny phytoplankton. When these plants die and decay in bays and coves, bacteria consume oxygen and release carbon dioxide. This creates even more acidic conditions for coastal critters. This is called coastal acidification.

Dr. Mark Green of St. Joseph’s College in Standish, Maine, is a leading researcher on the impact of coastal acidification on clams. He has been testing how baby clams respond to mud from clam flats along our coast, including Casco Bay. He calls clams the “canaries in the coal mine.” Nitrogen runoff, he asserts, is hampering the ability of clams and oysters to build and maintain their shells. Dr. Green found that clam spat and baby clams simply dissolve at levels of acidity found in some parts of Casco Bay today. He calls this unfortunate condition “death by dissolution.”

Dr. Green’s experiments in the lab inspired us to investigate conditions in Casco Bay. In 2011, we sampled the pH (acidity) of the mud on about 30 clam flats around Casco Bay. In 2012 and 3013, we returned to one of those clam flats to monitor conditions every two weeks across three seasons and varied tide cycles to get a better understanding of how natural fluctuations impacted pH. We also put baby clams (spat) into “clam condos” into a clam flat in Freeport, protected from green clams by screens. After one week and two weeks in the mud, we found significant pitting in their shells, indicating that the shells were dissolving.

Coastal Acidification is one more stressor for shellfish species that already are challenged by other climate change impacts, such as predation by gluttonous milky ribbon worms and green crabs which flourish in warming waters. Red tides or other harmful algal blooms may close clam flats to shellfish harvesting for weeks or months each year. The density and duration of these harmful bloom events may be exacerbated by nitrogen runoff, which provides the nutrients to nourish the red tide organisms.

 

What are we doing about coastal acidification?

 

The good news is that we can do something to fight back against coastal acidification caused by nitrogen pollution. Says Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca, “It’s wonderful to work with so many scientists, harvesters, and policy makers who understand this issue and are working on it before coastal acidification becomes insurmountable.”

 

One way is to find out what we know and what we need to know about coastal and ocean acidification. Friends of Casco Bay and others realized we need a concerted effort to fight the effects of ocean and coastal acidification. In 2014, we participated in the Maine Ocean Acidification Study Commission, which issued a report to the Legislature in January 2015, recommending many actions to confront this threat to our fisheries and marine ecology in general, including establishing an on-going ocean and coastal acidification council.

 

Friends of Casco Bay worked with the Island Institute and University of Maine/Maine Sea Grant to create the Maine Ocean and Coastal Acidification Partnership (MOCA). MOCA volunteers partnership seek to:

  1. Implement recommendations of the Ocean Acidification Study Commission; and
  2. Coordinate the work of governmental agencies, private organizations, and citizens who are studying and implementing means to reduce the impacts of or help adapt to ocean and coastal acidification.

Here are some highlights of MOCA:

March 14, 2016

MOCA held its first meeting, attended by more than 30 scientists, policy makers, and harvesters.

 

June 29, 2016

MOCA hosted a day-long Ocean Acidification Symposium, attended by 110 people, including some of the state’s top researchers and policy makers. Scientists shared their field experiment data and compared notes.

 

November 16, 2016

MOCA hosted a second symposium focused on remediation and policy. More than 50 people gathered at the State House in Augusta to discuss the possibility of developing state/ federal water quality criteria related to coastal acidification. Ivy discussed how we might use existing regulatory tools to reduce nitrogen pollution that exacerbates coastal acidification. The participants formed subcommittees to create an action plan on next steps for confronting ocean acidification through research and legislation.

 

What’s next?

  • Education Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca is working with the MOCA Policy Subcommittee to help organize two MOCA symposia in 2017. They will educate interested citizens and decision makers on cutting-edge science and local and state policies that may be implemented to combat acidification
  • Uniform data collection is the goal of Friends of Casco Bay Research Associate Mike Doan and more than a dozen other scientists on the MOCA Monitoring Subcommittee. They will work together to coordinate and standardize monitoring equipment and procedures on data collection on acidification. This uniformity will provide better understanding of nitrogen inputs into coastal waters.

 

What can you do about coastal acidification?

  • Cut down or eliminate fertilizers on lawns, gardens, and farms.
  • Lobby for and support a town ordinance to limit the use of nitrogen-rich fertilizers.
  • Reduce rainwater runoff and improve sewage treatment.
  • Make sure septic systems are doing their job.
  • Join and/or volunteer with organizations to monitor coastal waters and educate the public.
  • Reduce carbon emissions by driving less or driving a less polluting vehicle
  • Support clean energy production such as solar and wind power
  • Support clean energy policies such as RGGI and the Clean Power Plan
Joan Benoit Samuelson, Friends of Casco Bay Board Member

Community Connection: Joan Benoit Samuelson

Joan Benoit Samuelson, Friends of Casco Bay Board Member
Joan Benoit Samuelson, Friends of Casco Bay Board Member

Friends of Casco Bay’s Board members are key partners in protecting Casco Bay.
Here’s how, in their own words:

Joan Benoit Samuelson:Having grown up in Cape Elizabeth near Casino Beach, spending many a summer on Cliff Island, and now living in Freeport with tidal frontage, I know that Casco Bay is changing. There is a lot of tangible evidence of climate change—an influx of invasive species, the decline of indigenous species, whether it’s due to green crabs or algae blooms caused by increased nitrogen.”

“Whatever the cause, can all pull an oar and do something to improve conditions in Casco Bay. We can make daily small changes, such as doing BayScaping, lawn care without using pesticides and fertilizers, and keeping stormwater from running off our yards and spaces.”

“It’s important to protect this resource. This place is a jewel. I realized early on that Casco Bay is connected to the world’s oceans when I threw a note in a bottle off Casino Beach (Cape Elizabeth), and it was picked up by a schoolteacher in England.”

“It’s a beautiful resource we all need to protect. Time and tide wait for no man—or woman. The time is now to take action.”

You can see how other community members are partnering with us to protect the Bay on our Community Connection page.

Seastars on Continuos Monitoring Station

Keeping an eye on the Bay 24/7

Seastars on Continuos Monitoring StationImagine working 8,760 hours a year. Friends of Casco Bay has two water quality monitors that do just that: a datasonde, an instrument that can measure several properties of water at once, and a specialized device that only measures carbon dioxide. They are anchored together on the ocean floor in Yarmouth to collect data once an hour, every hour, year round. Appropriately, these high tech tools comprise our new Continuous Monitoring Station. These hard workers have been in place since July 2016.

 

Why is this hourly data vital?

 

The steady flow of data our Continuous Monitoring Station collects will help us detect and document how climate change and other emerging coastal stressors may (or may not) be affecting the Bay. Hourly data will help us identify daily, seasonal, and annual trends and better understand the extent to which ocean acidification may be impacting the water chemistry of Casco Bay. The station may also help us assess sea level rise. The station collects data on oxygen levels, carbon dioxide (CO2), pH (the level of acidity of the water), salinity, temperature, chlorophyll, and water depth.

 

In order to ensure continuous data, we have two datasondes which are swapped and refreshed every two weeks. When he arrives at the dock in Yarmouth, Research Associate Mike Doan has less than an hour to reposition the alternate datasonde so that we don’t miss any of those 8,760 hours of information.

 

Mike hauls up the anchored devices, uploads data from the CO2 sensor to his laptop, and scrapes off marine hitchhikers such as sea stars, tunicates, and algae. “It’s amazing how fast sea creatures occupy any available surface, including our instruments!” says Mike. Before he leaves, he replaces the datasonde with one freshly calibrated and lowers the entire Continuous Monitoring Station back onto the ocean floor. Such attention to detail provides quality assurance that the data is accurate.

 

While this station is busy year around, we continue to enlist volunteers to help us understand the overall health of our marine waters and to identify troubled areas of the Bay. From April to October each year, more than 90 volunteer Citizen Stewards monitor scores of shoreside sites where they measure five parameters of the surface water: pH, salinity, water temperature, water clarity, and oxygen level. If you are interested in becoming a water quality monitoring volunteer, you can learn more about the program here or email Peter at pmilholland [at] cascobay [dot] org.

 

Our volunteers, staff scientists, and now our automated partners, all play a role in helping us to better understand what is going on in Casco Bay.

 

 

Thank you to funders of this project, including Casco Bay Estuary Partnership, Davis Conservation Foundation, Horizon Foundation, Schwartz Family Fund of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, and WEX. We also thank our Members and the many donors, local businesses, and foundations that give us operational support to do our work each year.

 

 

Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca uses science and policy to protect our Bay

Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca uses science and policy to protect our Bay

Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca uses science and policy to protect our Bay
Ivy Frignoca collects a water sample from Casco Bay on her first scientific research trip aboard the R/V Joseph E. Payne, in January 2016. Photo by Kevin Morris

“Challenging” is how Ivy Frignoca describes the grueling, seven-hour interview process for the position of Casco Baykeeper. “The Baykeeper Search Advisory Committee clearly put a lot of thought into all the attributes they wanted in the next Baykeeper.” Since joining the staff of Friends of Casco Bay in January 2016, Ivy has clearly demonstrated that she has quite enough stamina, commitment, and passion for the job!

In her first few months, she helped defeat a bad bill before the Legislature that would have weakened Maine’s Oil Spill Prevention Law, and met with coastal legislators to discuss pending marine-related bills. Ivy also met with Portland officials and the Portland Water District to discuss ways to deal with stormwater pollution. Ivy conducted many media interviews to highlight her focus on continuing Friends of Casco Bay’s work to reduce water pollution and to study and address climate change in our community.

Ivy helped advance statewide efforts to confront ocean acidification by working with others to create the all-volunteer Maine Ocean and Coastal Acidification Partnership, to coordinate the work of government agencies, academic institutions, resource harvesters, and nonprofit organizations that are studying ways to reduce the impact of— and how to adapt to—the changing chemistry of our ocean. They have put together a work plan and have been meeting to address how lower pH of sea water is affecting our shellfisheries and the overall health of our coastal waters.

Before Ivy came on board with Friends of Casco Bay, she worked on issues confronting our waters as an attorney at Conservation Law Foundation. Prior to moving to the Casco Bay region 26 years ago, she taught marine biology and ecology, interpreted natural history for park visitors, and advocated on behalf of Vermont state parks and forests.

Cathy Ramsdell, a leader with a plethora of skills to protect the Bay

Cathy Ramsdell, a leader with a plethora of skills to protect the Bay

Cathy Ramsdell, a leader with a plethora of skills to protect the BayIn 2015, Cathy Ramsdell, Executive Director and Casco Baykeeper Pro Tem, was featured in an exhibit at the Portland Public Library on women in maritime commerce, Staying the Course: Working Women of Portland’s Waterfront.

Cathy Ramsdell never imagined as a girl growing up in Belfast, Maine, as the first four-year Maine graduate of College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, as a CPA in Boston and Bangor, or as a private consultant to various entities over the years, that she would finally put down roots in southern Maine. Cathy has been the Executive Director for Friends of Casco Bay since 2003, half of the
organization’s 27-year history.

In 2015, in addition to dealing with the fiscal and managerial challenges of running a nonprofit with a full-time staff of 9 and more than 200 volunteers, she accepted the role of Casco Baykeeper Pro Tem. Cathy divided her time between board rooms and our Baykeeper boat, exploring ways to combat threats to the Bay from stormwater pollution and climate change.

Cathy was instrumental in helping to pass groundbreaking ordinances in Portland. She served on the City of Portland’s Green Packaging Taskforce. Two years of meetings resulted in two ordinances to reduce waste through a 5-cent fee on single-use shopping bags and a ban on polystyrene packaging (e.g., Styrofoam). In effect since April 2015, these ordinances have become models for other Maine communities. Cathy also worked with Portland officials to help draft a Stormwater Service Utility Fee to find a way to share the cost of upgrading the City’s sewer systems and stormwater protections more equitably.

At the state level, Cathy worked with both industry and environmental groups to pass a law phasing out plastic microbeads, used in personal care products like facial scrubs and toothpaste. These can pass through water treatment plants and may be ingested by fish and shellfish—and seafood lovers. Maine and other states passed bans that led to a federal law banning microplastics in
December 2015.