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Volunteers do a great service to Casco Bay

Citizen Stewards received recognition for milestones in Water Quality Monitoring: John Todd, Michelle Brown, Debora Price, Sheila McDonald, Dick Stevens and Erno Bonebakker. Photograph by Kevin Morris

More than 125 volunteers and supporters of Friends of Casco Bay came to the Volunteer Appreciation Celebration on January 23to recognize those who give their time to monitor the water quality of the Bay, clean up shorelines, stencil storm drains, participate in community outreach events, and serve on its Board.

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At the event, ten Citizen Stewards received recognition for milestones in Water Quality Monitoring. Sarah Lyman, Community Engagement Coordinator for Friends of Casco Bay, recognized each of the honorees, remarking, “There is so much power and synergy in being able to connect data and connect people.”

 

Those recognized for their milestones in service:

Erno Bonebakker (25 Years)

Erno has been volunteering since 1993, the first full year of the Friends of Casco Bay’s water quality monitoring program. He and his family moved here from California in 1988, and within a week, Erno attended a meeting about the health of Casco Bay. His passion for Casco Bay has only deepened as he continues to explore, study, and care for it. He divides his time between Chebeague Island and Portland.

 

Dick Stevens (15 Years)

Dick Stevens has been active in the Gulf of Maine Ocean Racing Association and the Portland Yacht Club–winning a few trophies along the way. Sailing the coast and kayaking the lakes and rivers of Maine has given Dick a closer appreciation of the delicate nature of this rugged environment. This inspired him to volunteer as a Citizen Steward for Friends of Casco Bay.

 

Sheila McDonald and Debora Price (10 Years)

Sheila MacDonald and Debora Price have shared a sampling site at Mere Point Boat Launch in Brunswick, where they have found enthusiastic support whenever they explained why they were sampling the water quality of Casco Bay. Sheila serves as deputy director of the Maine State Museum. Debora is retired after teaching, owning a local real estate business, and co-founding an eldercare service, Neighbors, Inc.

 

Michelle Brown (5 Years)

Michelle has a professional background in wildlife management and natural resource conservation. Throughout her career, she has witnessed the power of volunteers and volunteering, so when she and her husband moved to Peaks Island, she was delighted to find out about the Friends of Casco Bay Citizen Stewards Program and how the data that volunteers collect provide important information about the Bay.

 

Craig Burnell (5 Years)

Craig always knew he wanted to become involved in the sciences, studying and learning about our environment. He works at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences as a Research Associate in the Bigelow Analytical Services facility. When not working, he is likely to be training for his next bike race, which will include a race across the country this summer.

 

John Todd (5 Years)

John and his wife Cathie have summered in Phippsburg since the 1960s. They finally moved there full time in 2005 after John retired from a career in international development. They love living on The Basin, where they enjoy swimming and kayaking, especially with their grandchildren.

 

Jan Flinterman (5 Years)

Jan has shared coverage of a water quality site at The Basin, a saltwater inlet on the New Meadows River in Phippsburg, with John Todd and Jim Sidel. Data collected by Citizen Stewards helped convince the Maine Legislature to upgrade this popular anchorage to the highest level of water quality protection, Class SA.

 

Rob Sellin and Natalie West (5 Years)

Rob and Natalie spent many years sailing the world before arriving in Maine in 2011 aboard S/V Wilhelm, their 44-foot steel cutter. They settled in South Portland and have been sampling water quality at the pier at Southern Maine Community College since 2012. They sail the coast of Maine every summer, exploring the extraordinary bays and offshore islands of our state, often accompanied by their adult children and their grandchildren.

Keeping you up to date as we keep an eye on the Bay

Photograph by Kevin Morris

Casco Bay, like ocean water around the world, is changing and changing quickly.

We want you to know that we have changed our volunteer Citizen Stewards Program and our staff-led Water Quality Monitoring efforts in order to stay on top of the science of how the Bay may be changing.

When our organization started in 1989, no one knew the health of the Bay. That was the question we were asked—“How healthy is Casco Bay”—and that is what our first quarter-century of monitoring has enabled us to address.

Thanks to the data that hundreds of our volunteer Citizen Stewards have helped us collect over the past 25 years, in addition to data collected by our staff, we can identify where regions of the Bay are challenged, and where, generally speaking, the Bay is healthy. The snapshots of data volunteers collected are a key aspect of our Casco Bay Health Index and have been vital to our advocacy efforts. This 25-year data set has provided us with a solid foundation from which to launch this next phase of data collection.

Looking forward, our monitoring goals are to:

  • Understand how Casco Bay is changing with respect to climate change, ocean and coastal acidification, sea level rise, and other stressors
  • Conduct more intense data collection efforts in challenged regions of the Bay to try to understand why water quality is so poor, in places such as Portland Harbor and the mouth of the Harraseeket River
  • Involve more volunteers in our efforts to keep Casco Bay blue. While we are utilizing more technology to help us achieve our first two goals, technology will never replace the connections, energy, visibility, and goodwill that volunteers like you provide as ambassadors for the Bay.

In order to meet these goals, we are now monitoring Casco Bay through these four ways:

  1. Our Continuous Monitoring Station collects hourly data to help us address the question “How is Casco Bay changing?” We launched this station more than a year ago, and we are excited about how much we have learned about the Bay in a short time. We intend to keep this Station operating in perpetuity.
  2. Using data sonde technology, our staff will continue to collect data at 12 legacy volunteer Citizen Steward sites—these sites were chosen as representative of regions around the Bay and include healthy sites, challenged sites, and those in between. We think of this monitoring as “the Bay getting a checkup.” How are regions of the Bay doing? Are healthy areas remaining healthy? Are challenged areas continuing to show problems, or might they be improving?
  3. Using our Baykeeper boat, our staff will conduct more intensive efforts in challenged regions of the Bay. If you have seen our Health Index, you have seen that there are “red dot” areas. We are looking closer at those red dot areas and asking, “what may be causing the trouble?” We began this work in 2017, as we conducted transects, from surface to bottom, and across regions, in Portland Harbor and in the Harraseeket River. We will continue to look intensively at these regions.
  4. Using volunteer citizen scientists, we will engage the community to help us collect data and observations on a changing Casco Bay. Our volunteer program is going through a large transition. We are significantly changing the time commitments required to become a citizen scientist, and we are changing the parameters that volunteers collect. We will be asking Citizen Steward Volunteers to collect new kinds of data and record observations on changes in Casco Bay.

In 2016, you may remember that we organized a citizen science “flash mob to Nab Nitrogen.” The event was an incredible success, signaling 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 learned that we can count on our community to help us grab vast amounts of data if we make sampling easier and reduce the time commitment.

For example, we are piloting having volunteers measure the color of our waters as a biological indicator. The general public often considers blue water to indicate healthy oceans and dirty-brown water to indicate polluted water. In fact, scientists attest to color being an excellent indicator of what is happening in our oceans. For more than a century, marine scientists have used the Forel-Ule scale to document the color of oceans and lakes.

The color of our water, measured by this scale, can be an excellent environmental indicator. By using a specially designed smartphone app and a secchi disk, volunteers can help us collect scientific data on the color and clarity of our waters. The protocols for this data collection are easy to follow, and the data helps address a question we often hear: “How is the Bay changing?”

We will also ask volunteers to help us observe and keep track of nuisance and harmful algal outbreaks, which have plagued our waters these past two summers.

By revamping our volunteer monitoring efforts, we have the opportunity to broaden our network of knowledgeable ambassadors for our coastal waters—and make strides in our understanding of the Bay.

In our experience, our volunteers are some of the most active, outspoken, and well-spoken members of our community. We look forward to engaging more volunteers than ever this year. The commitment of these volunteers will send ripple effects through towns around the Bay.

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.