It takes a community to protect the health of the Bay! Please come celebrate with us.
On July 20, 2016, our Continuous Monitoring Station began recording data hourly, 365 days a year. We are excited to share the first two and half years of data, collected at our water quality monitoring site in Yarmouth, near the coastal midpoint of Casco Bay. We will update these graphs monthly, so come back often and see for yourself how Casco Bay is changing.
Friends of Casco Bay’s newest workhorse—our Continuous Monitoring Station (CMS)—has been amassing hourly data on the health of the Bay for over two years now.
Research Associate Mike Doan is excited to be able to look at the daily, weekly, and seasonal changes in the Bay in far more detail than ever before. Mike was able to make comparisons between the first two years of data, comparisons we will continue tracking year to year. For example, the graph above shows nuances we could not have documented before:
A. The period of late summer-early fall of 2016 was warmer than the same time period in 2017.
B. The winter of 2017-18 turned colder earlier, with water temperatures dropping below 0°C before the end of December. In the previous winter, water temperatures did not drop below 0°C until late January.
C. Overall, spring and summer of 2018 were warmer than the same periods the year before.
On July 20, 2018, we marked the second anniversary of when our Continuous Monitoring Station began recording data off Yarmouth near the coastal midpoint of Casco Bay. The data are providing insights into how climate change and ocean acidification may be affecting the health of our waters.
The Station consists of a modified lobster trap that houses a data sonde and a carbon dioxide sensor, instruments that collect data on many different aspects of water conditions.
Mike is the architect of our Cage of Science. “It’s been a lot of work to get to this point,” admits Mike, “and it is exciting to see the quality and quantity of data we are collecting.” Colleagues have taken notice of how he has been able to outfit an electronic station with accurate, high-tech monitoring equipment at reasonable cost. Several scientists already are using the continuous data.
We look forward to building the long-term data set that will provide a more complete picture of a changing Casco Bay, information that can help our communities assess, mitigate, and adapt to those changes.
Thanks to support from Casco Bay Estuary Partnership and generous donors, our Continuous Monitoring Station collects data once an hour, every hour, year round.
What signs tell you that spring has arrived? Grass turning green? A robin in your yard? Ospreys returning to their nests?
What about huge blooms of phytoplankton in Casco Bay?
The chlorophyll fluorescence measurements in the graph above were recorded by our Continuous Monitoring Station, which has been in place for almost two years.
Chlorophyll fluorescence is a measure that provides an estimate of phytoplankton abundance. Chlorophyll is the green pigment in plants that traps the energy of the sun for photosynthesis.
The graph tells us that this year’s spring bloom of phytoplankton started around the same time as last year, but was bigger in magnitude this year than in 2017.
Why do we care about chlorophyll levels? Phytoplankton are the single-celled plants that make up the foundation of the ocean food web. Phytoplankton also provide half of all the oxygen we breath—so thank phytoplankton for every other breathe you take. You can read more about phytoplankton and chlorophyll in our recent post.
Every hour and every day, the Continuous Monitoring Station—a.k.a our “Cage of Science”—is building a more complete picture of the seasons beneath the Bay. Thanks to support from Casco Bay Estuary Partnership and generous donors, the Station collects measurements of temperature, salinity, pH, dissolved oxygen, carbon dioxide, and chlorophyll fluorescence year-round. Every other week, Research Associate Mike Doan cleans and calibrates the equipment, and downloads and graphs the data to track conditions in the Bay.
It may be hard to believe if you have spent any time outside this chilly winter, but spring likely has sprung in the waters of Casco Bay.
By January, the lengthening daylight has jumpstarted the growth of phytoplankton, the single-celled plants that are the foundation of the ocean food web. Like plants on land, they respond to increasing sunlight by bursting into bloom. By mid-February, daylight has increased by over an hour since December 21st, and the phytoplankton are flourishing.
Last January, 2017, there was an early bloom of phytoplankton in Casco Bay. How do we know? Friends of Casco Bay maintains an underwater sentinel that collects information about the water of the Bay every hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It is our Continuous Monitoring Station.
We will soon be crunching the January-February 2018 data, looking for confirmation of this year’s phytoplankton bloom.
A modified lobster trap houses a carbon dioxide sensor and a data sonde, electronic devices that continually take the pulse of the Bay. Together, they provide evidence of how our coastal waters may be changing over time. This long-term monitoring station, fondly known as “the Cage of Science,” is anchored just above the sea floor off Cousins Island in Yarmouth.
We now have over a year of hourly data on oxygen levels, carbon dioxide, pH (the level of acidity of the water), salinity, temperature, water clarity, water depth, and chlorophyll fluorescence, a measure that provides an estimate of phytoplankton abundance. Chlorophyll is the green pigment in plants that traps the energy of the sun for photosynthesis.
Phytoplankton provide food for the smallest zooplankton. These tiny floating animals are eaten by larger zooplankton, such as copepods, shrimplike creatures. Both phytoplankton and zooplankton are at the mercy of the currents, winds, and tides.
The data from the Continuous Monitoring Station documents the changes in the water’s chemistry as a result of these blooms. The net positive effect in Casco Bay over the course of the spring season is more oxygen and less acidic water, thanks to those early-blooming phytoplankton.
Beyond Casco Bay, in the Gulf of Maine, a circular current called a gyre distributes marine life around the Gulf. The gyre transports phytoplankton to where zooplankton are hatching, just in time to feed emerging copepods, which in turn feed baby fish, clams, and other sea creatures.
Success in the ocean food web, like in much of life, depends on being in the right place at the right time.
Our Continuous Monitoring Station has been in place for about a year and a half, too soon perhaps to provide data that might indicate whether or not Casco Bay’s food web is changing. Still, every hour and every day, our cage of science is building a more complete picture of the seasons beneath the Bay, giving us insight into how climate change may alter the food web of our coastal water in years to come.
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.
More than 125 volunteers and supporters of Friends of Casco Bay came to the Volunteer Appreciation Celebration on January 23, to 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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
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
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.