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Many eyes keep watch on Casco Bay

Casco Baykeeper Ivy Frignoca is our watchdog on the health of the Bay. She is on or along the water as much as possible, even in her spare time. But she can’t be everywhere. Ivy says, “We rely upon our volunteers to be our extra eyes on the Bay. Increasingly, volunteers are joining me in using the Water Reporter app to share what they are seeing. These reports make a difference!” Over the span of a year, more than 190 volunteers have made 837 posts about the Casco Bay Watershed.

Here are some examples:

A Water Reporter captured a potential pollution incident–a large accumulation of fish scales in the water. The posting, complete with the time, location, and photo, led to action by a state agency to stop discharges of fish processing wastewater into the Fore River.

In keeping with our focus on climate change, we encourage volunteers to use Water Reporter to monitor sea level rise. Chronicling King Tides, the highest tides of the year, gives us a glimpse of the future. The photos document current coastal flooding, such as submerged streets and eroding beaches. These images help us all visualize what the “new normal” high tides may look like as sea levels continue to rise, such as the disappearing beach at Winslow Park, Freeport, on August 4 and the pier at Little Diamond island on the same date.


Says Ivy, “Water Reporter is a two-way conversation about protecting Casco Bay.” For example, a Water Reporter post on July 10th caught the attention of Angie Brewer of the Marine Unit staff at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). The DEP staff went out to investigate themselves. Here’s the post and the exchange with a Water Reporter that followed. Click on the image to be taken to the Water Reporter website for easier reading.


Another DEP staff person, Wendy Garland, Nonpoint Source Program Coordinator, asked for more details after spotting a post by our summer intern Alexis Burns who regularly monitored algae growth at several sites around South Portland last summer.

You can join our Water Reporter network to share observations of things you are seeing on the Bay, both good and bad, all year long. The more of us who are keeping watch on the health of the Bay, the better protected our waters will be.

Have you seen this fin?

It’s not a shark! It’s the fin of a Mola mola, or ocean sunfish. One of our staff members spotted this huge fish in mid-August, just off Little Mark Island near Bailey Island, Harpswell. He shared a photo of it with our Water Reporter network. Since then, we have spotted several more of these disk-shaped fish in our local waters. Sunfish are found in tropical and temperate waters, often in deeper water than Casco Bay.

Its common name of ocean sunfish comes from the creature’s habit of lying on its side at the surface, possibly waiting for seabirds to nibble on its array of parasites. Or it may be warming in the sun after a deep dive in search of jellyfish and other gelatinous creatures. One of the aspects that makes it endearing is that its big eyes and O-shaped mouth make it appear to be in a perpetual state of surprise.

Its scientific name, Mola, is Latin for millstone — a large round stone used to grind grain. It also describes this fish’s shape, which can reach 6 to 10 feet across.

We welcome all sorts of reports of what you are seeing around Casco Bay, good and bad. Many Water Reporters use hashtags to organize their observations. To see a map of all the #wildlife posts shared with our group, click here.

Mount Desert Islander posted this story about the Mola mola just yesterday, if you want to read more.

Is it good green or bad green?

Many thanks to our Volunteer Water Reporters for keeping an eye on algal blooms—and other concerns around Casco Bay.

We shared these things to think about as they surveyed conditions around the Bay this summer. We are sharing it here as others may be interested as well.

A little algae is a good thing.

Nitrogen is one of the three most important “food groups” for plants. It is also one of the primary components of fertilizer, along with phosphorus and potassium. In the ocean, nitrogen is generally the critical element needed for plant growth. Algae, ranging in size from microscopic phytoplankton to sinuous seaweeds, form the base of the ocean food web.

Too much algae—when it covers a large area of the flat—is cause for concern.

Excess nitrogen can stimulate algal growth beyond healthy amounts for the ecosystem.

Nuisance algal blooms can cover tidal flats with a thick carpet of “green slime,” smothering animals below the mat and preventing juvenile clams from settling into the mud. Large phytoplankton blooms can reduce water clarity.

When the algal mats die, they release carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide mixes with sea water to create carbonic acid, in a process known as coastal acidification. Coastal acidification changes water chemistry and can make it harder for shellfish such as oysters, clams, and mussels to build and maintain their shells.

For more information on excess nitrogen and green algae visit cascobay.org/our-work/science/nuisance-algal-bloom-tracking.

Observing and recording observations of an area regularly helps us track algal blooms around the Bay

We want to see images of algae from the small amounts to “concerning” amounts because we can’t predict where and when an outbreak may become a nuisance algal bloom.

To better document and track algal blooms spreading to worrisome levels, we encourage Water Reporters to choose a specific location to observe weekly, ideally an hour before or after low tide. More details at cascobay.org/water-reporter/#WRalgalblooms.

Go back every week—just not at the same time on the same day the next week! The time of low tide differs every week. For example, if it is low tide at 10 a.m. one Wednesday, low tide will be closer to 4 p.m. the following Wednesday. The tidal cycle changes by about 52 minutes each day. Tide charts can help you plan your visit: https://me.usharbors.com/monthly-tides/Maine-Southern%20Coast or use a tide app. You do not need to visit on the same day each week.

Green is really good news when it is eelgrass! 

The presence of eelgrass is a sign of healthy water, so share photos using another hashtag: #eelgrass.

Share your #eelgrass posts in celebration of healthy marine waters! We also want posts of places that used to have eelgrass but don’t now.

Eelgrass (Zostera marina) is one of the few flowering plants found in the ocean. It grows in shallow water on sandy or muddy bottom, and its long blades grow to 30 centimeters (11 inches) or more. Eelgrass needs clean, clear water to grow, so the presence of eelgrass is a visible sign that water quality is healthy in a location.

How do you tell the difference between eelgrass and green algae?

Eelgrass is usually a less bright green than green algae and is usually underwater. You may see it at the water’s edge at low tide, when the tops of the blades may be seen floating on the surface, as seen in the photo above. In contrast, green algae is usually further up the shore and is often exposed at low tide.

The image to the right shows eelgrass that has been washed ashore. From a distance, this can look like a green algal bloom.

Why do we love eelgrass?

  • It provides essential habitat for fish, crabs, and shellfish
  • It produces oxygen
  • Its roots anchor sediments
  • Its long, flowing leaves dampen wave action
  • It improves water quality by tempering the effect of ocean acidification because eelgrass captures and stores carbon dioxide.

Because eelgrass is such important habitat, it is essential to not disturb or trample it!

“A drowned island of shelter and security for many animals” is how Rachel Carson described the sinuous sea meadows that grow just beneath the surface of the Bay. Many commercially-important species, including flounder, striped bass, cod, lobsters, crabs, mussels, and scallops, use eelgrass beds as a nursery area, feeding ground, or refuge from predators. Dead eelgrass decomposes into a “sea soup” that is an essential part of the marine food web.

 

Get close! A close-up photo can help us to identify the green growth. 

Be careful where you step. We don’t want you falling and getting hurt, treading on private property, or damaging growing eelgrass.

 

Thank you to our Water Reporters!