Science for Everyone


20th International Pectinid Workshop in Galway, Ireland

Conducting drop camera surveys on Muscle Ridge in 2013.

Conducting drop camera surveys on Muscle Ridge in 2013.

I booked my flight to Shannon, Ireland on St. Patrick's Day! In early March 2015, I found out that two abstracts I submitted on behalf of the scallop project team were accepted to be presented at the 20th International Pectinid Workshop in Galway, Ireland. The workshop has been organized around several themes including general scallop ecology and biology, aquaculture, fisheries management, and marine protected areas. The event will bring together scientists, managers, and others who work on scallop fisheries research. It provides an amazing opportunity to build my foundational knowledge on scallop biology, plus get some helpful hints on how to improve our project or other potential analyses to do to understand the effectiveness of small-scale closures in rebuilding the resident scallop population. I also have the opportunity to co-chair the plenary session - Marine Protected Areas with marine ecologist and fisheries biologist, Bryce Beukers-Stewart.

My oral presentation will be entitled, "The effect of small-scale closed areas on giant sea scallop populations in Maine" and the poster will focus on the collaborative project approach including lessons learned through working with a diverse group of fishermen, managers, and scientists. I am looking forward to writing additional blog posts to share what I learn while at the workshop. 

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Building Passive Drifters to Monitor Ocean Currents

This year the Eastern Maine Skippers Program students had a chance to build passive drifters with the help of Jim Manning (NOAA) and Cassie Stymiest (NERACOOS). Deploying passive drifters enables researchers to get a better sense of broad current patterns in different parts of the ocean, which is relevant to plankton researchers, teams reacting to oil spills, search and rescue teams, and other oceanographers. 

Passive Drifter track lines from drifters that are currently pinging out GPS locations

Passive Drifter track lines from drifters that are currently pinging out GPS locations

There are several examples where knowledge of currents from passive drifter data enabled teams to react and mitigate accidents. One significant incident occurred in March of 2011, when the Hooksett Wastewater Treatment Plant (Hooksett, NH) accidentally released several million small gridded plastic disks into the Merrimack River. These disks subsequently washed up along the coast of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Southern Maine. When the incident occurred, New Hampshire was able to ask for a model from the data collected by previous passive drifters to predict where the disks would end up. 

Another accidental passive drifter story happened in May of 1990 when 61,000 Nike shoes were released from a shipping container in the North Pacific. This was the largest (albeit accidental) release of drifters, and oceanographers were actually able to validate some of the models by looking at the data from where shoes were washing up. 

One of the reasons it is helpful to keep building, deploying, and tracking drifters from different locations is to add more data to oceanographic models. Although individual drifter paths at first glance seem to have a lot of variability, by averaging their collective movements scientists can gain a more accurate understanding of oceanographic patterns. Our ocean circulation is not fixed, and especially in the context of a changing climate it is important to see how the oceans are responding to warming waters and different wind patterns. 

Building passive drifters is simple and fun! The following are the main assembly steps that the skippers worked on during this workshop:

  1. Cutting and gluing the canvas sails
  2. Attaching grommets to the sails
  3. Assembling the central metal mast
  4. Assembling the mount to hold the GPS transmitter

The final step will be for students to attach the GPS transmitters to their drifters and deploying them so we can track their movements in Penobscot Bay!

We are also looking forward to helping out the drifter dataset by deploying a passive drifter during our Marine Biology program on Hurricane Island! Stay tuned! Want to set up and deploy your own passive drifter? Check out

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Climate Change Discussed at the 40th Fishermen's Forum

One of the annual highlights in March in Maine is the Fishermen's Forum, a 3-day event that includes seminars, a trade show, and different evening events such as a seafood dinner and auction. This March marked the event's 40th year, which is a testament to the importance of fisheries to Maine's economy and community identity. This is the 3rd year Hurricane Island has had a booth and attended seminars at the event, and we always look forward to meeting new people and learning more about the hot-button issues in Maine fisheries. On Saturday, March 7, 2015 I attended a session co-hosted by the Island Institute and the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) entitled “Forecasts, Tools, and Research to support Fisheries in Adapting to a Rapidly Changing Gulf of Maine." Speakers included staff from the Island Institute, GMRI, NERACOOS (Northeast Regional Association of Coastal and Ocean Observing System), and graduate students and professors from the University of Maine. The first half of the session focused on the changes that have been happening over the last few years in terms of warming waters and the resulting effects on oceanographic and biological processes, such as the earlier timing of the lobster shed following the Gulf of Maine "heat wave" in 2012 and the timing and strength of the spring and fall plankton blooms. Andy Pershing, GMRI Chief Scientific Officer, concluded that we can expect to see colder winters and warmer summers and falls which will continue to contribute to the overall warming trend in water temperatures in the Gulf of Maine. Dr. Pershing's model predicts that the result of warming temperatures will likely lead to lower cod recruitment and greater lobster landings. 

During the second half of the three-hour session, presenters highlighted tools that exist or are being developed to help individuals track change at various spatial and temporal scales. One notable tool is GMRI's climate dashboard and model to forecast the start of the summer lobster shed based on water temperature data. Another model presented during the session was a lobster landings forecasting model developed by one of our science advisors, Noah Oppenheim, as part of his graduate work. Noah's model predicts regional landings based on data from the New England Lobster Settlement Index and other sources. Finally, NERACOOS offers a wealth of data that is easily accessible through the real time data portal where you can compare daily data on temperature to the average over a larger timeframe. 

All in all, the session revealed the number of organizations and individuals working to understand climate change in the Gulf of Maine and how we can support adaptation in our fisheries. I plan to incorporate information I learned during this session into my panel presentation, “Climate Change in Maine” at the first Maine Science Festival in Bangor on March 21, 2015.

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2015 Nor'easter Bowl

On Saturday February 7, 2015, Cait Cleaver and I drove up to The University of Maine campus to attend the Nor'easter Bowl, the regional ocean science competition of the National Ocean Science Bowl (NOSB) for Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont schools. We were there to watch students compete and we also set up a table to share information about the Marine Ecology ISLE program happening this summer on Hurricane. Because the Nor'easter bowl brings students from 3 states together, The University of Maine, University of New England, and University of New Hampshire's marine science departments rotate hosting the event each year. This year nearly 100 students on 17 teams from Belfast, Poland, Windham, Falmouth, York, Orono, and other schools attended the event. Each team consists of 4-5 students (teams can have an alternate), one of whom is designated as team captain, and is in charge of answering for the team in the case of short answer questions. New to the event this year were some familiar faces to us! Coastal Studies for Girls, including several girls who were out on Hurricane this past summer, put together a team and made it to the quarter finals! 

How exactly do students compete in the Nor'easter bowl? The morning competition consisted of several round-robin style tournament rounds, where every team faced each other and collected points which would help dictate their rank and competitors for the single elimination rounds in the afternoon. Each round followed the same format, starting with six minutes of "toss up" multiple choice questions, each of which had an attached bonus short answer question for the team who answered the toss up question correctly. This was followed by a two separate three-to-five minute written question sheets where the full team could work together to submit one collective answer sheet. The round ended with a second bout of six-minute toss up questions, and the team with the most points at the end won.

The competition was heated and the questions were hard. Questions ranged from ocean chemistry to geography to historic oil spills to books written by Rachel Carson. It was fun as an audience member to see how much of my marine education I remembered (or forgot in the case of physical oceanography...) and I was continually impressed by how quickly these students correctly answered questions I was struggling to remember. There is also a some great strategy to the rounds-- because they are timed, at the very end of the round some teams opted to buzz in and try to answer a question that hadn't been fully asked yet for a 25% chance of guessing the right answer and snagging some last-minute points. Other teams confidently buzzed in before all of the answers were given, to get that extra edge on their opponents. The winning team (ConVal Regional High School, Peterborough, NH) is headed up to the National Ocean Science Bowl, held this year in Ocean Springs, Mississippi in April. The theme for the national competition this year is "the science of oil in the ocean." You can read a little bit more about this event and see a photo of the winning team by reading this article by the Bangor Daily News.

Hurricane Island is excited to help start a midcoast Maine team together to compete in next year's event, which will take place at the University of New England. If you want to join our team, or know of a good student let us know! (email

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"Coastal Conversations" tackles the subject of Ocean Acidification

Maine's independent community radio station, WERU 89.9 FM, just added another great new program for listeners: Coastal Conversations, a new science and conservation program hosted by Maine Sea Grant's Natalie Springuel, will air on the 4th Friday of every month from 10-11am. Springuel's topic on January 23rd was ocean acidification, and she kicked off the conversation with Joe Salisbury of University of New Hampshire and Bill Mook of Mook Sea Farm, who helped listeners understand the chemistry behind ocean acidification. Here is a brief synopsis:

Simply put, ocean acidification is the result of lowered pH in the oceans (ocean water is usually 8 on the pH scale which ranges from 0-14). Unfortunately, the pH scale can be a bit challenging to interpret: it is a logarithmic scale that represents concentrations of hydrogen ions, so lower pH (7 is neutral) corresponds to increasing acidity. There are three main processes that tend to lower pH levels in the ocean (making the ocean more acidic):

  1.  When CO2 from the atmosphere dissolves into the surface ocean. Normally, this isn't a huge problem as the ocean has the capacity to take in some atmospheric CO2, but what we are facing is an excess of atmospheric CO2 which is only increasing. This is mostly a consequence of human activities like burning fossil fuels. 
  2. Increased freshwater runoff into the ocean. According to the National Weather Service, Maine has seen a 73% increase in the top 1% of storm events over the last century. This means that big storm events (which maybe happened only once every five years in the past) are becoming more frequent. When large storms happen, they literally flood existing municipal infrastructure, which often means that storm drains, dams, and sewers overflow, causing a huge influx of freshwater into the oceans over a relatively short amount of time. Freshwater typically has a pH of 5, so this influx leads to lower pH levels in the coastal zone.
  3. Storm events don't just dump freshwater into the oceans, but also often bring along nitrogen and other nutrients. This one is a bit tricky, because nutrients don't directly increase the acidity of the ocean, but eutrophication (a fancy way of saying adding nutrients) starts a chain of events which ultimately leads to lower pH. Coastal zone productivity is usually limited by nitrogen availability. When nitrogen is added to the ocean (some sources include agricultural runoff of high-nitrogen fertilizer or from sewage runoff), micro algae get really excited and start photosynthesizing like crazy. An algal bloom forms, and then, when the photosynthesizers die off and sink, they in turn are consumed by mircoorganisms that also consume oxygen and respire CO2 creating hypoxic (low oxygen) zones and low pH zones.
Lobster is just one of many important commercial shellfish in Maine that is susceptible to ocean acidification.

Lobster is just one of many important commercial shellfish in Maine that is susceptible to ocean acidification.

So these processes lower ocean pH...what's the big deal? And which processes are having the biggest impact? We don't know all of these answers yet, but Dr. Salisbury and other scientists are documenting the seasonality of CO2 and pH levels in the surface ocean to see how much phytoplankton blooms, freshwater runoff, upwelling, and horizontal mixing are contributing to changes in pH compared to atmospheric CO2 emissions. We do know that lower pH impacts a lot of organisms in the ocean that we commercially harvest. Lower pH drops the concentration of carbonate ions in the ocean which is an important part of the compound calcium carbonate--a crucial ingredient in creating the shells of commercial shellfish including lobsters, oysters, scallops, and clams. According to Joe Salisbury, shellfish aren't the only critters that may be impacted. Fish can also face reproductive and olfactory (sense of smell) stress in lower pH environments, and low pH can even change how sound travels through water, which may impact how whales and other marine mammals communicate using vocalizations underwater.

As an oyster farmer, Bill Mook has seen first-hand what lower ocean pH can do to his larval oysters. Larval shellfish are much more vulnerable to ocean acidification compared to their adult companions. According to Mook, the calcium carbonate form that larvae use in their shells is aragonite, which is much more soluble (easily dissolved) in lower pH conditions. Larval oysters typically develop from fertilized eggs in 24 hours and live as swimming larvae from 14-16 days. Mook has noticed that since 2006, there have been more incidents at the hatchery where fertilized eggs do not convert to larvae and just die, or the larvae grow much more slowly, stop feeding, and generally take longer to go through metamorphosis. These events are often linked to runoff events from rain storms, and may be the canary in the coal mine for what the future may look like for shellfish.

So what is Maine and the scientific community doing about it ocean acidification? Damian Brady of Darling Marine Center, UMaine, and Esperanza Stancioff of University of Maine Cooperative Extension are great examples of other researchers and educators that are trying to learn more and educate people about the problem. Damian Brady works with numerical models to try to learn more about how changes in temperature, precipitation events, runoff, and land-use practices can mitigate some of the conditions we are seeing in the ocean. The state of Maine has also been one of the first states to mobilize forums, conferences, and meetings focused on ocean acidification, and there are several formalized networks and organizations that are also working to learn more about ocean acidification. Two that were mentioned during Coastal Conversations are The Northeast Coastal Acidification Network (NECAN) and The Ocean Acidification Commission (OAC). NECAN has been working to compile data and research around ocean acidification including hosting a series of webinars and a 2-day "state of the science" workshop. The OAC was formed less than a year ago by the Maine legislature to compile information about existing and potential impacts of ocean acidification on commercial species. Their goals involved identifying existing research and potential monitoring, mitigation, and education opportunities to continue to engage researchers, industry members, and the public in this issue. The OAC recently released a report (a link to the draft is here) outlining the following recommendations: 

  1. Increase Maine's capacity to monitor the impacts of ocean acidification
  2. Reduce CO2 emissions in Maine, and encourage new innovative technology to help make these reductions possible
  3. Reduce nutrient and freshwater runoff
  4. Mitigate, remediate, and adapt (for example, preserve macro algae (seaweed) areas, and use shells to buffer mudflats)
  5. Educate the public about this issue
  6. Sustain these research and mitigation efforts in Maine in the form an ocean acidification council to see this process into the future

If ocean acidification is a topic that interests you as a student, researcher, or citizen, then get involved! There are many research questions yet to be asked and explored, and opportunities to help Maine move forward to mitigate our impact on our oceans. The state of Maine currently doesn't require schedule maintenance of homeowner septic systems, there is not yet a citizen science ocean acidification monitoring network, the body of published scientific literature on ocean acidification is less than 10 years old, and there are still opportunities to develop curriculum around ocean acidification and share what you know with others! The time is now and you can make a difference! 

At the very least, be sure to stay informed by reading up on marine conservation issues and by tuning in every 4th Friday of the month to Coastal Conversations on WERU 89.9 FM or live-stream from 

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