Science for Everyone

Aquaculture from Maine to Madagascar

Guest blog post by Research Technician Bailey Moritz

Baby sea cucumbers ready to grow!

Baby sea cucumbers ready to grow!

Building new sea cucumber pens in the tidal flats

Building new sea cucumber pens in the tidal flats

This spring, before returning to Hurricane, I spent 3 months on a much larger island- Madagascar, that is- as an Aquaculture Intern with Reef Doctor, an organization working on many fronts to address extreme poverty and rapidly dwindling fisheries in villages along the southwestern coast of the African country. The Vezo, whose name means “people of the sea”, rely almost entirely on fishing everything from octopus to parrotfish to sea turtles to make a living and provide food for their household. But as population increases, extra pressure on an already overfished reef system risks leaving people without a source of income. Boats already come in empty, and many have resorted to dragging mosquito nets along the beach, which catch even the smallest juvenile fish. While damage to the ecosystem and marine populations are grim, you cannot simply tell people to stop fishing. Instead, Reef Doctor has set up community run seaweed and sea cucumber aquaculture farms in villages all around the Bay to provide an alternative livelihood that is sustainable both for the ocean and the people depending on it. 

Cleaning a seaweed line free of sediment

Cleaning a seaweed line free of sediment

Villagers drying their harvest on mesh tables (Image courtesy of ReefDoctor)

Villagers drying their harvest on mesh tables (Image courtesy of ReefDoctor)

A globally prevalent seaweed for carrageenan extraction, Kappaphycus alvarezii, is grown on longlines that create habitat for small fish and squid. We rowed out to the farms and assisted with almost daily cleaning of sediment build up that would inhibit growth and checked for damaging invasive epiphytic algae. Ranging from bright green to brown while growing, it dries into a beautiful purple color and is bagged and sold by the kilo to a local processor. The sea cucumbers, called “sand fish”, are farmed in near shore plastic mesh pens. It takes about a year to raise them to market size at which time they are salted and shipped to Asian buyers. Families participating in the sea cucumber program have seen an average increase of 2.53 USD/day of income. I got to help build and stock pens for 20 new farmers since the program has shown so much success. The great thing about sea cucumbers is, just like shellfish, they broadcast spawn, meaning they release their eggs into the ocean and can actually contribute to wild population numbers. I was very impressed with how well both forms of aquaculture were integrated into the local villages and the benefits already accrued after just 3 years of operating!

Wooden canoes called "pirogues" traditionally used for everyday fishing

Wooden canoes called "pirogues" traditionally used for everyday fishing

For me, the parallels to aquaculture in Maine and the role it serves were evident. While sturdy mooring buoys replace the recycled plastic water bottles of Mada, seaweed farming has been bringing a viable source of alternative income to Maine’s fishermen who already have much of the gear and on-the-water knowledge needed to be successful. While waters warm in the Gulf of Maine and threaten lobster catches, coastal communities here need something they can turn to or fall back on in case the wild-caught fishery they work in crashes. Right now, both Maine and Madagascar farms are being driven by community members who are excited about the potential it holds and recognize the need for a livelihood that helps to improve the ecosystem rather than only extract from it. And in both communities, there is an important role for researchers to play in carrying out experiments with the goal of optimizing growth under local conditions and training farmers on the best methods to utilize for success. While never a silver bullet, my time in Madagascar taught me that aquaculture can and actively is addressing environmental and social problems in communities all across the globe.

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Scallops out of Hurricane

Guest blog post by Research Assistant Jessie Batchelder

As an Environmental Studies major at Colby College, my recent alma matter, seniors are not required to complete a honors thesis in order to graduate. Up until the summer before my senior year, I had no intention of voluntarily undertaking such a daunting task - but that was before I spent a summer on Hurricane Island as the Research Intern working on the Maine Midcoast Collaborative Scallop Project. Throughout last summer, I become involved in all aspects of the research project including data collection, processing, and educating students and visitors about our research. With Cait’s encouragement, and the help of my advisor at Colby, I decided to tackle a small piece of this project as my senior honors thesis.           

Placopecten magellanicus

Placopecten magellanicus

My thesis focused specifically on Placopecten magellanicus “sea scallop” larval dynamics inside and outside the Lower Muscle Ridge closure area. Through my research, I aimed to answer the questions: has larval abundance changed over the three-year closure period and does it vary inside the closure area as compared to adjacent fished areas? The data I used to answer these questions came directly from the spat bags we deploy in the Muscle Ridge area as a metric to gauge larval abundance. Much of my summer last year was spent counting and measuring scallops from the spat bags, and it was exciting to take the next step in the research process by analyzing the data I had spent so much time collecting. 

Completing my thesis was not easy work, and there were definitely times of frustration, but those were outweighed by the numerous positive moments and opportunities that came as a result of my thesis. As part of my work to understand current patterns in the Muscle Ridge Channel to determine likely directions of larval transport I interviewed scallop and lobster fishers from the Midcoast area about their perceptions of prevailing current patterns. Talking to the fishers and hearing their perspectives added a separate aspect to my project and exposed me to the world of social science research.

In April, I had the opportunity to present at the International Pectinid Workshop. This is an annual, international conference on all things regarding scallops. This year, it happened to take place in Portland, Maine, which made it easy for me to attend and present. IPW was the first scientific conference I had attended, and it was an incredible experience to hear from scientists across the world present their research on topics including fishery closures, gear modifications, management plans, scallop aquaculture, diseases and much more. Being at the conference also allowed me to interact and talk with senior researchers and graduate students which gave me a window into the many opportunities that are available should my interests remain within the scallop world.

Presenting my thesis at the Colby Liberal Arts Symposium (CLAS)

Presenting my thesis at the Colby Liberal Arts Symposium (CLAS)

While the thesis experience as a whole was filled with challenges and rewards, the most fulfilling part of my thesis, (besides printing the final draft!) was presenting my work at the Colby Liberal Arts Symposium (CLAS), an annual event at the end of the spring semester when classes are cancelled and the entire day is dedicated to the research students from all years, majors, and disciplines have conducted during the past year. During the session devoted to Environmental Studies thesis presentations, I was able to talk about my work in front of peers, professors, roommates, friends, and family. This presentation allowed me to share my academic work outside of the research setting and communicate my research to friends who previously, only thought about scallops under the category of delicious seafood. CLAS is always a wonderful day filled with presentations, poster sessions, speech contests, music performances and art shows, and it was extremely rewarding to present my thesis and share my work with the greater Colby community.

Returning to Hurricane Island this summer as the Research Assistant has allowed me to continue working on the both the Midcoast Maine Collaborative Scallop Project as well as adding another year of data to my analysis. I’m excited to be back for a second summer to continue this work, be a part of the Hurricane community and enjoy all the benefits that stem from living on a beautiful island in Penobscot Bay!

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Phytoplankton Monitoring

Guest post by Research Technician Bailey Moritz

Taking our first phytoplankton sample of the season at our aquaculture site

As waters begin to warm (although it may not feel that way yet!) and nutrients become more abundant, phytoplankton are beginning to bloom off our Maine shores. Seen under the microscope, these tiny algae that make up the base of the ocean food chain form a beautiful kaleidoscope of varied shapes. Some take on the appearance of beaded necklaces or tiny leaves, while others call food to mind with their turnip or pizza slice like forms. However, a number of species can produce toxins that, when consumed by humans eating filter-feeding shellfish, prove quite harmful. “Red tide” as it is commonly called when concentrations are high enough to change the surface water color, builds up in the mussels or clams that feed on it for several weeks. If eaten by someone, the built-up toxin can cause paralytic, diuretic, or amnesic shellfish poisoning (PSP, DSP, or ASP), depending on the phytoplankton species present.

Target species (yellow) to keep an eye out for

The Department of Marine Resources (DMR) regularly tests sites up and down the coast to make sure that an area with a harmful algal bloom will be closed to shellfish harvesting in time to minimize health risks. They rely on volunteer monitoring efforts to make this a success, and we got certified as official phyto-samplers last week. Out on Hurricane, we are sampling weekly at our aquaculture site to report back to DMRs public health branch on the presence of any of these potentially harmful species. If the water is consistently clear of harmful algal blooms over time, we may eventually be able to consume the scallops that we grow here.

An array of different species, including thin chains of Pseudo-nitzschia

Our first sample this week had plenty to look at and I found it so rewarding and fun to learn the species identification. There was a surprising amount of Pseudo-nitzschia which can lead to ASP, although the toxin is not always produced. That will be something to keep an eye on and we sent a report in to DMR. Monitoring coastal waters for changes in phytoplankton populations is critical for protecting those of us who enjoy eating shellfish, the people who grow or harvest them, and to stay vigilant for new species that are moving northward due to climate change.

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Research field season wrap up

Hurricane Island’s research team had quite the field season. We initiated a few new projects while continuing our archaeology efforts and conducted the fourth year of surveys for the Collaborative Scallop Project. Overall, it was a fantastic island season with an incredible team. As always, our Director of Marketing, Phoebe Jekielek, joined us above and below the water throughout the season. Bailey Moritz, a recent graduate of Bowdoin College was our seasonal research assistant and Jessie Batchelder, a current senior at Colby College, was our research intern. They will both be greatly missed! Some of the season’s highlights included:

The Collaborative Scallop Project

The tagged scallops from our spat bags whose growth we will be tracking

In July and August, we conducted our SCUBA dive surveys on Muscle Ridge and Ocean Point. Our goals were to document juvenile and adult densities and to collect individual scallops for tissue samples for genetics and the shells for a growth rate analysis. For the first time ever, we completed our dive days by the end of August!! In past years, we’ve had to do dive surveys through the fall and even as late as November 29th, so this was a very welcomed change and speaks to the field team we had in place. In mid-September, three technicians from Dr. Stokesbury’s lab at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth’s School for Marine Science & Technology traveled to Maine to do three days of drop camera work. They were able to take photographs at all of the stations that were sampled last year and Bailey learned how to work the winch on the scallop boat, F/V Julianne. On September 22, we deployed our Muscle Ridge spat bags, these in addition to four lines on Ocean Point at the end of August. Looking forward to more spat in 2017!

The drop camera surveys were supported with funding from the Patagonia Retail Store in Freeport. The staff from the store also got to come to Hurricane Island over two days this Summer to volunteer their time to help with the project. During that time, we were able to process a number of the shell samples we’ve collected over the years as well as work through some of our spat bags from 2015. They were an incredible help and I think enjoyed their time on the island. We were so thankful for that funding opportunity and wehope they’ll come back next year!

Bailey, Jessie and I engaged 90 students participating in nine different Hurricane Island education programs in the Scallop Project, either through processing shell samples or spat bags. In addition, we hosted 80 people in partnership with the Vinalhaven Land Trust for a morning on Hurricane where they learned about the Scallop Project as well as other initiatives. These were great ways to get the word out about our project!

Currently, I am working on analyzing data from the past four years and reviewing papers that talk about the effect of closed areas on target species. We hope to understand what the effect of the closure has been to date and whether or not we should plan to continue monitoring both the Muscle Ridge and Ocean Point closed areas. Jessie decided to take on a portion of the analysis as an independent project and possibly an honors thesis this year at Colby. Specifically, she is working on analyzing data from our spat bags.

The Stokesbury crew is busy analyzing data from the drop camera surveys and Sarah Kingston, a post doctoral fellow at Bowdoin College, has agreed to start the initial genetic analysis. Stay tuned for a summary of results as they become available!


We continue to move forward with developing an aquaculture operation on Hurricane Island. We envision aquaculture as an opportunity to integrate our education programs with our research efforts. We renewed our Limited Purpose Aquaculture (LPA) for growing sugar kelp. Bailey and Jenn, our Director of Education, worked with students from Northport Middle School to deploy seed lines that the students had grown in their classroom at the site on Hurricane in October. We also put juvenile scallops collected in our spat bags from Muscle Ridge into two bottom cages where we hope they’ll survive the winter. Bailey and I tagged 100 individual scallops to track their growth throughout the year.

To further support our aquaculture operation, we participate in water quality and phytoplankton monitoring in partnership with the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR). We collect a water sample and a phytoplankton sample on a bi-weekly basis from May through November and send our samples to the DMR lab in Boothbay Harbor. The water quality program, which is a state-wide effort through DMR, monitors for E. coli and the phytoplankton program monitors for biotoxins that can cause Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning and other public health-related problems. Our hope is that through this monitoring, we will be able to reclassify the waters around Hurricane to allow us to consume the species we grow through aquaculture. We will likely not have an issue with E. coli; however, harmful algal blooms could be an issue in the summer months and so, we may have to abide by seasonal closures.


Our Summer 2016 archaeology site

We continue to move forward with documenting the quarry era on Hurricane through archaeology. Fred Koerber, our lead archaeologist and career history educator in the Brunswick school system, gave a talk on Vinalhaven in July. Forty-four people attended to hear a summary of findings-to-date derived from a field week in 2015 and independent research at historical societies and libraries. The research team supported a second field week in early August 2016. We focused our efforts on a site at the north end of Hurricane near Gibbons Point. Fred was interested in determining if the site was the same time period as the quarry town or if it had been an earlier settlement. We spent four days digging and uncovered an incredible number of artifacts including some pieces that point to an earlier settlement, but Fred is planning to spend some time this winter analyzing the artifacts we found and continuing his research before making a determination. Our field week culminated in a second visit to Hurricane in partnership Vinalhaven Land Trust. Sixty-five people came by boat to learn more about the history of the island and our archaeological work specifically. This winter, we are planning to make a long-term strategy for preserving and documenting the island’s history.

The Northeastern Coastal Stations Alliance (NeCSA)

We are continuing efforts to coordinate environmental monitoring with other field stations in the Gulf of Maine.  In March 2016, we had our final in-person meeting, which involved field station directors, researchers and others invested in understanding change in the Gulf of Maine. Laura Sewall, from Bates College, and I completed a strategic plan, outlining network actions to move our work forward over the next ten years. Hannah Webber, from Schoodic Institute, and Hurricane Island received a small grant from Maine Sea Grant to implement a pilot project where multiple stations would deploy and retrieve the same data logger and compare the data across our locations. In June, nine stations deployed a HOBO TidBit v2 Data Logger in the intertidal zone to monitor nearshore water temperature. Bailey, our research assistant, deployed the Hurricane logger in the intertidal zone on the south end of the island at Two Bush near the location of Bowdoin’s long-term intertidal transects. In August, we collected the logger, downloaded the data and then redeployed the logger for the winter. It’s a small step in learning how our stations can work together to monitor nearshore change in the Gulf of Maine. Going forward, we plan to develop an intertidal protocol to document the biological community at each of our stations so we can couple the biological data with the abiotic logger data. 

The Kelp Ecosystems Ecology Network

Phoebe and Jessie ready to get in the water at Muscle Ridge

We have joined a global network that monitors kelp beds around the world. Kelp beds provide important habitat for a number of species and are susceptible to climate change. A standardized monitoring protocol is used at all sites where this work takes place and the Northeast chapter of the Kelp Ecosystems Ecology Network (KEEN) is housed at Northeastern University. We joined a dive team from Northeastern at the Pemaquid Lighthouse for training on the protocols used to collect data for KEEN. Bailey and Jessie joined Marissa McMahan, a Northeastern PhD student to finish the transects at Pemaquid. We then implemented the same protocol on the north and western side of Hurricane. As part of this work, we deployed two HOBO TidBit v2 loggers to track water temperature throughout the year. Hurricane represents the northernmost site included in the Kelp Ecosystems Ecology Network in the Northeastern U.S.

It was definitely a busy season and now we are transitioning to the winter months, which will include synthesizing data and making plans for next year.  Stay tuned for updates throughout the coming months as we analyze and summarize findings.

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Digging into the Past

Guest blog post by Research Assistant Bailey Moritz

I was recently given a grim yet beautiful book of Hurricane Island poetry written back in the early 1900’s by Harold Vinal. In it he writes, “The granite cannot speak; it has no voice; and all is silence save for the great sea. Ah, my fastidious sire, if it could!” Yes, if only it could. The granite may not be able to speak, but the artifacts embedded around it certainly can if one pays close enough attention. That was the 5-day task set before the research team during our 2016 Archaeology week; allowing historic remains to speak their stories using archaeology as our coercer. Along with Madelaine, an archaeology student from Washington University, we were guided by Fred Koerber, an archaeologist by passion who has put an impressive amount of work into researching the details of Hurricane Island history and who led our first archaeology program last summer.

Jessie and Fred on the brink of discovery!

Arriving at an overgrown granite foundation and water well on the North End of the island I had previously paid little attention to, we learned that this site only appears in the records a handful of times and is thought to have pre-dated the quarry era. Several flowering trees sit adjacent to a field and just around the corner sit the only 2 headstones found on the island. Questions arose immediately and we brainstormed as a team to determine where we thought best to dig in order to answer them. Was there agricultural activity? Who lived here and when? What can be learned about their lifestyle? The archaeological process began.

Hardness test for buttons to determine what time period they were made in

Digging both in and outside the stone foundation, a plethora of artifacts made themselves known almost immediately below the surface. Bags worth of glass, metal, coal, and animal bones were washed and inventoried from 20 cm sections of dirt. Given the islands history of use with Outward Bound, it is likely that some of the material was deposited during their time on Hurricane, which made the interpretation more difficult than usual. However, some of the artifacts were unmistakably 19th century; buttons, earthenware pottery shards, redware pottery that had shell pieces molded into its fabric, and bricks from the old building. Possibly more interesting were the artifacts we didn’t come across with our trowels. There were no pieces of the ubiquitous smoking pipe found at dig sites elsewhere on the island. Also, nothing gave any indication that women were present here, perhaps indicating it was not a place of domestic activity.

Pieced together shards of an uncovered glass bottle

Pouring over the unearthed artifacts, we pulled together our best interpretations as well as a whole slew of questions. The week culminated with 60 visitors from the Vinalhaven Land Trust island hopping, as they did back in the days of the granite town for theater performances and the like, to see the work we had done. Visitors received a historic tour of the south end and then hiked over to our dig site to see for themselves what was found and what new information our work can tell us about the purpose of this old foundation. It’s exciting to leave the site with more questions than answers and we hope to continue excavating archaeological units this fall. Huge thanks go to Fred for sharing his knowledge, time, and storytelling skills with us. Seeing firsthand some of the secrets left beneath the soil of this island, I have a whole new appreciation for the people who walked these granite shores before us.

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