2022 Maine Sea Grant Undergraduate Scholarship in Marine Sciences

For about a decade (really nine years), Maine Sea Grant has been collaborating with several colleges in Maine to provide $1000 scholarships for undergraduates doing work in Marine Sciences. This doesn’t just mean students doing research, but also students working in communication, education, policy, advocacy, and just about anything you can imagine marine related. This year the application period just opened, and you can see the announcement and the link to download an application here. This scholarship is available to any second and third-year students enrolled at COA (and several other colleges) and the deadline is April 29th. COA and Maine Sea Grant contribute equally to funding the scholarship. I’ve asked COA’s two recipients from last year, Bailey Tausen and Sneda Suresh, to give a quick summary of what they have been up to below. If you are a COA student and interested in applying for the scholarship, you can talk to me (Chris Petersen) or any of our current recipients from 2021 (Bailey and Sneda) and our 2020 recipients that are still on campus (Hallie Arno, Camden Hunt, Kiernan Crough, and Jillian Igoe). You can read about the 2020 recipients here, and this blog also has several other links to past scholar recipients including here and here.

Bailey Tausen ’23

When I first started at College of the Atlantic, my passion for the Chesapeake Bay and marine conservation quickly sparked a love for the Gulf of Maine. I had a good background in science communication, specifically in marine biology, and loved the idea of interdisciplinary ocean studies. After building myself from a background of little scientific exposure, COA introduced me to a community that helped me establish strong field and lab skills. I took every chance available to take marine-related courses and spent my weekends either in the intertidal or participating in the sea kayaking leadership program in the bay. I studied marine science, history, fisheries, and policy, and among those studies discovered my love for marine invertebrates. In 2020 I got the opportunity to adopt a project on Mount Desert Rock doing an oceanographic survey. A fellow student began the project in 2019 to examine the current biological productivity around the island. Copepods, a type of microscopic planktonic animal, are depended on by almost all life in the Gulf of Maine. But their sensitivity to warming water means that their health and numbers are dwindling. Last summer, I collected data on water temperature and copepod health and abundance trends. I also worked to ensure that this oceanographic survey will continue long after my time at COA so that we may see how years of rapidly rising sea temperature have affected these microscopic animals that life around the island is so dependent on.

I love exploring the incredible world under the microscope and sharing that passion with others; this year, I’ll be working to pass that knowledge down to new students so that the project will continue while I carry on as the island’s station manager. I am also working for Allied Whale on photo identification for their humpback whale catalog. After graduation, I hope to carry my love for marine invertebrates and the ocean into new fieldwork.

Photos (left to right): a. My in-field laboratory setup at Mount Desert Rock, where I identified and measured thousands of copepods under the microscope, b. A slide of copepods, each of which will be counted, identified, photographed, and measured, and c. Calanus finmarchicus, a species of copepod depended on by the endangered North Atlantic right whale for its high-energy fat (in orange).

Sneha Suresh ’23. My interest in marine science revolves around Common Loons. As an aspiring wildlife veterinarian, I was searching for a research opportunity in wildlife health. I got in touch with a retired veterinary professor at Tufts University, Dr. Mark Pokras, and we crafted a project for summer ’21 that combined necropsies, wildlife health research, and animal behavior. I received loon cadavers from a wildlife biologist, Danielle D’Auria, at Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Department, and I took x-rays of them at Acadia Veterinary Hospital. Conducting multiple necropsies with Dr. Michelle Kneeland, Dr. Mark Pokras, and Laura Lyell, I learned about bird anatomy, physiology, and attempted to hypothesize their cause of death. Using necropsy tools from Allied Whale, we looked at numerous fascinating cases from a female that had 2 necrotic eggs inside her (uterus infection?) to a loon that suffered from a large puncture wound (from the bill of another loon?) and severe internal bleeding. From our loon necropsies, I collected their gastrointestinal tracts to analyze them for the presence of microplastics. With help from Shaw Institute and Dr. Reuben Hudson, I developed a method to extract microplastics from their gastrointestinal tract, and we found microplastics!

Photos (left to right). a. A dead loon being prepared for a necropsy. b. Sneha and fellow student Maggie Denison ’23 performing necropies. c. Radiograph of a loon. You can see the bright (dense) objects in the middle of the animal – these are lead sinkers that were swallowed and probably led to lead poisoning of the bird.

Simultaneously, I worked with Billy Helprin, the director of Somes-Meynell Wildlife Sanctuary, to monitor loon behavior primarily on Little Long Pond. It was wonderful to observe the 2 parents and chick on Little Long Pond over the course of 3 months. There was ceaseless drama with eagles and otters hovering around, intruding loons attempting to break familial ties, and, of course, the chick growing: he/she would molt feathers from sooty gray to dull brown fluff and later, a lighter gray juvenile plumage; he/she would dive for longer and longer lengths of time and learn to catch fish. It doesn’t get more exciting than this!

Photographs. Left- Loon chick and parent on MDI. Right- Parent feeding a substantially older chick.

Maine Sea Grant helped fund my loon project over summer ’21–a project that cemented my interests in pathology, wildlife health, and animal behavior and allowed me to build a community. With the involvement of multiple COA students, Allied Whale, local veterinarians, wildlife biologists, and community members, we are now trying to establish a loon necropsy program at COA that will be an extension of this 1 marvelously loony summer.   

You can learn more about loons on Mount Desert Island on the Somes Meynell Sanctuary Facebook Page.

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R2061 and the Sea

This is a story from COA student Annika Ross ’23. Annika spent most of the summer of 2021 doing work at COA’s Edward McC. Blair Marine Research Station on Mount Desert Rock.

It was late July when the filmmaker and his crew arrived on The Rock. Having come to the island two years ago, he was returning to finish a wildlife documentary about the seal colony. He was a professional documentary filmmaker and we, the fourteen College of the Atlantic students housed in the old lighthouse keeper’s house for the summer, anxiously awaited his  arrival. “He’s famous!” we exclaimed. That, and we hadn’t seen anyone but each other in two months. 

The Rock is short for Mount Desert Rock, a 3-acre island twenty-five miles off the coast of Maine. While the island is small—formed mostly of barren granite and patches of dry, rocky soil—it is full of life. Whales and dolphins swim by, and sometimes, if you’re lucky, they’ll breach. Huge, massive beings expel themselves from the ocean’s surface for a small moment in the sun and splash back down with the sound of thunder. Seals snooze on the seaweed-covered ledges, arching their tails and their heads like bananas or laying on their backs for great big sun naps. Just before the sun sets, when the sky turns a light shade of pink, they sing. 

But besides the obvious mysticism of the marine mammals, are other things, also magical in their quiet ways. There are fish, weeds, periwinkles and fruit flies on the sticky brown traps we hung from the ceiling of the house, swirling like a sculpture. Seagulls are there too. Herring and Great Black-Backed gulls nest by the hundreds on the 3 acres of granite.

The filmmaker’s team came on a Thursday, otherwise known as boat day: the time when we took our week’s worth of food and water off of a Zodiac, up the boat ramp, and into the house. We laid out the crates on the pool table and unloaded bags of chips, boxes of pasta, and heads of lettuce, and packages of frozen meats. Fourteen sets of hands grabbed and passed and placed the foods into our two fridges. We whirled around each other in the way only fourteen people who had lived on a 3-acre island for two months together could. 

The Thursday the filmmaker arrived, we lugged his equipment up along with our food: drones, tents, blinds, and cameras so big they filled up rooms. We walked awkwardly around the visitors as they set up. Like children on Christmas Eve, we peeked around corners to get a glimpse of the excitement. The crew immediately got to work, heading to the center of the island to get aerial drone shots of the seal colony on the Northeast side. I was up the tower in the afternoon watching the Herring gull nests to the West when the drone flew up into the sky and the Herring gulls sent off their alarm calls. 

I recognized the calls because I was out there to study the birds. I was a part of what was referred to over the radio as “team gull”. Students would call “team gull, I see a dead chick”, “team gull there’s a fight over here”, “team gull a bird just ate a fish” and team gull would respond and head to the tower or a nest to write down what happened. 

My specific project I completed with another COA student, Izzy. It was a behavioral study of five nests on the west side of the island, recording how family dynamics evolved as chicks hatched and grew. I named the nests after the old flags I used to mark their location: P95 for the nest marked by the pink flag, B714 for the blue one, R2061 for the red, and so on. The names seem technical and heartless, and they started as such. The first day I ran up the tower to watch the parents sit on their eggs and spent half an hour drawing a map of each nest, trying to remember who was who. But soon, after the chicks hatched and started discovering the world and themselves, roaming and wandering, they became far more than technical terms. Each name represented a little family, a chick’s whole world. R23 was a tough family, B17 nuclear, P95 playful, and R2061 were explorers, spending their days in the intertidal as if waiting to transform into fish. 

There were a lot of teams out on the Rock. There was Izzy and I watching the chicks. There was the bigger Team Gull. There was Team shark, there was Team Seal, there was Team Boat Op. There was the team making dinner that night, the team doing dishes, the team turning the composting toilets. And then there was the team that was the 14 of us: three student station managers and 11 student researchers, from all different years and walks of COA life. All of us were young and excited, working together to run a remote island research station. It wasn’t until the filmmaker and his crew came that it sunk in how powerful our comradery was, the enormity of it all. It took an outsider to make us see that we had become a sort of family. 

That first day the filmmaker was there, the day with the drones flying and the colony of gulls soaring into the sky, was the first time I felt like a researcher. I sat in the tower that day with a kind of purpose and watched my chicks hide from the noise. Before the drone, I had never seen the whole colony mad, only ever a couple of birds at a time. 

As a part of my project, I tracked the weights of the chicks in my nests. To do so, we had to put on brightly colored raincoats and thick hats to protect us from the talons of the swooping parents and the guano they spurted. Checking the nests was my least favorite thing to do. I knew to be careful with the gull’s eggs and with their chicks, but I had no way to communicate that to the birds, and no way of completely ensuring that my best intentions wouldn’t lead to accidental harm. But there was also something about weighing the birds, about holding them in my hands and feeling how much heavier they got, how much longer their necks and their bellies got as they outgrew the bags we placed them in for weighing, that helped me appreciate the amount of energy and care that went into their growth. 

That night, we made room for the filmmaker and his crew around the dinner table. It was burrito night: a big pot of rice, beans, lettuce, salsa, guacamole, tofu, wraps, and, of course, Cha!—off-brand sriracha. We all thought the name was funny and it was a ritual to start our meals yelling, “pass the cha!” and the bottle would fly across the large green table in nonsensical patterns, barely missing the big bowl of apples or getting caught on a crack and rolling on its side. 

After the Cha!, the filmmaker got to talking about his work on other islands, where cool birds are nesting like boobies and puffins instead of just gulls. Later he would show us a film about otters. We all gasped and awed at his stories of swimming alongside whales, relaying what these animals taught him about himself and life as the common Herring gulls squealed and hollered outside: the background noise to all our meals and our days. 

It’s hard to describe what it’s like living in a gull colony. How they never stop squawking, not even in the middle of the night. How they’ll nest right outside your kitchen window. How a baby chick will steal a sheet you set out to dry. There is something that happens when you spend 24 hours a day listening to gull noises, when you have a baby chick growing up on your front porch. 

We started naming the nests closest to the house: there was Dani Devito, a big Black-Backed gull nesting in a rusty bicycle, and Petri Dish who lived by the back porch with Leicister and Winnipeg next door. After a week or so of living with them, rather than feeling relief when their “annoying” squawks ceased, you would feel shocked, and run to the window to see what’s the matter, the silence pressing on your ears. 

There was something human about the way the gulls interacted with their chicks. Maybe human is the wrong word. Who’s to say we have the patent on emotions and love? Because that’s what it was between the birds, a tenderness between parent and chick that you, as a fellow animal, could feel. I think it became most obvious in the moments when chicks went missing. The parents made this god-awful sound, a low, hollow, moan. They made it with their heads cocked down as they wandered around their nest. Whenever we heard it, whether at dinner or on the couch, whether cooking or reading or playing or laughing, we stopped for a moment of silence. We put our lives on hold for that sound to fill our ears and our minds. It was an emotional sound, it struck something in your heart. It was a sound of dread, a universal cry of sorrow. 

The second day of the filmmaker’s stay, his crew staked out near my nests on the West side of the island, getting shots of the seal’s bobbing heads in the water. I got up early, boiled water, and carried my steeping tea to the top of the tower. It was sunny, but the air still had a sharpness to it. The air was always like that on The Rock: air from the middle of the ocean.

The morning was quiet. The filmmaker and his crew were hidden under a blind and the colony was beyond the point of minding the intruder; the chicks stood and walked and sat. They had a way of laying when it was sunny, with their bellies pressed against the rocks and their feet splayed out behind them. Some flapped their wings and jumped into the air as an early attempt of flight, showing a little look of shock every time they returned to the ground. I saw the two chicks of P95 nibbling on bits of seaweed floating in a tidepool near their nest, B714 was playing with a stick, and the two chicks from R23 were snuggling in their nest. The only chicks not accounted for were the two from R2061. But this wasn’t necessarily unusual. Those chicks were wanderers. 

Two hours later Izzy came up to watch and I still hadn’t seen them.

    “But they’re probably just hiding under a rock,” I said.

I decided to go down to the boat ramp bringing a book and a handheld radio so people could find me if needed. The ramp faced South and its wood planks warmed with the morning sun. I was ten pages in when Izzy’s voice came over the radio. 

“I found R2061, they’re trapped!” 

They were hard to see from the top of the lighthouse, hidden behind a rock, heads just barely popping up from behind. But it was enough to spot the little dots of paint we had placed on their heads to mark them: one blue and one green. 

They stood on a slice of granite made island by the rising tide and farther from their nest than we had ever seen them. The chicks took turns jumping into the swelling water, attempting to swim back to the mainland, but each time a wave came and knocked them helplessly off course and back to the granite island. The path back home didn’t only involve this dangerous swim, but crossing through three other Herring gull territories. When a chick got caught in a different territory, it got its neck sliced by the parents defending it. R2061’s parents paced back at their nests, making that hollowing homing call. 

It was green who made it to land first, running free on the expanse of granite until it found a hiding place under two rocks. It wasn’t until blue made it off the island, that green emerged and the two chicks danced around each other deciding where to go: South towards home and rival birds or North to a tiny cove that seemed free? It was the latter they chose and slowly navigated their way to safety, never straying too far from the other, waiting for the other to hop a crack or jump over a rock. That was how the chick siblings were, beyond the occasional snapping at each other at feeding time, they went through the world as teams. Once on the edge of the cove, they found a hole to hide in and crouched down together. 

Birds in other nests had disappeared before. One morning the nuclear family of B714- with three healthy chicks the night before- had only one left. There weren’t even bodies to show for the missing siblings. Maybe they had wandered off like R2061, too far from home to return, too far away to be saved. 

Over lunch, we told everyone about the trapped chicks, and the two crew members scheduled for tower watch that afternoon said they’d keep an eye on them: we were a team. After lunch, we took a break from the sun, sticking around the house to enter the morning’s data. It wasn’t until someone called over the radio “Team Gull: a bird is swooping at the chicks in the cove!” that we dropped our data sheets and fled.

We ran so quickly to the top of the tower that we forgot our binoculars and had to use the bulky ones stored up there as backups. They were a little fuzzy no matter how hard you twisted and squirmed the fine adjustments, but they were enough for us to see the chicks crouched in that same place: a small indent in The Rocks edge officially named the Western Cove. 

It was a spot where we went fishing, standing by the shore and pulling in pollock to fry up for dinner. The heavy foot traffic between the house and the cove meant it was an area with few gull nests. The chicks could hide there without attacks from nearby parents. But, while safe from attacks from parents, they weren’t safe from Black-Backed Gulls, bigger gulls that also nested on the island. Getting their name from their silky Black Backs, they could be found eating stray Herring gull chicks. They had babies to feed too, and the tiny chicks were easy hunting. When we first heard of the swooping bird, we thought it must have been a Black Back. But, relieved, we found through the fuzzy frames only a Herring gull with a maroon band on its foot, placed there to mark it as the parents of R2061. The chicks were going to be saved. We pointed out the maroon band to the student who had called us and they took a break from their scan of the ocean for whales to spot it. We all sighed in relief, sitting down and slipping our legs through the rungs of the platform. 

But our giggles of relief soon ceased when we realized how hopeless the task of saving those chicks was for their parent. We watched anxiously as the parent swooped in with hollowing cries, a “come home please” cry, a “follow me this way!” cry, and the chicks looked up at their parents with a slight turn of their head and took a few measly steps away from the safety of their crack. The parent called again, moving further from the chicks, “yes, this way, this way.” But the chicks didn’t follow. They were young and brand new to the world and every single thing served as a distraction. 

They would start walking, but their sibling would bump into them or they would get distracted by a pebble, or they would start walking and stop to look at the sea, or they would both start walking together, obediently following the parent, and they would pass by a neighboring territory and get chased into a hole. To get home, they didn’t only have to get past one territory, but three. Watching them had all the tension of a nature documentary about a shark chasing a seal. It made me wonder about the filmmaker that morning, standing in the middle of the gull colony to film one frolicking. 

After a while, the parent got tired, flying up into the sky, soaring down, and landing back in its nest. It had given up. The chicks were alone. That was when Izzy and I started thinking about playing god. In our orientation days for our summer of research, we were let in on the realities of sharing a 3-acre rock with nesting birds and a colony of seals: there was a lot of death. We would see chicks get eaten, attacked by their own parents, by each other. We would see them freeze to death in the cold rain. It was easy to understand that we weren’t supposed to interfere with the wildlife negatively. We weren’t supposed to hunt the birds or scare away the seals. The hard part was understanding that we weren’t supposed to interfere positively either. If you saw a baby chick freezing to death, you let it die. If you didn’t you were playing god, choosing who gets to live and who gets to die. And you would be a naive god, one with all the power for change and a lack of understanding of what that change meant. There was always the chance you caused more harm than good. 

But how? How could we just sit and watch?

We thought about how we had watched the nests and gulls on the west side every single day for the past three weeks. We thought about how we knew where territories ended and began. We thought about how in this scenario we were slightly less naive Gods. We thought about how every day, when we went into the colony and weighed the chicks, we had the potential to cause harm and how now, that we had a chance to do good, interfering was wrong. We thought about our place in nature as human beings. And we thought about how the filmmaker had spent the morning staked out by R2061’s nest in the space where the chicks normally explored. What if the chicks going in the opposite direction that morning wasn’t entirely natural? We decided on a plan. 

Izzy went down the tower steps with a radio in hand, and I remained on the top of the tower keeping the chicks in the frame of my binoculars. As Izzy looped the tower and started to make the crossing to the Western Cove, they asked for an update. 

“Chicks are still in place,” I said through the tower radio. I watched closely as Izzy walked to the Western Cove and crouched a couple of feet away from the chicks. 

“Now?” They asked. 

“Still good.” The plan was for Izzy to sit with their eyes on the chicks ready to interfere at any sign of trouble. Izzy could scare a Black Back away from the vulnerable birds. They sat and waited and we prayed that somehow the chicks took it upon themselves to go home. It was right when we were debating further intervention when something exciting happened over at R2061’s nest. 

I heard the long call mates make to signal their arrival home, and turned to see R2061’s other parent flying home and greeting the tired out one. I watched as the tired parent got up from the nest and squawked at the incoming parent a couple of times before the parent flew directly to the Western Cove where the chicks hid amongst various rocks. To this day the movement astonishes me. Those few squawks acted as language, communicating both the need for help and the location of the missing chicks. And there we were moments before thinking the birds were helpless. Thinking we were gods.

The parent made that “come home” holler and the chicks came out to greet the bird, more eager than they had been earlier in the afternoon. They ran to the parent cooing and raising and lowering their necks, begging for a bite to eat. They must have been hungry. 

But the parent refused to feed them. Instead, they walked away from the cove and towards home, calling again for the chicks to follow. And the chicks did. 

The parent waited every couple of steps as it journeyed towards home, giving a few extra moments for the difficult crossings over large crevices. Izzy and I talked over the handheld as they went. 

“I lost them behind a rock!” I said. 

“They’re ok, coming around the corner now.” 

“Did green make it over that crevice?” Izzy asked. 

“Yeah, he’s right behind blue,” I said excitedly.

The chicks and parent troop made it past the first two territories without a scratch and Izzy and I waited in silence as the chicks approached the third and last territory. They were only a couple of feet from home when a defending gull ran at them, chasing them ten feet back. 

“Where’d they go?” Izzy asked. 

“I don’t know I can’t see them!” 

“Oh, there they are. Should I grab them?” Izzy asked. 

Before I could answer, the chick’s parent sounded an alarm call and attacked the bird, swooping in from above and nipping its bill. Interfering now, with all the angered parents, was too dangerous. The parent called for the chicks again, and they came bravely into the territory of the defending gull who showed no signs of backing down. The parent attacked again as the chicks attempted to cross, this time locking bills with the defending bird and arching its wings. There were louder sounds now, from further away in the colony. The fight had drawn attention from neighboring territories and the chicks were surrounded by angry birds, soaring in for a fight.

“What do we do?” I asked as I watched the chicks run towards the raging sea.

It was mid-tide, the seals piled onto the freshly exposed seaweed ledges for their naps, and the coming moments were as gut-wrenching and jaw-clenching as the climax of a blockbuster movie. R2061’s other parent soared in from its nest to join the fight. The two parents dove and arched their wings, battling the rival birds as the helpless young chicks ran through a battleground back home. Just like earlier in the day when they were stuck in the rising tide, the chicks never lost sight of the other as they ran. They waited to make sure they got to the nest together. Just like us fourteen on the rock, the chicks were a team. Izzy made their way back up to the lighthouse, and we sat together, hands balanced on the rungs of the tower, giggling as we watched the reunited family eat a regurgitated fish by the glittering sea. 

Now, on the mainland, twenty-five miles from The Rock, I think of the common gulls as the filmmaker thought of his puffins and boobies and whales and seals. When I see a gull on the roof of the dump, at the beach, or in a parking lot, I think about what that bird must have gone through to make it to where it is today. I wonder what kind of nest it was hatched in. I wonder if its siblings made it out. I wonder if they’re still a team. I stop and watch and remember how extraordinary a common, little bird can be. I think about R0261 and the sea.

izzy in the box we used as a blind to watch and film the birds
Izzy and Annika on the tower
Fire pit at MDR

Photo credits: All photos by Izzy Grimm and Annika Ross, except or ‘Fire pit at MDR’ by 2021 summer crew.

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Spring in Frenchman Bay

Written by Chris Petersen, March 29, 2021

Today is the first day of spring term at College of the Atlantic. It has been a surreal academic year, with both online and face-to-face teaching, and I’ll just say that it has been hard for both teachers and students as we have tried to make it close to a ‘normal’ experience. People have done an amazing job, but I am really looking forward to the fall, when I expect to be out in the field in the students without masks. The loons are still on the ocean, but the ponds are quickly starting to open up as their ice melts away. It’s a typical March day, in the 40’s, breezy, with clouds alternating with some bright sunshine. But spring is really beginning, even along the Maine coast, so i thought I show a couple of pictures that show the beginning of the next generation of young animals in the intertidal of Frenchman Bay.

On Saturday, I did my first plankton tow of the year to collect data on the timing of spawning of the local sea cucumber, Cucumaria frondosa, figuring I would not see any sea cucumber larvae. Sea cucumbers are all over the bay, in spring they release eggs and sperm into the water in synchronized spawning events, and the larvae take several weeks to develop and grow little tube feet and settle back on the bottom as juvenile cukes. On Saturday, on my first tow off the Bar Harbor town dock, I just happened to capture the first major spawning event of the year, that probably happened Friday, March 26th. I’ve attached a couple of pictures of the orange embryos that were taken using a microscope (the larvae are about a millimeter across). They are all in the early stages of cell divison.

Also on Saturday, a first-year COA student, Quinn Jonas, was at Anemone Cave at low tide, and saw rough-mantled nudibranchs (Onchidoris bilamellata) and their white ribbon egg masses. These nudibranch are the most common ones in the bay, and you can find them in lots of places at low tide.

Finally, my favorite thing this time of year is to go down to the rocky intertidal at low tide and look for the annual recruitment of baby barnacles. After copulating with neighbors in the fall, the adult barnacles brood the young over the winter, and then in late winter release larvae. The planktonic larvae then go through multiple filtering-feeding stages before changing into a last stage, a cyprid larvae, that looks to me like a tiny grain of rice or a seed (only really, really small). These larvae land on rocks and then in a few days metamorphose into the volcano-shaped juvenile barnacles that we are used to seeing. I was doing some rockweed work Saturday and stopped by intertidal some rocks with a couple of students to see if they had started settling on rocks, and they had. These pictures are from today at Northwest Cove in Bar Harbor, but I first saw Saturday at the COA beach. On Saturday I might have seen one metamorphosed larvae, today I saw a bunch at a different beach.

Thanks to the students that came out on Saturday to see some of this and help out: Quinn, Simone, Molly, Sil, and Emily Rose. Happy spring everyone, I did also see a tulip leaf starting to stick up out of the soil in our planter today, so maybe we will soon have some other signs of spring. I think I have already heard some wood frogs, and I expect the peepers to start going any day. — Chris

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COA gets 5 Maine SEA Grant Undergraduate Scholarships for 2020

Editors note: This fall COA students were awarded 5 of the 10 Maine Sea Grant Undergraduate Scholarships for 2020, along with students from Maine Maritime Academy, University of New England (UNE), and Saint Joseph’s College of Maine. These students represent some of the variety that our students have in their projects and interests. I asked one of them, Kiernan Crough, to compile some notes from each of the awardees. Below is his compliation. – Chris Petersen

Olivia Jolley (‘21) Since arriving at COA, my interest in marine studies has grown in unexpected ways. My passion for marine species has grown from sharks and a few other groups to include invertebrates and algae, microorganisms and marine mammals, and the marine environment itself. 

Through courses like Fisheries, Fishermen, and Fishing Communities, I have studied management systems governing marine resources and the challenges they face as well as the value of marine life to the culture and livelihoods of coastal communities, especially here in Maine. I am intrigued by the relationships of people and places and species, and I have found new ways to explore these connections–oral history collection, museum curation, visual art, and more. I have continued to explore my marine pursuits through visual art on my own time and through opportunities at COA. In addition to marine-focused projects in courses like Illustration, I designed an independent study in Marine Illustration and completed an artist residency at Mount Desert Rock, one of the college’s remote island research stations. I became so enamored with the station that I spent the next summer at the Rock as station co-manager and experimenting with a film-based biological survey with my co-manager Annaleena Vaher.

This year I will be working on a history of Mount Desert Rock for my senior project, working with the marine mammal skeleton collections, and figuring out what my next step is after graduation. Currently, I hope to take a gap year (or maybe more) to acquire more field experience and explore, and then I plan to pursue further education and a career in a marine field that keeps me involved with the ocean and continues to provide new experiences and challenges. 

Camden Hunt (‘22) I’m researching the relationship between the ocean and human action, largely with regard to seafood processing. I recently completed an internship with Mapping Ocean Stories, focused largely on Maine’s historic sardine industry. I put together a large body of poetry, as well as created, wrote, and produced a radio show for Coastal Conversations on WERU. Recently, a different body of poetry related to herring smoking went on the Downeast Fishery Trail Website, and I was able to do some archival work at the McCurdy’s Smokehouse Museum in Lubec.

Through this work, I’ve been able to investigate the way history exists within coastal communities in a way I was never previously able – I’ve been able to do work that put me directly inside of seafood processing facilities that inspired art and writing.

Hallie holding up her prized sugar kelp (Saccharina latissima)

Hallie Arno (‘22) My interests in marine science are pretty far-reaching right now. I’m really excited about aquaculture research and the potential aquaculture has for Maine, but also skeptical of some of its limitations. I have been involved in aquaculture research and hope to pursue that to help make aquaculture more sustainable and viable. Right now I am working for Maine Sea Grant analyzing the patterns through space and time of Double-Crested Cormorants in the Penobscot River. I’m interested in the role they have in the ecology of the river, since they may be predators of anadromous fish such as salmon and alewives, and the management implications of that. Last summer, I worked at Hurricane Island Center for Science and Leadership doing field research on aquaculture scallops and kelp to try to answer industry questions. This fall I’ve been working on the COA aquaculture site and have been working with commercial wild and farmed seaweed harvesters to learn more about seaweed research and management.

Jillian Igoe (‘22) My studies in marine science aim to bridge multiple disciplines to research not only how ocean systems work, but also the cultures, policies and histories of people who live on coasts and islands relate to these systems. My main interest is in mobilizing biological and cultural frameworks in order to research the potential of an ecosystem such as the Gulf of Maine to adapt to ongoing environmental changes. In order to look into this potential, I would like to explore trophic relationships – specifically pertaining to the impact of biodiversity loss on phytoplankton-zooplankton dynamics. 

In the past, I carried out an independent research project assessing the impacts of temperature change on the northern star coral (Astrangia poculata) at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. I have also held an internship position at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute analyzing images and quantifying sediment motion caused by waves within the Vineyard Sound captured by a sonar device. Additionally, I gathered data on soft-shell clam populations with my Marine Biology class for the Bar Harbor Marine Resources Committee and the Maine Department of Resources.

Kiernan Crough (‘22) I’m a third year student hailing from the rolling hills of western Massachusetts. While at COA, I’ve taken pretty much every fish and ocean related class that’s been offered in an effort to create a well-rounded understanding into the aspects of not only biology, physics, and ecology of the marine environment, but also the communities of people who have historically relied on the ocean for their livelihood. 

Last year, I participated in the Caribbean Reef Expedition with SEA Semester which entailed studying a diversity of topics such as how fisheries are managed, how the global ocean currents circulate, how the whaling industry collapsed, and when we traveled to the Caribbean, how to sail. Aboard the 134’ SSV Corwith Cramer, we traveled along the Lesser Antilles, collecting samples from the coral reefs of each island we visited and learning about the histories and cultures of the communities who relied upon the reefs for food, protection from erosion, and their cultural significance. Throughout this time, a classmate and I conducted our own independent research on the effects of marine protected areas on local reef health and species diversity. In conjunction with the data collected from the reef, we interviewed local stakeholders in order to assess the level of local involvement in marine conservation and investigate the potential correlation between their involvement with the marine protected area and the overall effectiveness of that protected area. 

Kiernan oystering with MDI Oysters at low tide in Goose Cove.

Before I graduate, I hope to acquire more experience in the field and apply my knowledge to tackling real world problems. Specifically, I plan on conducting and participating in field research at the Edward McC. Blair Marine Research Station on Mount Desert Rock. My main interest lies with shark behavior and understanding how their territory is shifting in connection with climate change. The Gulf of Maine has been dubbed by some as the fastest warming body of water in the world, and I’m curious to investigate how that has affected the behavior and biology of the sharks who visit our coast. As a localized zone of high biological productivity caused by upwelling and home to a seasonal colony of seals, Mount Desert Rock provides a perfect location to monitor the presence of sharks and their impacts on the local ecology. 

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Six years of Maine Sea Grant Undergraduate Scholarships at COA: Part 2

June 1 is the deadline for the Maine Sea Grant Undergraduate Scholarship.  In a previous post, I highlighted the first group of COA students to have these scholarships. I thought I’d focus again on the recipients of this scholarship, but this time look at the four current students that have the awards, Leena Vaher, Emma Ober, Aya Kumagai, and Aliza Leit.  For me, what I think they illustrate really well is the diversity of ways that students navigate our curriculum, and how they use their own combination of opportunities to produce a really strongly focused curriculum, even when that focus differs dramatically among students. 

Among the student summaries below, there are some common themes. All of them have spent time off campus taking classes , either on a boat (SEA semester) or in a different country (Mexico, New Zealand). All of them have spent time doing fieldwork, either at marine labs, one of our island research stations (Great Duck Island or Mount Desert Rock), or in the local mudflats or intertidal streams. Finally, all of them are working with marine resources and people, either fishermen, aquaculturists or tourists, and are trying to communicate their work to a broader audience.  It’s a great group of students and I hope you enjoy their summaries and pictures – Chris 

Aliza and Emma seining in Northeast Creek on Mount Desert Island attempting to get  silversides for a Cornell Professor studying their genetics (COA alum Nina Therkildsen)

Leena Vaher ’21. I am a third-year student and my interest at COA is to combine conservation biology with filmmaking in order to enhance communication between science and the public. I have always been interested in both of these subjects and COA has offered unique resources and opportunities that have helped me to draw connections between these two fields.

Leena-mdr-falcon-redDuring the past two years, I have spent some time on one of the COA Islands,  Mount Desert Rock. During the first summer out there, I immersed myself in the wildlife and followed around harbor and grey seals, herring and great lack-backed gulls, various shorebirds, falcons who were rare visitors, and anyone really who moved. My goal was to capture the life that a small rock in the middle of the Atlantic ocean offers. It was an amazing opportunity since every day the Rock became larger and larger, as I found more interesting behaviors to capture and stories to document. Just a few examples could be seeing a Spotted sandpiper hunting down a fly or hearing male Grey seals hauling in dusk. Also, being surrounded by the ocean, one has to be creative with repairs or new ideas. It was a wonderful experience to be limited by resources and be creative with existing materials we had on the Rock in order to build something useful for my project.

Leena-and-mdr-crewThe second summer brought me back to the Rock but this time into a slightly different role — I interned as a co-station manager of the research station. Together with a fellow station-manager, we pioneered an experiment to build an “underwater camera trap” which actually was a buoy with an attached GoPro camera. We tried to capture footage of predatory fish around the Rock and did manage to see Pollock, Haddock, and diving Cormorants. We never got footage of our “target” species, Great White Shark, but we saw it swimming further away. An exciting project to continue! The summer also offered several learning experiences in leadership and offered so many good friendships. (PS – We have included another short video of Lenna’s at the end of this post.)

elversAnother opportunity to bridge science and media was in a class called Fisheries, Fishermen, and Fishing Communities where for my final project, I had a chance to follow a small segment of life of diadromous fish — elvers and Alewives crossing the Somesville dam. We were all connected with a local fisheries person and I met Rustin Taylor who taught me about the elver fishery and much more. It was really interesting to film elvers who had swam all the way from the Sargasso Sea and now climbed over a few meters tall dam wall, creating a mass that covered half of the concrete wall. I learned about resilience and dedication looking at these two species. (You can see the short video on Maine Sea Grant’s you tube channel or in a previous blogpost on anadromous fishes here).

Little did I know that a year later, I had a chance to sail in the Sargasso Sea and see eel larvae in a different stage. I participated in the SEASemester Study Abroad program and we sailed in the Caribbean Sea in order to learn about colonization, conservation and everything in between. Because of the COVID-19, the ship continued to sail instead of making port stops on Caribbean islands and we sailed over the Puerto Rico trench as well as in the Sargasso Sea where we did Neuston net toes. My individual research project focused on seabird foraging and I was lucky to continue sailing and to study seabird colonies near remote islands that one can only see from a ship.

I do not know what will come next but one is sure, I will continue to use film as a tool to communicate science with a wider audience since there are so many stories to share!

emma-at-clarks-cove.-redEmma Ober ’20.   Coming to COA, I started my education by exploring marine biology, something that I did not get a lot of exposure to growing up in Vermont. I found that I really loved the subject and have continued to delve deeper into ocean sciences throughout my time at COA. I completed an internship with Allied Whale during the summer between my first and second years. This involved working as a deckhand and research assistant on whale watch trips with Bar Harbor Whale Watch. I also got to spend half the summer on Mount Desert Rock, COA’s remote marine mammal research station. I loved living in the field and working with other researchers on ongoing studies as well as our own studies.

After that summer, I spent a little more time exploring marine mammal science before turning my attention to other areas. In particular, I became interested in studying fisheries science as I feel that it is an area of marine biology that can have a big impact on the lives of people around the world as well as on marine organisms and ecosystems. Over the next summer, I completed an internship at the University of Maine’s Darling Marine Center (DMC) where I worked on a project that is attempting to develop a soft-shell green crab fishery to help control the growing population of this invasive species.

Left – Emma with her green crab poster from her summer at DMC. Right -Emma in Kino Bay with a mural she worked on while taking classes at Prescott College’s field station.

After leaving the DMC I decided to try to fill my craving for a study abroad experience by completing an ecoleague semester in Sonora, Mexico through the Prescott College Kino Bay Program. I spent six months at Prescott College’s field station in Kino Bay, along with two other COA students, Leah Rubin and Aliza Leit. Part of this was spent in a marine conservation field course where I worked with two other students to create an extensive report on small-scale fisheries in the area. I also spent a month in a Spanish immersion course learning beginner Spanish and living with a family in the town of Kino Viejo.

Young soft-shell clams

Young soft-shell clams doing well when protected from predation in screened boxes.

After returning from Mexico, I’ve focused on local fishery work for my senior project with a series of studies looking at different aspects of the soft-shell clam fishery in Downeast Maine. I am currently working on writing up a study we completed this past summer looking at predation of juvenile clams in different mudflats on Mount Desert Island – a project that I am handing off to Aliza this summer. This coming summer, I will be involved with a study analyzing data from annual reports submitted to the Maine Department of Marine Resources by towns in Downeast Maine to attempt to evaluate the strategies towns are using to manage their soft-shell clam resources.

costa-rica-field-notebookAya Kumagai ’21. I am currently in Hakodate, a port city that is located on the southern tip of Hokkaido (northern most of the four main islands that makes Japan). I am working in a seabird-researching lab at Hokkaido University as my internship. I am part of a research project that is looking at how seabirds might be impacted by offshore windfarms. My personal project is about the flight height of Black-tailed gulls. The plan was to leave for an offshore filed site late this month (April), but this has been postponed due to the current pandemic. If I do get to go to the island (which I really hope!!), I will be tagging two different species of gulls with GPS loggers that can give us information on where the gulls have been and how high they were flying. I will be analyzing this data to see what might impact how high the gulls fly, and I will also be learning ways to create a sensitivity map of Black-tailed gulls for offshore windfarms. The plan is to take these findings and experience back to Maine and see what applies to the gulls that breed off the coast of Maine. Both Maine and Hokkaido are areas with great potential for offshore windfarms, but also has many seabird breeding islands. I am very excited to see what might apply between these two places.

Great Duck lighthouse and the pier at Hakodate – pictures by Aya

aya-with-petrel-chickMy interest in seabirds started two summers ago when I visited Great Duck Island after my first year at COA. I was only on the island for a week, but I got to tag along with students that had projects out on the island. I got to see my first Leach’s Storm Petrel in Chole’s hand (a student that was on the island). It was like magic, and that moment, I decided that I wanted to spend my next summer on Great Duck Island researching petrels. The following summer that I spent on Great Duck Island was the best summer I have ever spent so far in my life. I investigated whether vegetation type influenced petrel burrow density and conducted a population estimate. Not only I got to practice filed-research skills (ex. using GPS units to map features, banding petrels, and taking field notes) and got the opportunity to present a poster at a conference, I also got to make many mistakes in a safe environment and learnt a lot of lessons (ex. data entry should happen every day while you can remember the details but also the importance of taking filed notes that you can read a year later and make sense out of it, string your field notes on to you so you don’t accidentally drop it when going through bushes, and more.) Sunsets were always different and beautiful, and I got to share those with friends and other creatures on the island. It was very special.

As you might be able to tell from this story, I enjoy fieldwork and my interest/passion is with ecology and conservation. These interests have taken me to many places since I came to COA. I’ve been to Eastern California in an Environmental-STEM field method course with COA geologist Sarah Hall.  I also had the opportunity to spend a term in Costa Rica with a Tropical Ecology/Conservation/Science through the lens of Art course that Stephen Ressel and Jenny Rock. We visited various field stations and conducted multiple field research projects.  It was a fascinating experience to find questions in the field and think about ways to try and answer them, but it was even more fascinating to be immersed with so many unknowns of the tropical rainforest and left with even more questions. We also got to interact with field station managers, guides, and entrepreneurs that made me re-think what conservation meant for Costa Rica and for other places on this earth.

Leena and Aya also took part in a 2-day workshop on facilitating meetings run by Maine Sea Grant (pictured above).  Left – Leena and Aya on the left with MSG staff and UMO graduate students. Right – Aya presenting and Lenna on the right listening.

I also have had the opportunity to work in Dr. Beth Dumont’s lab at Jackson Laboratory. The broad objective of this lab is to better understand the causes of various mechanisms that generates genetic diversity. I was fascinated by the idea of using genetics as a way to explore my interest in ecology and evolution. My personal project at the lab looks at the DNA satellite sequence variation in voles. The overarching goal is to assess the role of satellite DNA sequence turnover in the evolutionary history and speciation of voles. Through this experience, I was able to familiarize myself with the topics in evolutionary genetics (with a focus on microsatellites), gained skills in bioinformatics and coding (with lots of help from Dan Gatti and researchers at the lab), and had a firsthand experience of working in a research lab outside of COA. Just like the rainforest in Costa Rica, mechanisms that could be contributing to genetic diversity is full on unknowns! I hope to continue working at the lab once I am back at COA.


Aliza Liet ’21. Taking Chris Petersen’s marine biology class my freshman year at COA gave me the opportunity to explore my relationship with the ocean. After this class I became completely enamored by marine ecosystems and began seeking out other unique and exciting ways to learn about marine conservation, aquaculture, and fisheries. Through the Ecoleague program I studied at Prescott College’s Kino Bay Field Station in Sonora, Mexico on the Gulf of California during the fall of my sophomore year. This immersive and memorable experience deepened my understanding of  marine protected areas, the impacts of industrial fishing fleets, and community led marine conservation efforts (Image on left from a shrimp trawl in the Gulf of California). Throughout the spring of my sophomore year I collected, counted, and staged orange footed sea cucumber plankton from Frenchman Bay to assist Chris with an ongoing research project. I also helped install clam recruitment boxes to better understand predation and environmental stressors on soft shell clam populations for another ongoing research project.

Aliza-touch-tankIn the fall of my junior year I left the U.S. once again to study abroad, this time in New Zealand through a consortium agreement. I studied aquaculture, biological oceanography, and marine invertebrate ecology and biology at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. This spring I am using each of these experiences to shape COA’s new Meat and Seafood Purchasing Policy which I am working on with two other students as a group independent study. In addition to working towards enacting policy change this year at an institutional level, I received a Maine Space Grant to work on a clam recruitment experiment and will be socially distancing on the mudflats this upcoming summer of 2020.

To wrap things up, here is a short video from Leena on a day at Mount Desert Rock

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Six years of Maine Sea Grant Undergraduate Scholarships at COA: Part 1

For the seventh year Maine Sea Grant is offering its Undergraduate Scholarship, and COA will be one of the participating institutions, as we have been since this scholarship started in 2014. Second and third year COA students are eligible to apply.  For more information about eligibility, with a description and link to the application go to this Maine Sea Grant page or contact me via email.  Deadline for applications is June 1, 2020 — Chris Petersen 

In 2014, three COA students received undergraduate scholarships from Maine Sea Grant for their academic work on marine and coastal issues as second and third-year undergrads.  Six years later  I thought it might be fun to check in with that inaugural group, Ellie Oldach, Madeline Motley, and Roshni Mangar,  and have them give updates.


Madeline 2020Roshni pic2Ellie-w-abalone-red
Left to Right, Madeline (with one of her many pets), Roshni on what I think must be a west coast beach (looks too cold for the Indian Ocean), and Ellie holding a tasty invertebrate. Top picture of baby sea turtles by Madeline Motley.

Madeline Motley.  Madeline actually wrote the student announcement for this scholarship in 2015, and highlighted Ellie, Roshni, and herself, so I thought I’d start with Madeline.  As an undergrad Madeline did internships studying sea turtles and marine conservation in Malaysia and Hawaii.  She also was a co-editor for this blog for her last two years at COA, and was a teaching assistant for marine biology.

Madeline helping to collect algae at a tide pool at Otter Point, and at an amazing coral reef in Malaysia.

Despite her love for marine biology and sea turtles (her senior project was a summary of the different strategies that non-profits and government agencies used in sea turtle conservation and what factors affected the success of these programs), Madeline is back in Wisconsin, in her words in an email from early April:

I have been with Exact Sciences Laboratories for the past 3 1/2 years. I thought it would be temporary, but hey, turns out I absolutely love the company and Wisconsin.  I got my Molecular Biology certification through the ASCP two years ago, and am now a Technical Specialist in the Clinical Lab. The past few weeks have been pretty crazy. We have been putting together a lab to test for COVID19, and we just went live. The project reminded me a lot of putting together that spring break short course.  COA would love this company. They are very environmentally conscious and get creative with recycling. “How are we going to recycle this/do with waste?” are ALWAYS  questions when we get something new. I love it.  

I may have ended up back in my home town, but I wouldn’t be where I was without COA.  I’m able to public speak, teach (I ran an ASCP study group), question things… I don’t know if I would have developed (or even tried) those skills at a large school. Our interdisciplinary education came in handy so many times. Including, yup, art. “Send it to Madeline to make it pretty,” is something I hear a lot. I am very thankful for COA and all the amazing professors. We are planning a trip to Bar Harbor, so hopefully I will be able to thank everyone in person soon. 

Madeline at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory during a molecular genetics short course, and a picture of her in the tropics.

Madeline is married to alum Tyler Freitas and they have a house in Wisconsin. And lots of pets.

Ellie Oldach.  Ellie was a third-year student when she got the scholarship in 2014, and graduated in 2015 after creating several podcasts and an article about Lyme disease for her senior project. Ellie has always been a strong propoent of science communication, and has a blog, zeacology. I think my favorite post of hers is when she put a human face on the fires in California two years ago – you can see it here reprinted in the COA magazine (p. 52). Ellie has been back in Maine quite a bit since graduation, and I saw her just last month at the fishermen’s forum. This is her summary of her years after graduation:

… I then headed off to New Zealand for a year as a Fulbright student working with a lab to study the ecology of the South Island’s intertidal ecosystems. During that dreamy year, I developed an interest in studying and writing about social-ecological systems. Returning to the US, I spent two years in Maine and DC, developing this interest as a freelance ecologist (…it’s a thing! You can do it, too.), then decided to formally study marine social-ecological systems through a PhD program in a newly created Sustainable Oceans Program at UC-Davis.  Now two years into her program at Davis, I’m enjoying explorations into network analysis, surveys and interviews, and the challenges and joys of community-engaged research. I still split my time between California and the gorgeous coast (and community) of Downeast Maine.

Ellie-on-a-lobster-boat-redEllie has been engaged in work on the lobster fishery on both coasts, working with our friends at the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries including Dr Josh Stoll – and is supported in part by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. She also worked with me and Hannah Webber from Schoodic Institute on our rockweed research, and produced this short video on the policy questions surrounding this fishery.

Ellie’s short video on rockweed.

Roshni Mangar. Roshni worked extensively with Allied Whale, the marine mammal non-profit based at COA while she was a student. The summer after she graduated she was the assistant station manager before moving on to combine education and research in Florida and back in the Indian Ocean over the next 3 years.  Roshni wrote a summary of her postgraduate path below, and I’ve also included two COA videos, one short one where she explains her background and a second that was the presentation of her senior project.  First, her summary:

After graduating from COA, I worked as an assistant station manager at Mount Desert Rock for 3 months, followed by working at SeaCamp in Florida. I worked at SeaCamp for 8 months as a marine educator. After SeaCamp, I joined WiseOceans in the Seychelles. At WiseOceans, I worked as a Reef Restoration Officer and a Marine Educator. After working with WiseOceans for a year, I volunteered as a research assistant at the Bodega Marine Laboratory at UC Davis. I worked on krill populations and crab larvae. After my time at Bodega, I returned to Mauritius and worked for WiseOceans again as a Marine Educator. 

Underwater Drill_SeychellesSeychelles_Marine Educator
Roshni working in the Seychelles, underwater setting up surveys and in the classroom.

After Wise Oceans, I started my journey to graduate school! I am currently finishing the last term of my first year at the University of British Columbia at the Institute of Ocean Fisheries. I am a Master’s student in the Project Seahorse Laboratory, under the supervision of Dr. Amanda Vincent. My thesis is on the socio-economic aspects of bottom trawling in Tamil Nadu, India. I will hopefully be starting my field season as soon as the COVID situation is under control. I will be interviewing fishers along the coast of Tamil Nadu to better understand their ties to the fishing industry.

Here is a video of Roshni explaining her educational path to COA:

And here is another short video with her presenting her senior project work to the COA Board of Trustees:

Since 2014, we have had 14 students receive scholarships, including four that are still current students.  I’m going to try to have another post or two updating some of the other students as well. – Stay safe and sane everyone.

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Rights to a River: fish without water and people without food

Editors Note: This Outreach piece was written by College of The Atlantic student, Emma Ober ’20, for an assignment in the COA Fisheries, Fishermen, and Fishing Communities class in the spring of 2019. 

Rights to a River
Fish without water and people without food
by Emma Ober

As the weather finally begins to warm, Maine’s forests start to wake up; bird song fills the air, leaves begin to coat the canopies of trees, and hopeful sprigs of green poke up from the mud. For those who know how to look more closely, similar signs of spring appear as rivers and streams in the area begin to fill with life. 

On Saturday, May 18th, 2019, students from College of the Atlantic’s class on Fisheries, Fishermen, and Fishing Communities traveled to a dam on the Pennamaquan River in Pembroke, Maine. Our host, Chris Bartlett from Maine Sea Grant Extension, showed us around the area and told us about some of his work. Chris also invited Ed Bassett, a member of the Passamaquoddy tribe to talk about his experiences and perspectives. Chris led us down a small path to a rocky area next to the water. Looking down into the the rapids, everything looks completely normal for a few seconds, until suddenly it becomes apparent that what looks like rippling water flowing over smooth rocks is in fact the bodies of hundreds of sleek, gray fish fighting their way upstream. You can put your hand in the water and feel them slide past you as vast densities of these incredible organisms pass through the water. Students were perching on the rocks grabbing fish with their bare hands like some hilarious parody of a brown bear that has replaced it’s fur with a Patagonia puff jacket. 


Hallie Arno (left) and Truth Muller (right) celebrate catching River Herring from below the Pembroke Dam

The fish the students were catching are called River Herring. This is the name given to two species of nearly identical anadromous fish (species that live in the ocean and spawn in freshwater): Alewives, Alosa pseudoharengus, and Blueback Herring, Alosa aestivalis, that both migrate from sea up New England rivers to lay their eggs in freshwater ponds and lakes. The journey undertaken by these small fish is a very difficult and treacherous one, but they continue to push forward every year, returning to the same lake or pond where they were born. In the past, River Herring have run up nearly every river in Maine, however the increase of dams, pollution, and overfishing have wiped them from many rivers and drastically reduced their numbers throughout the state. The fish we were seeing that day were victims of a dam system; unable to migrate up the poorly designed fish ladder because of the high water, the alewives are stuck below passage, waiting for water flow to lower so they will be to travel to their spawning habitat upstream on the Pennamaquan. Struggles like these are commonplace all along the coast, with fish being denied access to their normal breeding grounds by the presence of man-made obstructions like dams. Luckily, many people and organizations throughout the state are working hard to bring back the historical abundances of these fish.


A quick snapshot of the fish as they try to pass the rapids below the dam


Right: The dam and poorly designed fish ladder that the Alewives are trying to get up. Photo Credit: Hallie Arno

Below: One of the fish ladders in the dam system. Fish ladders help fish move up the river past the dam by providing different smaller pools where they can rest from the current before they move up the next “rung.”


Ed Bassett is one of these people; he has served on the Passamaquoddy tribe’s environmental department since he was hired in 2002 because of his GIS and mapping expertise. He was generous enough to join us on Saturday and sat at a picnic table with the class to discuss his history and the projects he is doing with resource management. Much of Ed’s work with the department has been focused on alewives. However, Ed shared that his first interaction with alewife fish management was not necessarily that positive, at least in terms of legal consequences. One day Ed was canoeing with a friend on one of the rivers in Downeast Maine and came across a chicken-wire dam that private landowners had put up to capture alewives in the river behind their house. Seeing all the fish running up into the dam, Ed acted on his first instinct and broke open the wire to let the fish through. The young Ed was caught and reprimanded for tampering with private property. Luckily, no one pressed charges, and all Ed had to do was to repair the damages. “I shouldn’t have done that,” he told our class, “but I just got so emotional seeing the fish blocked from migrating.”
Today, Ed is just as passionate, but a bit less impulsive with his work. He still does work to report and take down illegal dams, but this is done through legal channels with the tribal council and other conservation groups. “I don’t want to cause trouble these days, I just want to work with people,” Ed says.


Ed Bassett talking to me and another student about his tribe’s history with the state government. Ed is holding a device that lets him place an underwater camera in the river and send live video to his phone of the fish swimming by. Photo credit: Chris Petersen

Unfortunately, history with the Maine government has not inspired Ed’s trust. For Ed, the conflict began when settlers came to the US and began infringing on the tribal way of life. It stems from the doctrine of discovery in place at that time. Any explorer who landed in an “undiscovered” land, could claim it for their country, ignoring the native people that had lived there long before they came. “We didn’t even matter, it was like we were the same as the animals,” Ed says. The tribe struggled to adapt to the new invaders. The Passamaquoddy people never recognized land and resource ownership the way the settlers did. History has examples where some chiefs did not understand what settler governments were trying to do and ended up selling large amounts of land for depressingly small prices. The relationship with the state is still filled with tension to this day. Ed explains how “the state doesn’t trust native people.” He talked about the history of conflicts between tribal people and the government, mentioning a number of cases where tribe members have been unfairly prosecuted for crimes surrounding resource use. 

The Passamaquoddy people have been tied to the rivers and these resources since far before settlers came to America. For thousands of years, men, women, and children would wade into the rushing waters, bubbling with fish, and harvest them by hand, filling enough baskets to feed the tribe through the winter. Today, anadromous fish are even more important. Ed explained how the amount of pollution that runs into rivers has made almost all freshwater species toxic for human consumption. The tribe now relies on fish from the ocean for a lot of their food since they accumulate fewer toxins. Because alewives spend much of their life in saltwater, they would be a good candidate to supply food for the tribe. However, increased fishing pressure and dams from outside groups have seriously reduced fish populations, leading to the need for stricter management of the resource. Though they were not responsible for these declines, the tribe is still affected by the lack of fish and the associated management restrictions. Today, state and federal laws have seriously infringed on the tribe’s rights to fish in ancestral waters. Ed talked about tribal fishermen being allowed to harvest from islands that were within the tribal territory, but as soon as they stepped their feet in the water, it no longer counted the sustenance fishing and they could get in trouble.

Ed is trying to help improve the situation, both for the fish and the community. The dam we are standing below has an interesting story itself. Chris explained how the dam system on this river wasn’t built as a power supply, like many similar structures throughout the state. Instead, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife hoped that by damming the river, it could create more marshland habitat for the Ring-Necked Duck, a species that could provide another target for sportsmen in the area. Hearing from Chris and Ed, it seems to me like the area has clearly favored the rights of the sport industry to use this waterway, far more than the indigenous tribes, commercial fishermen, and even the anadromous fish themselves. Many dam owners are required to invest in structures to help anadromous fish bypass the obstructions. However, from what I could see, the Pembroke dam fish ladder is clearly more for show. Though we observed what had to be many hundreds of fish filling the river below the fish ladder, the fish counter installed at the top of the dam showed that mere 37 had managed to pass the obstruction over the last day. It doesn’t seem to me like there is much incentive from dam owners to do anything to address this. The dam itself was rebuilt a few years ago, but the last work on the fishways was in 1958, so it’s no wonder they are functioning so poorly today.

Chris-Bartlett-redChris Bartlett, a Sea Grant employee, explains the fish counting device installed at the top of the dam system. This shows how many fish are managing to make it past the dams and up into the river and can also help track how the population is doing. Through increased monitoring and data collection, the town has been able to reopen the recreational fishery that allows people with a recreational license to take 25 fish, provided they stay a certain distance from the fishway. Looking at the numbers on the fish counter shows a very sad picture about how much the dams are affecting the fish. All the numbers on the counter were in the single digits. Going from seeing the water below the dam teaming with so many hundreds of fish to realizing how few of them are able to make it past the obstacle is very sad and disheartening. It shows you how much these fish are being disadvantaged and completely prevented from making it through their migration.

Ed talked about how in another watershed the sportfishing industry strongly advocated for the continued blocking of alewives at a dam. Worried about alewives competing for resources with their target sports fish in the upstream lakes and ponds, they wanted to block the River Herring from coming up the river. When listening to a recording of this meeting, Ed was appalled by what the sport fishing groups were doing and was worried about misinformation being spread. He has set about on a project trying to change the way people view the River Herring in this watershed. When he describes it he talks about how incorrect statements and advocacy against the River Herring changed the history of the area. His job, he says, is to go back and rewrite it back to the truth. Ed has been conducting research into the history and challenges of the alewife runs in this area, reading documents and books, talking to historians, and going out into the field to investigate the current assumptions about fishery. “The thing with GIS is you can’t just sit in front of your computer and assume your mapping is going to be accurate. You have to go out and groundtruth it.” And that’s just what Ed is doing. He’s working to prove the presence of these fish back through history and hopes to see them restored, once again able to flood the rivers on their journey to their rightful birthplace. For him, it’s not just about restoring the fishery. He talks about the tribe’s connection to the natural world around them “whatever happens to the resource happens to us…it’s not just about bringing back sustenance for the people, it’s about bringing back the whole ecosystem.”

Interested in diadromous fishes in downeast Maine? Here are some more sites that might be of interest:

Diadromous fish videos: Elvers, alewives, Somesville and downeast Maine. A previous post in the marine studies at COA site with 3 videos focusing on diadromous fish and downeast rivers in Maine.

At the Downeast Fisheries Trail website there are articles on river herring, both a fisheries then and a fisheries now article written by Julia Beaty (then and now) and Natalie Springuel (then).

The Downeast Salmon Federation is involved in a project to replace and repair the fishways on the Pennamaquan, you can read more about their work here.

The Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries is also doing fish restoration work in Hancock County, focused in the Bagaduce Watershed and Estuary.  The Downeast Salmon Federation, Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries, and COA are three of the partners in the Downeast Fisheries Partnership.

The Maine Department of Marine Resources has a Sea-Run Fisheries division with a webpage and links to general information, programs and projects on the diversity of diadromous fishes that occur in Maine.


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Working waterfront in Maine

Editor’s note: I grew up in Los Angeles, where the huge ports of San Pedro and Long Beach monopolized a section of the bay, the oil refineries shared the landscape, and the large cranes that removed containers reminded us of imperial walkers.  Yet a mile away there were houses, restaurants, and condos facing the ocean.  These two places didn’t mix, they were like oil and water, and the boundaries were clear. In Maine, in most towns the working waterfront is interdigitated among restaurants and houses, private and public piers sit next to each other, and access to the water seems to be as fragile as a for-sale sign. This post includes the work of two students from the spring of 2019. The first is a video by graduate student Giulia Cardoso ’20 for a documentary video class, and has interviews from fishermen in Steuben, Northeast Harbor, and Boothbay Harbor. The text and pictures that follow is from Kiernan Crough ’22, from an assignment in Natalie Springuel and my Fisheries, Fishermen, and Fishing Communities class in the spring of 2019.  Both Kiernan and Giulia went to many of the ports together, so it seemed like a good idea to link the two projects together. At the end of the post, there are some links to resources for anyone that wants to find out more about working waterfront challenges in Maine. – Chris Petersen

Where It All Starts:  College of the Atlantic graduate student Giulia Cardoso interviews multiple stakeholders of Maine’s working waterfront and discusses the challenges for keeping public access to Maine’s coastline.


Coastal communities and working waterfronts of Maine. By Kiernan Crough

Following an oversized black pickup down a wooded backroad in Steuben, Maine, the road wound its way to spit us out into a clearing of sleepy houses nestled on the bay’s coast. The large stacks of lobster traps sitting in each well-kept lawn quickly informed us that we were in the right place. Stepping out of the car and walking down to the 80-foot wooden wharf, Giulia and I shake hands with Mike Sargent, a multi-generational fishermen and current board member of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association. Surrounding the wharf are fuel and bait houses, a lobster pound, and a large float covered in skiffs which juts out into the glassy bay: pretty much everything a lobsterman could ask for. It’s an overcast but beautiful day as we launch the skiff off the floating dock and motor over to Mike’s boat, the 42-foot Tina Marie Ⅱ, who idly drifts in the sheltered bay. After one return trip to retrieve a forgotten camera battery, we settle on deck and into a long conversation on the future of Maine’s working waterfronts. Giulia and I are students at the College of the Atlantic with a shared interest in Maine fisheries and fishing communities. She set up this meeting with Mike as a part of her documentary class to interview and shoot footage of the newest generation of fishermen and I tagged along to help with audio and witness the reality of those fishing communities I had previously only read about in class.


Michael Sargent standing aboard the F/V Tina Marie

Mike works out of Francis Lobster Company, a multigenerational facility that was started back in the 1930s and has since been maintained by the families that grew up and built their livelihoods along that stretch of coast. There’s a strong sense of community surrounding the wharf: whenever something needs to be done – such as the yearly maintenance needed after the icy and stormy Maine winters – those who revolve around Francis Lobster Company come together to pool their efforts. Small communities such as these are aware that there isn’t an entity taking care of them – that for the most part, they have to look out for themselves and for each other. But as development makes its way down the coast of Maine, Mike hopes that the heritage of the working waterfront stays alive. He adds that, “[t]he fear is that as fishing becomes more threatened [there’s the] idea we could be the last generation to have that access, then the death of all these communities is right behind it cause there’s nothing else to support it.” Waterfront access is crucial for those who make their living off the water, but for many Maine coastal communities it represents more than a simple economic opportunity. Wharves and piers are the physical embodiment of centuries-long heritage and legacy that define the character of these communities. Loss of access would mean loss of income, but most importantly loss of identity. Mike is optimistic about the future of fishing in Maine; he believes fishermen will always find a way to fish thanks to their resilience and ingenuity. His biggest concern is that outside influence such as gentrification and development may lead to loss of waterfront access – a threat against which resilience and ingenuity may not be enough. He advocates for collaboration as the key to strike a balance between property development and working waterfront preservation, so that both can co-exist on the coast of Maine.


The view of the waterfront in Steuben where Mike works from

As a family-run wharf, Francis Lobster Company is a privately owned facility, like the majority of working waterfronts in Maine. The risk with private wharves is that the families who own them may struggle with maintenance costs and property taxes, and eventually resort to selling the property to avoid financial difficulties. Once the property is sold, it is likely to be converted to non-water dependent uses, such as private residences or tourism services and never be accessible again to fishermen. While Mike’s wharf is not currently threatened by this, other waterfronts in the southern part of the State have had to deal with precisely this issue. In this sense, Boothbay Harbor has recently been in the spotlight as the town came to vote on the fate of its Maritime District. On May 3rd, 2019, voters ultimately decided to split the district into two zones, one dedicated to maritime uses and the other to limited commercial uses. The commercial zoning will allow for the development of motels, hotels, inns, microbreweries, and marinas. In addition, the maximum building height will increase from 30 to 35 feet; this will allow businesses to gain access to the scenic views of the harbor, while maintaining ground-level spaces accessible to fishermen.


Boothbay Harbor

Motivated by this partial victory in favor of working waterfronts, Giulia and I travelled to the Midcoast town to learn more. Boothbay Harbor has a long history as a tourist destination and as Giulia and I drove through the brightly colored streets and the bustle of springtime renovations, it felt as if the town was slowly waking up to brush its teeth, comb its hair and prepare for the seasonal visitors. Compared to Steuben, which felt altogether lived in and distinctly adapted to the wharf and fishing lifestyle, Boothbay Harbor felt as if it was being put together to sell the experience of a sleepy fishing town while truly accommodating visitors’ demands. Dock space is reserved for recreational yachts in the summer, meaning fishermen have to leave their boats on moorings; and while tourists come to see the fishermen and the working waterfront, they also want to stay in waterfront hotels and eat in restaurants overlooking the harbor.


Carter’s wharf, the sea pier in Boothbay Harbor, which was donated to the Boothbay Region Maritime Foundation

Troy Plummer, a young lobsterman who grew up in Boothbay Harbor, is very aware that the tourists’ desire to observe fishermen clashes with the reality of the work: the pungent smell of bait, the loud diesel engines being started before dawn, and all the noises and sights that necessarily come with being close to the waterfront. Facing forward with one hand on the wheel, he circles his boat, the F/V Odyssey, around the edge of the harbor and puts us in the perspective of the fishermen of Boothbay Harbor, both literally and figuratively. He explains to us that “[v]acation homes, hotels, restaurants– they have more economic power than we do as a fishing industry for a myriad of reasons and we’re competing for the same real estate. And there’s only so much here.”. While the community does support the working waterfront – with one donor even gifting the town fishermen a pier that was at risk of being purchased and converted to a luxury property – they also understand that their own survival and growth improve with the economic opportunities that tourism provides. Troy, however, emphasizes how tourism’s contribution is only seasonal, while the fishing industry keeps the community alive year-round. His worry is that blinded by mere economic gain, the town will eventually forget its fishing roots and dedicate itself entirely to tourists. This could have life-changing consequences for those Boothbay Harbor families that have been fishing for generations, from loss of income to significant changes in habits and traditions. Among other concerns, Troy shares his worry that as development and urbanization spread, tolerance for commercial activities that are traditionally accepted in residential areas in Maine (such as stacking lobster traps in yards) could be reduced and ultimately banned, something that has already occurred in other coastal states. It’s not all gloom and doom, though, and just like Mike suggested, hope and creative solutions come from mediating between the contrasting needs of fishing and tourism: Troy points out that, “[a] couple of the places here are already restaurants and lobster docks. The restaurant’s there to keep the property acting as a lobster dock.”. By increasing their revenue through the restaurant business, the dock owners can continue to run the facility and serve the fishermen. It’s a compromise, but it ensures that no activity displaces the other.


Troy Plummer standing next to the F/V Odyssey in Boothbay Harbor, Maine

Despite the struggles and issues they face, the fishermen we met were proud of their heritage and confident that fishing in their communities will remain and evolve as it has done since humans first learned to harvest food from the rivers and oceans. While their tenacity and ingenuity are certainly a huge asset in keeping their lifestyle alive, they may not be enough to take on the growing outside pressures that threaten it. The communities who stand behind fishermen, and the State of Maine itself, should recognize and embrace their significance and support them in their upcoming struggles.

Additional Resources:

Maine Sea Grant has an excellent website with links to several Maine and National publications on working waterfront.

The Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) as part of the Maine Coastal Program also has an excellent website with links to a large number of documents on working waterfront in Maine.

Edited by Chris Petersen and Aliza Leit ’21

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Diadromous fish videos: Elvers, alewives, Somesville and downeast Maine

Marine studies at COA is a platform for students, faculty, and alums from COA to post stories, pictures, videos, ideas, and their work around ocean biology, policy, aesthetics, and people. It is edited by Chris Petersen and COA students, currently the co-editor is Aliza Leit ’21. 

More and more, short videos are becoming an important way to get information out on ecology and natural history of species and phenomenon that might be happening right under our noses, or under our cars as we drive through Somesville.  These videos represent three examples with varying levels of geographic scale and professional production. The  first two use the same location, Somesville and Somes Stream, but focus on two different fish migrations. The third looks more broadly at river conservation in downeast Maine.

The first video is by College of the Atlantic undergraduate, Annaleena Vaher ’21. Leena created this short film as a final project for her Fisheries, Fishermen, and Fishing Communities class at College of the Atlantic in the spring of 2019. In particular, the focus is on elvers or glass eels, and just the sheer number of this species moving upstream is nothing short of remarkable.  The shots of elvers trying to come up over the dam and in the concrete pool leading to the mill pond at Somesville are simply stunning.


The second video was produced by a professional film-making crew brought in to work with the park. The title of the video is Greater Connection: Alewife Recovery on MDI, and the film’s producers have allowed us to link the video here.

Several individuals, including College of the Atlantic Professor, Chris Petersen, Acadia National Park personnel Bruce Connery and Rebecca Cole-Will, and Somes-Meynell Sancturay director Billy Helprin were interviewed.  Billy spoke about the research on alewife restoration at the Somes-Meynell Wildlife Sanctuary. This film has some wonderful footage of alewives moving up the stream, and some great narrative that outlines both the history of the area and the restoration efforts going on in the stream.

The third video was created for Maine Coast Heritage Trust called Restoring Rivers in Downeast Maine.  It has some remarkable landscapes that capture the beauty of rivers in Hancock and Washington County.  Maine Coast Heritage Trust and COA are both members of the Downeast Fisheries Partnership, a group of organizations whose goal is to strengthen downeast Maine communities by restoring a strong and resilient ecosystem and our regional fisheries economy.

Posted by Aliza Leit ’21 and Chris Petersen

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Who Owns Rockweed?

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of videos that have been produced by COA students, alums, and our partners on coastal and ocean issues focused on downeast Maine.  In addition to Ellie Oldach’s video , we give links to several other sources, and past COA student posts on the rockweed issue. – Chris Petersen and Aliza Leit ’21

Who owns intertidal marine resources in Maine? And how will this impact harvest, conservation, and research? In this short film, UC Davis graduate student and COA alum, Ellie Oldach, discusses the recent privatization of rockweed with researchers Chris Petersen of College of the Atlantic and Hannah Webber of the Schoodic Institute.


We wanted to provide more context to understand the conversations in the film. Several things had been done in Frenchman Bay before this video was created:

Chris and Hannah have been conducting research on rockweed in Frenchman Bay since 2016, following a Frenchman Bay Partners stakeholder meeting in Sullivan Maine. At that meeting, it became clear to stakeholders that even the most basic questions about rockweed in Frenchman Bay, such as how fast it grows here and what the current biomass is, were unknown.

In response to this uncertainty, Frenchman Bay Partners decided to make rockweed a conservation target, and began to develop a conservation action plan for the species.  This plan focused on what was needed to understand the ecology of rockweed in Frenchman Bay. The plan did not take an anti- or pro-harvest stance, but instead asked how to determine what “sustainable harvest” might mean for the bay and how such an idea could be realized.

Following up on this meeting, Hannah and Chris launched a research project on Frenchman Bay rockweed. This research included measuring growth rate and size of plants around the bay, along with an estimate of biomass for each of 15 sites. In addition, at several sites, they simulated harvest by cutting rockweed to its legal limit of 16 inches.  That research is ongoing, with probes at several sites collecting temperature and light data on both control areas and areas with simulated harvest.  Those data should be collected through 2020, and reported out in 2021.  Chris and Hannah also offered a ‘Rockweed Rodeo‘ in Sullivan in May, 2017, to explain to local residents the research they were conducting in the bay.

Finally, here is a perspective from Camden Hunt, a student in the 2019 COA course Fisheries, Fishermen, and Fishing Communities on the initial court ruling and before the Maine Supreme Court and decided the appeal of the case.

Hannah Webber is currently doing her Ph.D. research as part of the project CRASSH
Conserving Rockweed Animal Systems for a Sustainable Harvest.
This work is being led by University of Maine professors Amanda Klemmer and Brian Olsen and Maine Maritime Academy professor Jessica Muhlin

Other resources on rockweed:

A Fish Called Rockweed by Ben Goldfarb.

University of Maine Cooperative Extension Rockweed Fact Sheet

The Rockweed Coalition/ Save our Seaweed

Post created by Aliza Leit ’21, Ellie Oldach ’15 and Chris Petersen

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