Waves of Change: Taking on the Threat of Ocean Garbage

Sep 13, 2012 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

Trash on a New England beach

Walking the sandy beaches of the Cape and Islands, kayaking the marshes and salt ponds, or scrambling around the rocky shores of Maine will almost always provide three things: a great outdoor experience, a chance to explore and learn about nature and the amazing diversity of life, and a full review of the waste, refuse, garbage, and pollutants that we cast onto our rivers, shores, and oceans.

While being blessed with the chance to take a recent early morning hike around my favorite little Massachusetts island, I calculated an assortment of the following: the smashed remnants of dozens of lobster traps, several plastic and metal buckets, beer cans, more beer cans, an unopened plastic bottle of cranberry juice (I didn’t try to drink it), a refrigerator door which was probably 30 years old, plastic food wrappers, auto oil filters, boat oil filters, one pretty large piece of fiberglass part from someone’s unfortunately lost vessel, dozens of miles of discarded fishing line, nets and other assorted fishing gear, flip-flops, sandals and shoes, 50 gallon drums, an unused emergency smoke bomb, about two dozen assorted rubber gloves (mostly lefts), about one dozen assorted rubber boots (mostly rights), a vast amount of the highly predictable but still depressing plastic bottles, a few glass bottles, an oddly-placed large chunk of asphalt, a metal chair, some random pieces of wood pallets and tree stumps, two umbrellas, pesticide spray bottles, one display of typical latex birthday party balloons, and two separate displays of very fancy Mylar celebratory balloons.

While shocking in its abundance, it was still a fairly standard composition of junk. Policy makers refer to this aspect of ocean management as “marine debris.” Honestly, I think we can just call it “ocean garbage.” Ocean garbage is a longtime and ever increasing problem. The type of materials we put into waterways and on our beaches in the modern era tend to be more toxic and long-lived than the flotsam and jetsam of past centuries. The debris floating across the Pacific from the terrible tsunami that devastated the coast of Japan last year has brought some attention to the problem, as has the media report so the massive garbage patches. Believe it or not, even the thousands of tons of stuff from a single event such as the tsunami is dwarfed by the annual build-up of daily deposits.

There are some good folks, however, who are not going to take this problem lying down. One tremendous collaborative effort is the annual International Coastal Cleanup which is organized each year by our good friends at the Ocean Conservancy. The 2012 ICC, as it is known, happens this Saturday, Sept. 15. Thousands of people around this country and others will volunteer for a day to gather up the coastal and ocean garbage and responsibly deposit it in landfills. You can help out too!

A challenge this broad really does require broad coordination and collaboration. The National Ocean Policy provides the forum for state officials, federal agencies, municipalities and other ocean user groups to help tackle the threat of marine debris. Regional ocean planning is certainly a great tool for coordination in New England.

Waves of Change: Making a Dam Plan for Fish Habitat

Sep 7, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Image Copyright USFWS

An engineer, a politician, and a fish walk into a dam. The engineer says, “We could have built it bigger.” The politician says, “We should have built it cheaper.” Fish don’t talk, but if they did, they probably would have asked for a ladder.

Dams were built in the 18th century to power mills, and in the 1940s to provide cheap electricity and irrigation opportunities – when they were considered great achievements of engineering that would benefit generations to come. Across the nation, dams have been utilized for energy production, flood control, irrigation, and water storage. But, if they are not appropriately planned, sited, and maintained  dams can have devastating impacts on fish populations.

In the early 1900s rainbow smelt supported a robust recreational and commercial fishery in the Northeast, but today NOAA Fisheries Service has listed them as a species of concern in this region. One of the problems in the Northeast has been the loss of suitable spawning habitat due to development like dams, which can prevent fish from moving upstream. But now there may be light at the end of the tunnel for rainbow smelt in southern Maine.

At the end of July, the Great Works Regional Land Trust (GWRLT) announced the removal of Shorey’s Brook dam and the restoration of the Shorey’s Brook on Raymond and Simone Savage Wildlife Preserve in Eliot and South Berwick, Maine.  Fish surveys are already showing rainbow smelt as far upriver as the former location of the dam and further upstream will be suitable for spawning habitat. If other dam restoration projects across the U.S. can be taken as indicators, rainbow smelt may soon be taking advantage of upstream habitats.

Larger scaled restoration efforts are also progressing in Maine. Earlier this summer, Talking Fish reported the demolition of the Great Works Dam on the Penobscot River in Maine – a restoration effort that will open thousands of miles of upstream habitat to Atlantic salmon and other fish for the first time in almost two hundred years. And, here at CLF we have been working to restore native alewives – an important prey species in both marine and fresh waters for many fish, mammals, and birds – to the St. Croix River in Maine. Read more about that work here.

The pressures on our fisheries are enormous, with overfishing, bycatch, pollution, ocean acidification, and habitat destruction all playing a part. We need a better way to plan in the face of all these different stressors. Partnering among local, regional, state, and federal stakeholders in the Northeast alone has culminated in 299 projects to improve and restore fish habitat in rivers, marshes, and estuaries.

New England’s need for habitat conservation and restoration is great, and other regions have similar challenges. Restoring damaged ecosystems to ecological and economic productivity is a fundamental component of the National Ocean Policy, and one more reason why the National Ocean Policy is right for New England.

Waves of Change: Planning for Harmful Algal Blooms

Aug 21, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

How’s the weather? That question is much easier to answer than it used to be. Back in the old days farmers didn’t have the Weather Channel or iPhone forecasts and could only rely on their own knowledge.

Photo by W.S. Walker via Sandy McClearn

Early forecasts of the weather improved because of balloons that were sent up into the atmosphere to gather information – today similar devices are sent up every 12 hours around the world. Combined with satellite and other data, accurate weather forecasts are now at our fingertips. A hundred years ago, it took months to produce inaccurate forecasts.

For farmers, the ability to make plans on accurate weather predictions came down to dollars and sense – a torrential rain or early frost could destroy crops and carry a heavy economic cost. A big storm event could even affect regional and global food prices. The art of weather forecasting took leaps forward when regional monitoring was networked together in the early 1900s.

Shellfish harvesters, like farmers, depend on a crop that grows in waters where other creatures live – some of which, like harmful algae, can have a devastating impact. Generally, algae are essential for shellfish crops – they bloom in the spring and summer and provide food for clams, scallops, oysters, mussels, and other shellfish. But under some conditions, algae can contain toxins that accumulate in shellfish and make them dangerous when humans or other animals eat them. Just as weather predictions about severe storms help farmers on land, forecasting systems that can predict harmful algae could help prevent millions of dollars in damage for shellfish harvesters and farmers. In the Gulf of Maine 23 million dollars was lost as the result of a harmful algae bloom event in 2005.

New research in the North Atlantic Ocean is helping scientists understand why and when blooms of algae occur. Robots that glide to depths of 1,000 meters underwater or hover near the surface collect information on a regional basis. These devices are now being deployed in the Gulf of Maine.  In the Great lakes region, NOAA recently issued its first ever harmful algal bloom forecast. In the Northeast, networks of stationary buoys currently track data and provide forecasts about a variety of physical conditions.  Someday, ocean gliders may be as common as weather balloons, and harmful algae blooms might be as predictable as the weather.

Using the best available data to help make decisions is one of the cornerstones of Regional Ocean Planning. Investing in new technologies and research is essential for developing accurate forecasting systems that can help shellfish harvesters and distributers avoid costly pollution runoff from big storm events. This type of planning and coordination can help us find better ways to manage our valuable ocean resources in the face of the many changes that are already happening to them.

Healthy Sharks – Healthy Oceans

Aug 14, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Shortfin Mako

I love diving with makos, but they have a very different behavior than other sharks. They come in appearing to be more agitated. They’re much more hyper and jacked up.” – Brian Skerry

Mako sharks are built to move. They are very acrobatic – sometimes leaping high into the air –and are also extremely fast. Some scientists think they are the fastest fish, possibly going over 50 mph at times. (Fun fact – makos are one of the only “warm-blooded” fish, which helps explain why they can move so fast, even in colder water.) Makos need wide open spaces and healthy places to eat and reproduce. The health of our oceans depends on healthy top predator populations, and healthy top predators depend on healthy oceans.

Our nation has taken a major step forward in protecting the health of our oceans with the National Ocean Policy – which calls better management through agency coordination, science-based decisions and robust public and stakeholder involvement.  One important priority of the National Ocean Policy is to protect ocean habitat and wildlife while supporting sustainable new and traditional uses of our ocean.

Regional ocean planning and ecosystem-based management are two other key components of the National Ocean Policy that can go a long way in protecting our top predators. Regional ocean planning is a process that brings together all our ocean stakeholders – from fishermen to whale watchers, from beachgoers to renewable energy developers – to help us figure out how to share the ocean sustainably. This process helps all New Englanders use and enjoy our ocean and coasts while making sure we protect ocean wildlife and habitats and maintain the benefits these resources provide for us all.

For an example of how regional ocean planning can protect marine wildlife, check out this blog about endangered North Atlantic right whales and shipping lanes.

Collecting and sharing good data, and using it to help make ocean management decisions, are some of the keys to succesful regional ocean planning. If you are wondering how this might apply to mako sharks, check out this app from NOAA that allows fishermen to share information about caught and released makos – to literally put that shark on the map. NOAA says “Overfishing is occurring on the North Atlantic shortfin mako shark population. By releasing shortfin mako sharks that are unintentionally caught or caught for sport, fishermen can lead the way for conserving this shark species.” Now that sounds like some good planning.

Waves of Change: Making a Plan for Renewable Energy

Aug 8, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Perry Marine & Construction workers lower the second of four turbines into place in ORPC's TidGen™ turbine generator unit (TGU) which will be installed at ORPC's Cobscook Bay project site in August. Photo courtesy of ORPC.

Ceaseless, predictable, powerful – the tide is all of these things. We may be adding “illuminating” to that list as our nation’s first grid-connected commercial tidal energy project gets underway off the coast of Maine and begins to light up homes sometime in August. As part of a renewable energy plan, tidal energy may hold great promise for a cleaner energy future. It’s a relatively simple process to convert the kinetic energy of tides into power for the grid (not much different from a wind turbine, really) – but the process of siting and building tidal energy farms in our coastal waters is much more complex.

Cobscook Bay off Eastport, Maine may be one of the most ideal spots in the US for tidal energy. It sits at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy – which has the most extreme tidal fluctuations in the world (an average of 24 feet). It also enjoys a high level of biodiversity – with an abundance of migratory shorebirds and waterfowl, as well as finfish, lobsters, scallops, and clams. Critically endangered North Atlantic right whales use the area. Tourism, fishing, and aquaculture are important parts of the economy here. There are many stakeholders involved in an area where so many depend on the ocean for their livelihoods as well as for tourism and recreation.

The Cobscook Bay Tidal Energy Project from the Ocean Renewable Power Company (ORPC) has been ramping up since 2006. The company is set to deploy its first turbine in mid-August, and hopes to add several more in the coming decade.

In general, the process to site and build a tidal energy project involves the input and coordination of several federal, state, and local government agencies working with numerous existing energy production and environmental laws, as well integrating input from citizen and environmental groups, the energy industry, fishermen, and other stakeholders. Maine recently streamlined the process for developing tidal energy projects, and is now the only state on the East Coast with a formal agreement with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to ensure federal and state coordination in the regulation of this new industry. But the process is still quite involved.

Complicated, right? Well, if this small commercial project in Eastport and others like it are successful, tidal energy is likely to grow in our coastal waters, and along with it, the challenges of planning for it. Recent U.S. Department of Energy reports find that ocean current power resources could potentially provide up to 250 terawatt-hours of electricity per year nationally (our current demand is around 4,000 terawatt-hours of electricity per year). Given the likelihood that ocean energy production is going to grow rapidly and dramatically, we need a better way through the process of planning for new energy development while protecting our valuable ocean resources and traditional uses.

The development in Eastport, Maine might provide some useful lessons in how to approach a project like this at a community level, using the principles of Regional Ocean Planning.

Chris Gardner, Executive Director of the Eastport Port Authority, said ORPC began working with the Port Authority and with local stakeholders from the very beginning of the process in 2006. The Port Authority saw the project as potentially benefitting the community economically, but were “very watchful about how they did their business and if they did it the right way” said Gardner. Fishermen were especially concerned about the project – worried that structures or construction activity would interfere with fishing grounds. According to Gardner, the company took the approach that it was ORPC’s own “responsibility to prove their case.”

John Ferland, ORPC Vice President, talked to me about what the company did to garner community support and ease concerns about tidal energy. First and foremost, he emphasized the importance of communicating with local residents and getting them involved as much as possible. “We have had so many meetings over the last several years. For a while there were a couple of community style meetings a year, and all sorts of private interactions and group meetings in between – city council meetings, selectmen, lots of informal meetings” said Ferland. “The State of Maine Ocean Energy Task Force cited ORPC’s efforts as a model for other ocean energy developers to follow,” he added.

The Cobscook Bay Resource Center facilitated a series of stakeholder and community meetings, as well as provided detailed information about the project on their website. (There is a really interesting clip from the PBS “Sustainable Maine” video with interviews of many of the people involved in and potentially affected by the project, as well as footage of how the turbines will work.)

As a result of conversations with local fishermen, ORPC was able to site the project in an area that wouldn’t impede their fishing. As one fisherman said in the PBS video, “You gotta be careful of what goes where.” In Cobscook Bay, Ferland said, tidal energy is ideal in places that are not important to fishing due to the nature of the ocean bottom and the high currents.

In addition to meeting with stakeholders, ORPC has been working with the University of Maine School of Marine Sciences on fisheries concerns, and with the New England Aquarium to minimize future potential impacts on marine mammals. Whenever possible, said Ferland, they prefer to hire local citizens as employees, local subcontractors as service providers, and have trained local residents as certified marine mammal monitors as part of the NOAA NMFS-required data gathering effort.

Any major human activity in our oceans and coastal waters is going to involve making some decisions about the best place for certain uses. Regional Ocean Planning is the process of defining these uses and potential conflicts, and seeking the optimal path of sustainable development and resource protection. Using the principles of ecosystem-based management, gathering and sharing the best possible data about ocean uses and impacts, and making sure every stakeholder has a say in the process – that’s Regional Ocean Planning in a nutshell.

The phrase I heard over and over as I was researching tidal energy in the Gulf of Maine was, “It’s a good idea, as long as it’s done right.” Regional Ocean Planning can be used to help manage ocean uses the right way – by involving stakeholders at the very beginning of a project, and keeping them engaged throughout, by examining the social, economic, and environmental effects of the project, by filling the data gaps needed to make science-based decisions, and by making the process adaptive so that changes can be made as new information comes in.

The current project in Cobscook Bay might be the beginning of major tidal energy development in the Gulf of Maine. The process of planning and implementation will get more complicated as the scale gets bigger – there will be more stakeholders involved, more potential environmental impacts, and more activities in the water. It is important to have a process that works for everyone.

We all have a lot to gain from the full implementation of the National Ocean Policy. For more information about the need for Regional Ocean Planning check out these blogs about sea level rise, coastal pollution, and protecting endangered whales from ship strikes.

The National Ocean Policy Turns Two Years Old

Jul 18, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

America’s oceans and coasts are amazing resources that have benefited our economy, our culture and our way of life for centuries. In New England our ocean and coasts are also home to some of the country’s most unique and valuable wildlife areas and serve as refuge for endangered wildlife species. At the same time, New England’s coastal communities continue to depend on the resources, tourism and outstanding quality of life that our ocean and coasts provide.

Our oceans and coasts face great challenges, and these challenges are growing tougher. As my cool surfing colleague Robin Just has noted, sea levels are rising 3 to 4 times faster along the east coast than the global average, according a new study by the United States Geological Survey. The rising waters put us at unique risk from the changes that are happening to our ocean and will “increase the vulnerability of coastal cities to flooding, and beaches and wetlands to deterioration,” according to the report. How will we solve these challenges?

Thanks to the National Ocean Policy, we have a better way to make management decisions and to create solutions by using the best data, latest information and, most importantly, by working together. At its core, the National Ocean Policy directs federal agencies to coordinate management activities, implement a science-based system of decision making, support safe and sustainable access and ocean uses, respect cultural practices and maritime heritage, and increase scientific understanding of ocean, coastal and Great Lakes ecosystems. Regional Ocean Planning, a science-based process of improving decisions about ocean resources before conflict arises, involves everyone who has a stake in ocean management, including towns and cities, scientists, fishermen, conservation groups, recreational users, and businesses. Through better planning, the National Ocean Policy will allow us to take full advantage of our resources in a sustainable manner which will improve the health of the United States environment and economy.

The National Ocean Policy turns two years old on July 19, and while the National Ocean Council is making great strides, so much more is necessary to ensure that we are using this important tool to tackle these great challenges. Given how important fisheries, coastal tourism and other ocean industries are to our region’s economy and way of life, we need New England’s governors and federal officials to support the full implementation of the National Ocean Policy.


This Week on TalkingFish.org – May 7-11

May 11, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

  • May 9: “Why fishermen should care about the National Ocean Policy” – Maine lobsterman Richard Nelson writes about the need for fishermen and coastal communities to get involved with regional ocean planning efforts. (Reprinted from the Bangor Daily News.)
  • May 11: “Fish Talk in the News – Friday, May 11” – This week’s interesting fish stories: how much fish is safe to eat without danger from contaminants; a new seafood purchasing opportunity in NH lets consumers buy fish directly off the boat; interviews with one of New England’s last remaining weir fishermen; and a video from a fishing village in Thailand.

Take a Moment to Support Healthy Oceans

Feb 27, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Haphazard development, lack of coordination and poorly informed decisions can not only cause our beaches to be polluted and wildlife habitat to decline, but it can cost a loss of jobs and economic benefits to New England’s coastal communities. Continuing to have clean water and a healthy coast requires a bit of planning, as my colleague Peter Wellenberger pointed out in his post from last Thursday. An open, transparent planning process that uses the best scientific and local knowledge, fully involves all users and the public and protects the ecological capital that we all need to live, love, thrive and survive is the best way to go whether it is on the local, state, regional or national level.

This is why CLF supports the National Ocean Policy. We want your help to advance this much needed initiative.

Today is the last day of the comment period on the National Ocean Policy draft Implementation Plan. For more background on the plan, read my previous blog post – “Sexy? Alluring? Seductive? Hello there, National Ocean Policy” – here.

If you care about our ocean’s health, take a moment and share your comment through CLF’s action alert. Habitat for ocean wildlife, healthy and clean beaches, and thriving coastal communities are all worth a bit of planning.



Sexy? Alluring? Seductive? Hello there, National Ocean Policy

Jan 12, 2012 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Some of us lament a world where fake reality TV plots, uber-famous starlets way below my age demographic and head-exploding talk show hosts rule the airwaves, as it can be a bit difficult to get the media spotlight focused past the eye candy and on “the real issues.” You know – the substantive, grown up policy stuff like genuine efforts to bring scientists, industry, citizen groups and government together to solve ocean acidification, species loss, declining fisheries, coastal erosion, and red tides.

Well, say no more, ladies and gentlemen, because the National Ocean Council has brought us the sleekest, the sexiest, the most seductive and alluring draft ocean policy implementation plan of this – or any other – presidential administration.

Am I joking? Maybe a little. But, let me know if you really want to sit down for a 45 minute Powerpoint presentation and discussion that analyzes, for example, the structure of a regional planning body in a comprehensive regional ocean planning process. Because it turns out that real issue is actually a very important component of starting to develop agreement between large companies, day boat fishermen, coastal developers and beach-loving families on how to keep oceans clean, healthy and open for business. Not really TMZ-type material.

The National Ocean Policy is really laid out in a 96 page document called the Final Recommendations of the Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force and on page 32 it details the nine priority objectives that will implement the National Policy. Today the National Ocean Council released a draft implementation plan for those nine priority objectives. This is a big step forward for implementing the National Ocean Policy and will eventually lead to some serious action on issues such as the need to develop ecosystem-based management approaches to cleaning up the polluted runoff that increasing fouls Cape Cod beaches each summer.

The Final Recommendations took a hard working group of 25 agency leaders (see page B-I) and their staff over a year to hold hundreds of meetings, review thousands of comments and interview dozens of business, economic, national defense, scientific and community experts in a process to develop our Nation’s first ever attempt to get all of its various departments and agencies pointed in the same direction and working together to improve ocean health and management. Creating the National Ocean Council and developing the draft implementation plan has taken another year. That’s because improving ocean health and keeping oceans healthy is hard work. Not having healthy oceans and coasts is costly to our economy, causes job loss and destroys livelihoods and communities. So, spend a few moments to check out the draft implementation plan. Help support the National Ocean Policy. Ask your friends, co-workers and elected officials to support the National Ocean Policy.

Power down the big screen and dive into a real issue.


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