Maine Coast Monitoring

Over the past decade, Marine & Environmental Research Institute scientists have monitored the health of the waters and wildlife of Blue Hill Bay – we have established the baseline, defined current conditions, and identified important trends (such as warming) that need attention.

With our state-of-the-art marine laboratory at the Center for Environmental Studies in Blue Hill, we have produced a 10-year dataset that is unique to the region. Beyond Blue Hill, the waters of mid-coast Maine and the eastern seaboard have served as a vast living laboratory where we have made our most important discoveries over the years.

Since 2001, the Blue Hill marine lab has been the mainstay for Seals As Sentinels, the first region-wide contaminants research on marine mammals and fish along the northwest Atlantic coast. This award-winning program has enabled Institute scientists to characterize the extent of pollution in marine top predators from Maine to New York and placed the northwest Atlantic ecosystem in a global perspective.

Our work on marine pollution in Maine impacts millions of people across the country and internationally.

From flame retardants to plastics, our discoveries about the ecosystem have informed public opinion and fueled key legislation in Maine and across the country. The Institute’s research is of local, state, regional, and national significance. 

Work Ahead

Our ongoing Seals As Sentinels research addresses the societal problem
 of overuse of toxic chemicals such as flame retardants that are migrating from our homes, our furniture, into the sea and contaminating the ocean food web that sustains us. This award-winning program looks at chemical “signatures” and their health effects in top marine predators – harbor seals and fish – as a warning system for people who are similarly exposed.

Our recent findings on microplastics are important to the Maine legislature in its efforts to address the societal problem of over-use and disposal of plastics in the sea. Our findings are also important to state legislatures across the country, and we are effectively broadcasting information about marine pollution via national media outlets. Through our participation in global networks, we are informing and engaging a large audience in the search for solutions to this issue.

As MERI continues to conduct targeted research in Maine, we are maximizing our time in the field, and keeping samples flowing through the laboratory and archiving samples for future analysis in the Environmental Specimen Bank. Building on our strong base of data gained over the past decade, we use resources wisely in order to effectively impact our priority issues.

Seals As Sentinels Research: “New” Flame Retardants in Harbor Seal Pups

We are completing a ground-breaking study of “replacement” flame retardants in tissues of 40 harbor seal pups that stranded along the Atlantic coast from Maine to Massachusetts between 2001 and 2010. Archived tissues from the lab’s Environmental Specimen Bank were sent to SUNY-Albany for chemical analysis and we are publishing our findings later this year.

From the data, we know that “new” flame retardants from household furniture are already reaching the ocean and accumulating in marine species.

Because these seals already carry high levels of toxic chemicals, this information is distressing and underscores the need for stronger regulation of toxic chemicals in the U.S. Our findings of flame retardants in marine mammal tissues have been used in testimony to support several Maine bills to ban certain flame retardants in children’s products and residential furniture. We intend to continue to share our research findings to support safe chemicals legislation at the state and federal levels.

Learn more about our Seals As Sentinels research here.

Microplastics Research

To advance understanding of microplastic pollution in our bays, we will monitor input sites and focus on other potential pollution sources, including stream and river mouths. The results generated from our study will fill knowledge gaps in the microplastic research field. With this knowledge, we will share results and provide testimony to inform legislation and public policy. Our ongoing research into plastic inputs into the ocean continues to attract media attention and inspire citizen actions to help mitigate plastic and microplastic pollution.

Learn more about the Institute’s Microplastics research here.

Seafood Tissue Studies

Based on our finding of microplastic fragments in Maine seafood (oysters and mussels), we will expand our investigation of microplastics to other species including clams, lobsters, herring, and mackerel. Examining these species will help us to determine to what extent microplastics are moving up the marine food web and which tissues are affected. In 2015-2016, we expect to be processing and analyzing microplastics in 400 marine animals that are marketed for human consumption – from mollusks to lobsters and fish. We will archive tissues from these species in the Environmental Specimen Bank for future analysis of chemical contaminants.

Eradicating Invasive Green Crabs

Mussel beds are disappearing in Blue Hill Bay, and based
 on current knowledge, we believe the proliferation of invasive European green crabs may be the reason. Green crabs are one of the world’s top 100 worst invasive species. They are voracious feeders and out compete and predate on native species such as juvenile lobsters, blue mussels and soft-shell clams. Green crabs burrow into salt marshes, eat eelgrass, and cause devastating erosion of the coastline.

The unprecedented loss of mussels and eelgrass beds over the last 10 years has been attributed in part to the green crab population explosion.

As green crabs proliferate and feed on mussels and other shellfish, they pose an increasing threat to the state’s wild seafood industry. In 2015, we will expand trapping of green crabs with help from concerned residents, volunteers, and stakeholders. A major portion of the crabs will be donated to local farms for soil enhancement (compost) and the rest will be made into user-friendly, compressed bait cubes that will be offered to Blue Hill and Deer Isle lobstermen. Using crabmeat for bait is experimental and this project requires further development. If successful, bait cubes may have some economic potential.

Response to Stranded Seals

The majority of strandings in the downeast Maine area surrounding the Institute are seal pups, and mortality can be as high as 50-60% annually. But unexplained “mortality events” occur all too regularly, claiming the lives of hundreds of animals.

From April to July, female harbor seals give birth to their pups all along the Maine coast, especially in Blue Hill and Penobscot Bays, where 50% of the population arrives from southern areas every spring—making this a critical pupping habitat for the for the entire Northeast population of harbor seals.

The nursing period for harbor seals is quite short—four to six weeks—and it is a vulnerable time. Seals use haul out locations to rest, give birth, molt and nurse pups. During these first weeks of life, newborn seal pups can easily become separated from their mothers by wave surges, illness, predators, or disturbance by people, especially boaters—including kayaks and canoes—that can “flush” the pups from haul out ledges into the water.

For the past 15 years, the Institute has worked closely with with Allied Whale, a licensed marine mammal research group located at College of the Atlantic (COA) in Bar Harbor responding to seals stranded in the Blue Hill Bay area and as far south as Rockland. As a first-responder organization under COA for the National Marine Fisheries’ Service Northeast Region Stranding Network, we are committed to responding to distressed or injured seals that strand on beaches in the region. With more than 3,500 marine mammal strandings in the U.S. each year, the help of the Institute is crucial.

What You Can Do If You See A Stranded Pup…

It is illegal under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to disturb or harass seals and other marine mammals. This applies to abandoned or stranded seals found on the shoreline.  While it is understandable to want to help animals in distress, untrained people should not attempt to rescue stranded or entangled marine mammals. Not only is it illegal, but it’s also potentially dangerous – seals can bite if they feel threatened, and those bites can transmit serious infections.

  1. Do not disturb or attempt to drive the animal back into the water, stay back at least 50 feet, and prevent further harm to the animal by restraining pets and keeping other people from approaching it.
  2. Note the location, time, and apparent condition of the animal.
  3. Contact the nearest stranding network specialist immediately. In mid-coast Maine, this is Allied Whale at (207) 288-5644.