Notes from the Naturalist
Restoration in the Gulf of Maine Watershed
By definition, restoration is returning something to its original condition. This can be something small scale like restoring native plants in your garden or a much larger project involving large organizations, extensive funding support, and permit acquisition, plus meeting local, state and federal regulations. I recently read about a very large scale restoration project involving several states in the US and Mexico and cooperative planning among numerous environmental and corporate entities to restore the flow of water in the Colorado River so that it reaches the sea once again. The river had not reached the sea since the early 1980s, drained dry by competing interests in multiple jurisdictions. Now, with a hard-won master plan of all the stakeholders, the river is allocated for withdrawals for irrigation, municipal drinking water, and the creation of river habitat that will support unique wildlife in a sustainable way. As a former river user when I lived in the western states, I was thrilled by the extent of the project and the time and cooperative spirit that has given it a chance to succeed. This is an example of an immense restoration project which will take years to meet its goals. (Sierra Club Magazine, September 2022)
In the Gulf of Maine there are many restoration projects underway designed to restore habitat and protect species from going extinct. On the Great Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Portsmouth NH, Eastern Cottontails are being raised in enclosures that have created a habitat to simulate what the rabbits need in the wild. Along with protection in the enclosures to build up the numbers, the Refuge is looking to acquire shrub habitat so that adult animals can be released to dig burrows providing safety from predators. Helping to shape a habitat so that it provides what a struggling species requires is often called "rewilding." The restoration creates the conditions that support the native species so they can find food and protection. The endangered Eastern Box Turtle is protected by law in Massachusetts and is listed as a species of special concern under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act. Box Turtles are dependent on open, sunny areas to nest, warm themselves, and find food. That kind of habitat is on the decline in southern New England. Habitat is one problem for these turtles and poaching is another. People like to keep Box Turtles as pets. Zoo New England and New Hampshire Fish and Game are working on a conservation project to assess and increase the numbers of turtles by nest protection and "head starting" where turtles are raised in captivity for the first year until they can ward off predators. The project includes training a dog to help find hatchlings by smell and is looking for partners. This would be a great classroom activity and a chance to participate in actual research. ("Biologists work to make box turtles more at home in Massachusetts," Boston Sunday Globe, September 7, 2022)
The Gulf of Maine is one of the fastest warming bodies of water on planet Earth. Warm water in the spring speeds up the growth of juvenile fish that seabirds in coastal Maine, like puffins, feed to their chicks. In 2021, by the time the chicks were ready to eat a fish, it had grown too big to for them to swallow. Maine had installed ''puffin" cams at many nesting sites so school children could follow the development of the cute chicks being fed by their iconic, brightly colored parents. As the waters warmed and the fish developed faster than the chicks, many chicks starved to death, leaving many school kids heartbroken. ("Don't let them go Extinct," Parade Magazine, April 17, 2022)
Why do puffins matter? A representative from Oceanus, an ocean conservation organization, told Parade magazine that "the off kilter timing and devastating effect on puffin chicks offers a window into the unpredictable ways that rising temperatures can impact species like us." Healthy colonies of photogenic birds also mean big tourist dollars to a region that is seeing traditional jobs in the seafood industry decline. In a 2016 report, the US Fish and Wildlife Service reported that over 16 million people took trips to see wild birds, which contributed over $40 billion to the US economy.
Eastern Monarch butterflies have declined 80% over the last 20 years. According to the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), monarch colonies west of the Rocky Mountains have lost 99% of their population since the 1980s. In December 2021, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) added monarchs to the waiting list for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Threats to monarchs include pesticides, global climate change, sprawl, and illegal logging of the forests in Mexico where they migrate for winter. Of these, the gravest danger is loss of habitat in the forests of Mexico. There is a rising trade in logging those forests in an area in which there is very little economic opportunity for the inhabitants.
Why are monarchs important? Their beauty makes them easily recognizable and, slow moving as they are, you can usually follow them and watch their behaviors. As pollinators, they are the basis of life, bringing pollen to flowers so they can produce fruit and seeds. Pollinators are the connective tissue of all ecosystems. Without healthy pollinators, the impact on human food supplies would be devastating. Protecting monarchs has become popular with school classrooms and can be a great class or community project. Seeds are readily available and usually grow well in open sunny areas. Schools, parks, and businesses often welcome such activity. ("Girl Scouts help monarch butterflies," Carriage Towne News, Kingston NH, September 1, 2022)
New England has a well-deserved reputation for long harsh winters. But since 1970 winters have warmed more than one degree every decade. It is no longer cold enough to deter the harvesters and it is no longer cold enough to protect the species from its invasive and insatiable predator, the green crab. I am talking about New England's favorite and iconic summer food, the soft shell clam. In recent years the clam has been disappearing, moving north like the lobster to stay in the cooler waters of Eastern Maine and Nova Scotia. As Wayne Castonguay, Director of the Ipswich River Watershed Association, says: "We are about the only place that clams can be found in harvestable numbers." The reason is the indomitable green crab. They are like "fantasy villains" on the big screen. They are aggressive, they can crush a clam's shell and rip out the soft body, and they even prey on each other. Their population has exploded since their arrival from Europe in the ballast of ships. They have spread from the Carolinas to Nova Scotia. Adults can survive freezing solid in the winter.
Clammers say it is all the crabs' fault, but clammers and crabs both bear responsibility for over harvesting. Few rural coastal towns have adequate patrols monitoring the harvesters, and catch limits are often exceeded. In this case restoration of clam habitat may only be possible by removing the competing species or finding a way to diminish them. Efforts have been made to catch and cook the green crab, but that has not gained a niche in the seafood market. School kids have collected the crabs and turned them in to shell fish constables to collect a bounty, but that has not really taken hold either. The only thing that has slowed them down is the cold. An old-time winter with extensive coastal freezing keeps them in check but does not completely eliminate them. With the Gulf of Maine warming so fast and with the crabs destabilizing the salt marsh banks, the future of soft shell clams is in doubt. ("The last stand of the soft shell clam", by Anne Gibbs, Boston Globe Magazine, June 26, 2022)
Why does the soft shell clam matter? Maine's $18.2 million clam industry is tanking, taking jobs with it. Ipswich MA, a tiny north shore coastal community, is the de-facto center of the clam universe. Ipswich's $2.2 million clam industry represents close to one-third of Massachusetts' total catch.
Estuaries, where fresh water meets the sea, contain a variety of habitats, but are dominated by the salt marsh. Salt marshes are the most productive marine habitats, often out-producing agricultural land. Two species of grass out-compete a large mix of somewhat salt tolerant plants. Salt Marsh Cord grass (Spartina alterniflora) forms a barrier between land and sea and is extremely salt tolerant. Saltmarsh Hay (Spartina patens) is somewhat salt tolerant but provides ample ecosystem services for animals that live between the tides or visit as migrants. Services such as nesting sites, protection from predators, food sources, water filtration, and absorbing storm water are all available on the marsh. In addition, humans cut and dry the hay in the fall to use as mulch. ("Coastal Habitats," by Harry Thurston, The Atlantic Coast, 2011, Grey Stone Books, Vancouver, BC, 201)
There have been several restoration projects occurring in marine habitats around the Parker River Refuge, including beach grass, eel grass, and green crab control that have provided students an opportunity to participate. At this time, however, the Refuge is undertaking a significant restoration effort with a group of partners to try to add sediment to the marsh in an effort to keep up with expected sea level rise, stabilize the marsh, and protect the Salt Marsh Sparrow. The sparrow is a small, grey brown bird with orange chin and eyebrows. More than 80% of these birds have vanished since 1998. Their reproductive cycle is tied to the moon and tides. They must lay eggs and hatch fledgling chicks in 28 days, or lose them to the rising sea. As sea levels rise, the marshes flood, washing out nests and drowning the chicks. Why do Salt Marsh sparrows matter? The sparrow population reflects the health of tidal marshes. Marshes absorb water and act as a buffer during storms. If you see small brown birds popping up and down in the tidal grasses, the salt marsh is acting as it should. During a storm it absorbs water like a sponge, protecting nearby property and nests. The birds are also act as pollinators. Saving the sparrow is economically smart for helping avoid damage to property and as contributors to the growing tourism of bird watching. ("Don't let them go extinct," Parade Magazine, April 17, 2022)
What can you do to help? A garden planted with native plants conserves water and is likely to attract pollinators. Native oak trees can supply hundreds of caterpillars to provide food for songbirds. Encourage your local schools, parks, government, and businesses to plant more native species. Plant a pollinator garden with different kinds of pesticide-free native milkweed that flower at different times. Avoid milkweed that has been treated with insecticide.
Go to: saveourmonarchs.org to request free seeds.
Plug your zip code into: nwf.org/nativeplantfinder for a list of native plants in your area.
Update on Maine Seabirds 2022: As I was finishing up with this article, there was some good news. As I mentioned earlier in this story, the summer of 2021 was devastating to Maine seabirds. Only 1/4 of puffin chicks survived last year, down from an average of 3/4 in a typical year. As the water temperature surged, puffins, terns, razorbills, and murres all had feeding problems, with fish developing before their chicks were capable of feeding on them. Also some of the species the chicks normally eat had moved on to cooler waters. This year the water temperature has been cooler, and a wider variety of fish they could eat has been available. It has not been perfect, but a normal level of chicks survived to take flight. Considering the high risk of climate change, this seems like a victory. ("Maine seabirds make a comeback," by Dharna Noor, Boston Globe's Climate Report, October 13, 2022) The resilience of seabirds, which returned to the Gulf of Maine after the starvation year of 2021, has amazed researchers at the Gulf of Maine Working Group. To help blunt the effects of climate change, they are urging stakeholders to make an all-out effort to increase investment in habitat protection and restoration, thereby buying time for our seabirds, as well as other species we have discussed here, to adapt to the changing conditions of a warming climate. May we continue to have such victories in future years.
John is the Director of Science for GOMI and a member of the GOMI Guide Team. John’s interests focus on the ocean environment where he pursues educational adventure travel, research, and recreation by sail, paddle, and scuba. John is the founder and director of Adventure Learning, Newburyport, MA, which has been involved with educational outreach in area schools and recreational programs for teens and adults since 1980. A long-time educator, John was at the forefront of the experiential education movement in the U.S. for 36 years, he taught natural science in the Newburyport Public Schools. John has special interest and expertise in teacher training and standards for learning in math and science. His role has included direct teaching, teacher training, program development, grant writing, and developing partnerships with professionals in the field.