January 20, 2014

Frenchman Bay Partners Eelgrass Subcommittee Meeting

Location: Smith Director’s Conference Room, MDIBL

Date and Time: June 21, 2013, from 10:00am-11:30pm

Present: Jane Disney, George Kidder, Terry Towne, Bob Pulver, Chris Petersen, Shannon White, Jordan Bailey, Elizabeth Thompson, Lukas Thorburn, Larry Libby, Emma Fox, Bridie McGreavy (phone)

1. Introductions and Updates

Jane called the meeting to order and group members briefly introduced themselves. Jane described the changes in eelgrass coverage since the 1996 fly over and reported that as of their most recent surveys, there has been a substantial die-back of eelgrass. The Regional Association of Researchers in the Gulf of Maine (RORGAM) announced that 2012 saw the highest temperatures ever recorded in the Gulf of Maine. This could be a possible contributing factor, as could the possible presence of disease, natural variation patterns. The plants may not be dead but in a state of dormancy. There is a high degree of uncertainty surrounding the current status of eelgrass in FrenchmanBay.

There was a discussion of the possible effects of construction on Route 3 and golf course pesticides. George reported that he researched this possibility and the results were inconclusive but he suggested that this could really be a non-point source problem, as opposed to a single point-source.

Jane noted that it is going to be critical to mobilize people to get out and observe occurrences and absences and report the status.

Terry reported that he found some eelgrass off ThreeBushIslands and asked about survey techniques and whether coordinates should be in Lat-Long or UTM. Jane requested UTM for GPS points but noted that coordinates can be converted if need be.

Jordan shared that she read Seth Barker’s report comparing the 2008 and 1996 maps and noted that the trend for eelgrass is to be lost in upper Bays but maintained in outer ocean-ward areas.

George added that he is fairly certain that the changes in coverage are not due to salinity or temperature and that this is likely a runoff issue.  Jane shared that the Partners have nutrient data for the upper bay, LamoineShore, Raccoon Cove, Skillings River, Berry Cove, Hadley Point, Thomas Island East, and Thomas Island West, Jordan River. She noted that it is possible to compare temperature data with all of those places and the Bar. Right now the Bar is warm. It is shorter eelgrass with high percent flowering. The turbidity in these areas is low and therefore light does not seem to be the limiting factor.

George noted that there is a problem in thinking  eelgrass is eelgrass. Eelgrass varies from place to place. For example, the temperature in FrenchmanBay is much  lower than in Chesapeake. It isn’t surprising, there are lots of other organisms doing the same thing, with temperature gradients all along the east coast. It’s possible that we have a temperature adapted cold strain that we’re seeing around here.

There was as discussion of the widespread changes currently being observed in ocean systems, with searches for organisms yielding no results and die-offs in bird populations due to changes in plankton and fish communities.

Chris noted that due to the extensive impacts on other organisms and the wide range of effects, it appears that the changes in eelgrass cannot be attributed to a single anthropogenic factor. There are challenges with data, much of which is opportunistic. Robin Hadlock Seeley has access to 100-year temperature datasets that may be useful.

2. Funding

Jane said that despite the apparent changes, the group will continue to advance its eelgrass restoration efforts and work with the 5-Star Habitat Grant. She also announced that they received continued funding from the Walker Foundation Grant to keep the work of the Frenchman Bay Partners going, in part by funding the on-going work of Jordan Bailey to manage the FBP website and work with partners on using technology to communicate.

3. Summer 2013 Plans

Jane described additional survey efforts and the possibility of aerial flyovers following Casco Bay’s work and a collaboration with an SSI team associated with BowdoinCollege that is interested in restoring eelgrass in the KennebecRiver.

Lukas, and intern with the Community Environmental Health Laboratory at MDIBL, described his research project to sample eelgrass from Hadley Point and examine it under a microscope. He is investigating the heat wave and wasting disease as possible contributors to the potential die-back. He also mentioned the transplanting experiment in which he will take eelgrass from the Bar and replant at Hadley Point to see if the Bar population, which is still present, is a more robust strain. He will look at the growth rate of eelgrass in tanks with mud from Hadley Point and mud from the Bar.  The group discussed the need to increase the number of tanks to make the results from the experiment more reliable. Jane noted that they are also trying to perform a molecular analysis of rhizomes from Hadley Point and from the Bar to look for the presence of wasting disease.

Jane said that a key challenge is trying to establish an objective measure of eelgrass health and quality. Ideally, they are trying to get to a molecular level in the research.  The group discussed sampling and analysis strategies.

Shannon described their analysis of eelgrass habitat function.  Due to the fact that there is no eelgrass, they are looking at sediment and collecting baseline data.  They are looking at invertebrate communities and intend to continue this line of investigation. George added that they are also collecting temperature data at their sampling stations with temperature loggers. Liz is looking at sediment and sifting for seeds as well.

There was a discussion of observed trends in Casco Bay, with high levels of turbidity due to high levels of precipitation.

Chris suggested that Jane share this information with the Department of Marine Resources. Jane said that there were two noteworthy occurrences last year. First, there was a heat wave in March and eelgrass came up early and then it died back all of a sudden in August. It didn’t turn black like it was wasting disease, it got mealy around the meristem. The plant had a shredded look. Then the next windy day it all broke off and washed up on shore. One example was found in the literature, Burkholder et al. from NH, and they were working with mesocosms, but they attributed the “mealy” plant look to nitrate toxicity. We’ve been doing nutrient data in the Bay and high nitrate levels are not seen.

Chris mentioned that when you look at echinoderms, when you see them getting sick, they pick up multiple pathogens. Things in water attract pathogens really well, so once they get sick they get lots of things.  So it is important to be careful about drawing conclusions about cause and effect when using molecular tools to look for wasting disease. There needs to be an established protocol for sampling so the remaining eelgrass off the Bar is not decimated.

There was an extended discussion of surveying and sampling methods and options such as working with kayak companies and doing volunteer fly-overs. Terry asked about possible collaboration or information coming from towns and Jane said that Rob Wilpan is on this committee and could possibly check Sorrento.

Wrapping up the meeting, Jane noted that the group does not have to meet again this summer but will use e-mail to communicate and update. Lukas is keeping a daily log and will share observations and that Jordan might possibly create an app for mapping eelgrass.

Meeting adjourned.