A Trip Down the Damariscotta

1 Oct

The Damariscotta River winds between small historic towns and meets the Atlantic Ocean at Maine’s rocky coast.  Despite its seemingly peaceful flow, this estuary habitat is teeming with life, as indicated by its Abenaki name which translates as “the river of many fish.”  Since the weekend mission of our marine ecology class was to study marine wildlife, the Damariscotta estuary was a perfect place to start. The class boarded the small research vessel Ira C.  prepared to see the workings of one of the most productive waterways in the state. Our Captain, Robby, immediately took the stage, climbing up on the edge of the boat to gaze over the masses congregated on the ship’s floor below him. “One rule on my boat: I don’t ask you to do somethin’, I tell you to do somethin’.” The gruff rough and tumble demeanor of this weathered looking native Mainer was quickly cut with a hearty laugh as he jumped off the side and began to share his passion for the river we were navigating. Through his historical knowledge we were informed about the incredibly unique habitat of the Damariscotta. The salinity of the river is higher than most estuaries, boasting levels that are comparable to the open ocean. The high salinity, paired with increased temperatures and the protected landscape, make this estuary a prime habitat for aquaculture. As we sped up the river, large black chains of floats, 30,40,50 units long were strung near the shore. Robby pointed a leathery finger off into the distance at the odd structures, saying “those there are the oyster farms…they’re popping up all ovah.” And in fact they were. Shortly after we saw another conglomeration upstream.

DSC06010

Aquaculturists in the region use cutting edge engineering capabilities to produce millions of oyster seedlings annually for market production. One of the most predominant farms in the area, Mook’s Fishery, boasted a seed production of 80 million this last summer and is looking to increase this number by 50 percent in the coming season. The huge success of oyster production on the river is due to a mixture of the natural environmental conditions, as well as human advancements in seed nurseries, increased nutrient feed supply, and better growing and harvesting techniques. Robby mentioned that experimentation with mussel aquaculture, the first of its kind, is taking place in the Damariscotta. Plankton is the major food source for filter feeders like oysters, and the Damariscotta has plenty of it! To illustrate the richness of these primary producers, we dropped a  large plankton net 21 feet below the surface and towed it slowly behind the boat.  After only two minutes,  we pulled it back in to see that the net, originally white, was now brown because of the abundant single celled algae stuck to it.

Plankton Tow Dredge net                        

The Damariscotta is an immensely important resource for a multitude of marine organisms. Therefore, it is impossible not to notice the changes that the river has been experiencing over the last few decades as the effects of human activity begin to be felt. As a way to better understand the environment below the surface, we conducted a small dredging sample. The excitement on the boat was evident every time our net lifted back out of the water, pulling up everything from charismatic sea stars, to pinching crustaceans and various forms of algae. Yet, despite this diversity, both Captain Robby and professors Paulette Peckol and Graham Kent noted the differences in the catch between this year and past trips. The changing environment of the Damariscotta was a theme of the trip.  The challenges presented by climate change were reiterated by ecologist and oyster specialist Andy Stevenson when he later came to discuss aquaculture and the change in naturally occurring small-celled algae in the water column. Tim Miller, ecologist at the Darling Marine Center also discussed his worry about shell disease with the native lobster population, stating that while funding was not available to support it, research on the subject was needed. The trip left us with the realization of the fragility of our changing world and the effect that those changes will have, not only on single-celled marine algae, but on all species as it reverberates up the ladder.  The savory taste of lobster lingering in our memory from the previous night’s dinner became even more cherished with our new found understanding of this new wave of environmental uncertainty facing this complex marine system.

Hanna Mogensen, ’14

Hanna is a biology and environmental science and policy double major at Smith College and is working as a CEEDS intern! Despite being a proud Mainer, this trip was her first to the beautiful Damariscotta River. She is greatly enjoying having the opportunity to get out and explore the world through her courses. Hanna is excited to celebrate her last fall on campus with excessive amounts of apple picking, leaf peeping, pumpkin carving and other good old fashioned fun!

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