It Takes a Region: Ecosystem-Based Management in the Gulf of Maine

Andrea Cohen, MIT Sea Grant

People like borders and fences. We like lines of demarcation. But the natural world has its own idea of boundaries: they're fluid, they shift. Or as Ronald O'Dor, a professor of biology at Dalhousie University in Halifax puts it: "Fish don't carry passports." Nowhere is that more apparent than in the Gulf of Maine, whose fisheries, diverse habitats and cultural resources are key to both the U.S. states and Canadian provinces that call its shores home.

To better manage those critical resources in an integrated, ecosystem-based manner, the Northeast Sea Grant Programs established the Gulf of Maine (GOM) Regional Ocean Science Initiative (ROSI). One of several regional initiatives funded by NOAA, the project is guided by a council of U.S. and Canadian members collaborating with coastal managers, agencies, non-government organizations, governors' committees, and stakeholders to identify key areas of concern and the research and monitoring needed to address them.

Michele Dionne, research director for Maine's Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve, points out the need for such an initiative: "Many of the pressing questions regarding the ecological consequences of human alterations of coastal watersheds, landscapes, seascapes, habitats and fisheries can only be answered at [the Gulf-wide] scale," she says.

Damage to homes and infrastructure is one concern expressed by stakeholders.

Photo by Joe Kelley

The GOM ROSI's report, The Gulf of Maine Strategic Regional Ocean Science Plan, identifies several themes as critical to stakeholders: how the oceans respond to climate change, human health, and human activities, as well as coastal resiliency and management and governance. Judith Pederson, advisory leader and regional project coordinator for MIT Sea Grant (MITSG) and editor of the report, notes that the document will evolve to meet new concerns and priorities. She stresses that while many of the stakeholder critical themes are also global issues, the GOM ROSI is committed to seeking regional solutions that will benefit the Gulf of Maine in the next 5-10 years.

The report emphasizes that stakeholders are concerned about how climate shifts will affect marine plants and animals; how higher ocean temperatures may increase harmful algal blooms, expand the range of non-indigenous species, and foster new diseases; and how uncertainty with climate change models complicates the management of ocean resources, particularly locally and regionally. Fisheries will be affected by higher temperatures, habitat loss, pollution, and ocean acidification (especially for shellfish).

Socioeconomic studies, studies of cumulative human effects on the Gulf of Maine, and the integration of physical, chemical, geological, and biological oceanographic information will help to provide tools for managers.

But all the interconnected effects need to be understood.

Emphasizing an ecosystem-based approach, the GOM ROSI team has identified marine and coastal data as critical to helping management address citizens' concerns. Regional research, monitoring, and data collection are essential for understanding cumulative impacts of human-based and natural stresses on ecosystems. That information, along with socioeconomic data, can help resolve conflicts over ocean and coastal resources.

Coastal resiliency - an area's ability to recover from storms and extreme weather changes - is another key factor. Projected sea level rise generates concerns about flooding in coastal areas, damage to homes and infrastructure, and the reduction of wetlands and shorelines. Communities also lack management plans for extreme scenarios, such as hurricanes on the scale of Katrina, and there is insufficient data to predict the potential costs of coastal hazards.

To mitigate risk, researchers must understand the myriad components (social, economic, biological, geographic) of coastal communities and ecosystems most vulnerable to damage. Mapping of the coast and sea floor is also needed to identify sensitive habitats and areas of cultural or historic significance.

As the report emphasizes, providing policy makers with the best available science will help them balance development and economic growth with environmental protection However, the effects of their decisions are often not monitored. Stakeholders polled in the Gulf of Maine advocate that regulations enacted to promote healthy coastal and marine ecosystems be monitored, and that more socioeconomic and scientific data be gathered and disseminated in a timely fashion. The initiative also concludes that managers must ask the right questions: How should science and policy be integrated? What tools do policy makers and managers need to do their jobs and to evaluate the impacts of human activities? How can they best adapt their plans in a setting of climate change?

The Northeast Sea Grant Programs already have several regional projects underway. In collaboration with the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Geological Survey, MITSG is studying how the marine invasive Didemnum vexillum, a colonial sea squirt, is affecting fisheries. These animals form large colonies that prevent organisms such as mussels and young scallops from settling on the seafloor. Using autonomous underwater vehicles equipped with cameras and sensors, MITSG has been able to document the colonies, which now cover 50% or more of the seafloor in an area of about 200 square kilometers on Georges Bank. Researchers are also developing models of how Didemnum spreads, which will help managers and industry assess risk.

In another regional project, MITSG and Connecticut Sea Grant are funding research to better understand the causes of sudden wetland dieback on Cape Cod. Wetlands play a critical role as a habitat for marine plants and animals and as a filter for pollutants, and identifying the causes of such diebacks will help in remediation and restoration efforts.

Also regional in scope is an ongoing community project to map marine invasive data in real time. Led by MITSG's Pederson, that effort includes a database that the GOM ROSI can integrate with oceanographic and geological data.

In the bigger picture, Dalhousie's O'Dor points out that the GOM ROSI "makes it easier for us to work with all the different agencies in different states" and that the project has sparked Dalhousie and Fisheries and Oceans Canada to consider implementing a Sea Grant-like program in Canada. "We're trying to make sure that the same philosophy transfers," he says.

Pederson adds that the GOM ROSI will help bring U.S. and Canadian researchers together "to tackle regional problems in a coordinated and collaborative manner."

For more information, or to download the Gulf of Maine Regional Ocean Science Plan, see http://seagrant.mit.edu/rosi/