PLYMOUTH — New Hampshire and Maine’s coastal tourism and shellfish industries contribute $400 million annually to the regional economy but the coastal environment is vulnerable to the effects of land development and climate change.
A team of researchers led by the University of New Hampshire and the University of Maine will conduct a three year study of the many factors affecting the health of their shared coastal ecosystem. This collaboration, funded by a $6 million award from the National Science Foundation, aims to strengthen the scientific basis for decision making for the management of recreational beaches and shellfish harvesting.
The project, known as the New England SusTainability Consortium (NEST), is managed by the EPSCoR programs at UNH and UMaine in partnership with Great Bay Community College, Plymouth State University, and Keene State College in New Hampshire, and the College of the Atlantic, University of Southern Maine, and University of New England in Maine. Citizens interested in participating in the research will have an opportunity to join the New England Stewardship Network which will be developed by UNH Cooperative Extension to connect natural resource organizations, public agencies, scientists, and volunteers.
Coastal water assessment programs currently use the presence of fecal indicator bacteria and, more recently, pathogenic bacteria as risk assessment tools for managing recreational beaches and shellfish harvesting However, these methods are poor predictors of risk. A better understanding of how environmental and climatic conditions affect the dynamics of potential pathogens is essential for informing public resource management decisions. For example, water temperature and water runoff from land both influence hazardous bacteria populations, and therefore risk to humans. PSU Research Assistant Professor Doug Earick is participating in the study and says the work has regional importance.
“We are very excited to continue and expand the work we are doing at PSU around the study of the region’s water resources and impacts humans have on water quality,” Earick said. “This project will provide us with the resources to expand our research into new locations with new partners, but also the opportunity to look beyond the science to think more about how we can engage others in understanding problems and in finding solutions to issues around this critical resource.”
NEST will select a number of study sites in each state that differ in ecological and social attributes (e.g., closure frequency, watershed loadings, economic impact of coastal tourism or shellfish harvests). Researchers will investigate how natural processes (e.g. water flow in rivers) and human activities (e.g. land development) in coastal watersheds influence bacterial dynamics. A major focus of the work is to understand how scientific knowledge is used for making resource management decisions, such as decisions to close shellfish beds to harvesting.
There is widespread agreement among resource managers and scientists in both states that current beach and shellfish management approaches are flawed; sustainability science research methods offer a means to address these flaws. NEST will use a collaborative process in which resource managers participate in defining problems, identifying research needs, interpreting results and designing solutions.
“This award is both a testament to the terrific work carried out by the talented researchers at New Hampshire’s colleges and universities, as well as an important look at our state’s coastline and ecosystem,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). “New Hampshire’s coastline is critical to our economy and the Granite State’s natural beauty, and this research will play a key role in efforts to protect these areas for future generations.”
Plymouth State University will participate in the project through expanding a current water research project to the Gulf of Maine, leading workforce development initiatives, and examining inclusive decision-making as a product of ecosystem research. Three of PSU’s faculty (Mark Green, assistant professor of hydrology; Doug Earick, assistant research professor; and Shannon Rogers, assistant professor and ecological economics) and students from the Center for the Environment and Department of Environmental Science and Policy will be involved in the project. Green will lead work on the establishment of ten new electrical conductance/temperature/river stage sites in rivers draining to the Gulf of Maine which will be integrated into the existing NH LoVoTECS program that engages local citizen scientists to help maintain high-frequency water quality sensors that are used to understand the hydrology of the contributing watershed. Earick will oversee a series of statewide and regional training and dissemination workshops on the implementation and effectiveness of curricular changes that incorporate civic engagement and student service-learning around the overall scientific scope of the project. Rogers will utilize social science approaches to ecosystem research to support more inclusive decision-making to produce tangible information that can be compared to management alternatives and used by decision makers to communicate and elect more preferable scenarios.
The mission of NH EPSCoR is to broaden and strengthen New Hampshire’s research capacity and competitiveness through research, education and economic development. It’s critical for the state to broaden and diversify the capacity to conduct research; to support business, industry and society with a workforce educated in science, engineering and mathematics; and to improve communication between scientists and the public.