Maya Pelletier calls rockweed, a type of seaweed, “the van Gogh of the intertidal.” How can citizen science help paint a picture of the state of rockweed on Maine’s coast?[Soundscape from Bass Harbor Head Light including buoy bells, waves lapping, and birdsong]
Olivia: Sea to Trees is brought to you by Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park. I’m Olivia Milloway.
Maya: So what we see here in the intertidal is this organism that has these green tips and dark brown base, and it forms all these interesting contours when it drapes over the rocks, and it almost looks like a van Gogh painting, so that’s why I like to call it the van Gogh of the intertidal.
Olivia: That’s Maya Pelleteir, the Cathy and Jim Gero Acadia Early Career Fellow in Science Research here at Schoodic Institute, talking about an organism she’s spent the last year studying. It’s photosynthetic, meaning it produces energy from sunlight, but it’s not a plant. It’s not an animal or fungus, either–it’s an algae. To be specific, it’s a marine macroalgae, or seaweed, called Ascophyllum nodosum. Here on the coast of Maine, Ascophyllum is known by its common name, rockweed. Rockweed grows in the intertidal zone, the area between the low tide and high tides. Maya and I were observing the rockweed’s “van Gogh effect” from Frazer Point Picnic Area thanks to a low tide. When the tide has receded down the shore, the rockweed drapes over the rocks and mud, creating the brushstroke-like contours Maya described. Then, when the tide comes back in, the rockweed, buoyed by small pockets of air, floats to the surface and moves back and forth with the motion of the waves. The tide was starting to come in at Frazer Point, so we began carefully walking across the seaweed-covered rocks to answer one question: how much rockweed is there on the entire coast of Maine? You’re listening to Sea to Trees, a podcast that tells the stories of the science happening in and around Acadia from the rocky shoreline to the evergreen forests to the granite mountain tops. In this first season of the show, we’re exploring the ever-growing field of citizen science and how it can help answer questions about our changing world. In this third episode, we’re going to where the trees meet the sea–the intertidal zone.
Maya: In Maine we have a couple of different types of intertidal, so you are probably familiar with things like sandy beaches, we don't really have those here but we have a lot of boulders and a lot of, you know, rough coastlines with lots of bedrock, so that's' what we would think of as the rocky intertidal.
Olivia: We actually do have a sand beach in Acadia–so rare in the area that it’s simply called Sand Beach. The majority of Maine’s coastline is either rocky, like Maya said, or made up of mudflats, which are harvesting areas for Maine’s clammers and marine wormers.
Olivia: What’s life like living in the intertidal?
Maya: Uh, well, if you're an intertidal organism, you definitely have a rough go of it.
Olivia: The rocky intertidal zone is a hard place to live–with the constant battering of high energy waves coming in from the ocean and regular drying out periods when the tide is low, the critters living there need to adapt to constant change. Maya summed it up:
Maya: It ain’t easy.
Olivia: But still, the rocky intertidal zone is teeming with life: rock crabs, northern sea stars, blue mussels, frilled anemones, green sea urchins, and hundreds of other mollusks, crustaceans, and seaweeds. Rockweed plays a significant role in shaping life in the rocky intertidal.
Maya: Ascophyllum is a foundation species, which means that it helps structure the ecosystem. So, at high tide, it forms these 3D structures that gives habitat and hiding spaces for a lot of little critters like fish and snails and crabs, and then at the low tide, it all flops over and it creates a microhabitat beneath because of the ability that it has to maintain the moisture and a cool temperature beneath the seaweed.
Olivia: Beyond its ecological importance, rockweed is also an economic resource. I spoke with Ari Leach, a biologist with the Maine Department of Marine Resources who manages the shellfish, marine worm, and seaweed resources for the Southern half of the state.
Ari: There are records of rockweed being hand harvested early 1900s, it’s been a resource for many different areas along the coast for decades, but the commercial rockweed harvest really got going in Maine in the 70s.
Olivia: Once harvested and processed, rockweed is used as animal feed, fertilizers, and thickening agents in food. And, Ari says that annual rockweed landings–the amount that’s harvested each year–is only increasing.
Ari: Over the past 20 years the harvester landings that are reported every year to DMR, both millions of pounds harvested and total value of pounds harvested, it’s only gone up. It’s not like lobster, which is still our number one, but every year I see an increase in landings and an increase in interest from both industry and just regular public sector folks, so I anticipate it will keep growing.
Olivia: This rapid growth in Maine’s rockweed industry has led to conflict between harvesters and property owners over the sustainability of rockweed harvest. Regional closures and other management strategies have been implemented to address this conflict, and even the Maine Supreme Court has weighed in. But, all of the solutions face the same challenge: no one knows how much rockweed there is on Maine’s coast.
Ari: Over the years there have been some pretty good guesses as to what the biomass in the state is, but without a standardized tool to measure that, a guess is only a guess. And we can't make management decisions based on guesswork. Olivia: Hoping to close this information gap, a few years ago, Schoodic Institute’s Marine Ecology Director, Hannah Webber, piloted a citizen science initiative called Assessing Seaweed via Community Observation, or Project ASCO. Asco is, not coincidentally, another nickname for Ascophyllum. Here’s Hannah.
Hannah: Project ASCO was created out of a need to understand how much biomass of rockweed there is on the coast of Maine. But it was also created out of a need of having people collect data in a systematic way and in a way that seemed trustworthy to everybody.
Olivia: Part of what makes these data trustworthy is that they’re collected in a transparent way, opening up the process so that anyone can participate including property owners and rockweed harvesters. John Grotton of North Atlantic Kelp, a midcoast Maine-based company that has worked with local harvesters since the seventies to produce animal feed, fertilizers, and other rockweed products, was glad to participate in Project ASCO.
John: People on the shore, I think they are realizing that finally. We're going to have to be participants and collaborators. We're the people that are going to be the boots on the ground. We want to have independent parties doing this as well just for verification purposes, but I wholeheartedly believe we as an industry need to be involved in this.
Olivia: John said that North Atlantic Kelp has their own internal biomass assessment to ensure they’re adhering to regulations and not overharvesting in any area. But, property owners can be skeptical of industry-reported data alone. John hopes that combining harvest data with Project ASCO findings, as well as Signs of the Seasons, another rockweed citizen science project he’s participated in, will give a more well-rounded picture of rockweed’s future.
John: Sustainability is a concern of ours. We want to have data that shows the fishery is sustainable and it’s viable for future generations. That’s my main concern.
Olivia: John hopes this collaborative effort will yield updated statewide management solutions; currently, rockweed harvesting regulations vary across the state.
John: We want uniformity in the rules, and science based rules and fact based rules and some thought behind it. That's why programs like this come into play, they can lend to that management plan and harvest effort and do it in a sustainable way. Ultimately, that’s what we’re all after.
Olivia: If you count all the peninsulas, inlets, and islands, the coast of Maine is huge–longer than the coast of California. To make Project ASCO work state-wide, to create this trustworthy, much-needed data, Project ASCO needed the help of a lot of volunteers. As the Project ASCO Coordinator, Maya ran fourteen Project ASCO Trainings over the summer, from Biddeford in Southern Maine to Cobscook Bay in Downeast Maine.
Maya: I’m packing up the Project ASCO gear to head out for a training this morning. We have five quadrats, which are basically….
Olivia: Maya packs up a Project ASCO kit for each volunteer to take back with them, they have the tools to visit sites on their own to collect rockweed data, on both public and privately owned lands, with landowner permission.
Maya: ...and some scales. [Sounds of a car being packed up and started]
Maya: Alright, you buckled?
Maya: Let’s go.
Olivia: That day, we were headed to a Project ASCO training in Wiscasset, in Midcoast Maine. We met four citizen science volunteers a few minutes from the water and carpooled down to the Wright Landing Boat Launch. We stood at the launch, waiting for the tide to fall while Maya gave us instructions and a safety briefing and a group of clammers brought in the day’s catch.
Maya: There’s no grace in the intertidal. You don’t need to feel pressure to go as fast as anyone else is going, you should take your own pace and your own route through the seaweed. Do look out for barnacles, barnacles can give you some nice little scrapes, we do have some gloves with us if people want that…
Olivia: Next, Maya launched into an introduction to rockweed, how to identify it, and some basic biology.
Maya: This is Ascophyllum, and the way that you tell that it’s Ascophylllum is it looks like linguini. It has air bladders in the center of the fronds here. This one grows very long, you’ll see if this was high tide here it could float up to this tall. So, this is how you get the three dimensional structure I was mentioning before. And something that’s kinda cool is you can tell how old they are by counting air bladders.
Kerianne: Wait, really? You just blew my mind.
Maya: Here’s one, two, and you just keep going along the center, three…
Olivia: Like Maya said, you can estimate how old rockweed is by counting its air bladders. Sometimes the air bladders are farther apart, and sometimes they’re closer together, but the new growth is always a bright neon green in contrast to the darker brown base.
Maya: ...four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven. It’s eleven years old.
Project ASCO volunteer 1: Oh my gosh!
Kerianne: Wow, I didn’t know you could do that, that's awesome.
Olivia: The volunteer you just heard was Kerianne Gwinell.
Kerianne: Hi I’m Kerianne Gwinell, and I work at the Herring Gut Coastal Science Center in Port Clyde as an educator.
Olivia: Kerianne educates students on the relationships between inland watersheds and the ocean, as well as Maine’s coastal economy. She’s incorporated other intertidal-based citizen science projects into her lesson plans and was interested in using Project ASCO, too. She thinks hands-on citizen science projects give her students an entirely different perspective on the waterways around them.
Kerianne: You know, I also see during the citizen science that's happening, during the project, just these faces of wonder and curiosity that keeps them asking questions and wanting to know more, which is always great, because I don't always know the answer, and then I go and look up the answer, and I learn more in turn.
Olivia: After we became acquainted with rockweed, Maya led us through the protocol. First, we extended a 30 meter rope through the middle of the rockweed bed so that it sat parallel to the water. This line, or transect, marked the area we would sample along.
Maya: So, the first step is setting up this transect so we can place our quadrats, which are little picture frames. They're 50cm by 50cm, and we'll place them along our rope transect so we can get consistent measurements that we can then generalize to the entire area.
Olivia: Quadrats are tools that are commonly used in ecological research–ours were simply PVC pipe squares that create plots to work within. Instead of counting and measuring all the rockweed along the transect, which would be a near impossible task, we instead only counted what was growing from within the quadrats. Once we placed the quadrats along the transect, we started the bulk of the data collection with a process Maya affectionately called wrangling.
Maya: This is the wrangling process. [Laughs, sounds of squelching seaweed being moved around] So that's [more laughter]
Olivia: Maya demonstrated how to carefully untangle each individual rockweed from one another in order to figure out which were actually growing from within the plot so they could be counted. One volunteer noted it looked like her daughter's hair–it can get pretty tangled. Since the wrangling process usually disturbs an angry crab or two, we took note of the other critters we saw in the plot.
Maya: Oh look, here’s a little crab. As you can see, we found it in the quadrat.
Kerianne: Crab, yes!
Maya: So we’ll put down, “crab, yes.” [Laughter]
Olivia: After all the seaweed was wrangled, we counted the number of individuals, then prepared to measure and weigh the seaweed. After a quick demonstration, Maya instructed the volunteers to break off into pairs, find a quadrat, and practice the protocol. Kerianne and another volunteer started on their own plot.
Kerianne: [Click of tape measure being stretched out] So we are at 87 cm.
Project ASCO volunteer 2: Mik, we got nine.
Olivia: Spending time with Kerianne and hearing how citizen science projects fill her students with both wonder and endless questions, reminded me of two volunteers I met at a training earlier in the summer. While not students in a classroom, Ann Hoffner and Tom Bailey came to Project ASCO as curious, lifelong learners. Before the couple moved to Maine, they lived on a sailboat for over a decade, collecting their own weather and atmospheric data.
Ann: Well I guess from my perspective, again from the weather and the boat stuff, getting observations out there. There’s not even enough scientists to be able to do this hands-on stuff, observatory stuff. and I guess that’s to me what’s exciting, like the collecting, “Oh wow!” and then having something useful to do with that data.
Olivia: Tom said that, growing up in the Sputnik Era, he was encouraged to take science classes and enjoyed learning, but after going into an unrelated field he found that there weren’t opportunities to follow his scientific curiosities.
Tom: But science became the realm of the scientist and didn’t invite participation by individuals and nonscientists. And this is kinda a great opportunity, also expanding our own understanding of our own particular environment and area.
Ann: And it’s cool.
Tom: And what?
Ann: And it's cool, it's neat to participate.
Tom: Seaweed, man, who doesn't love seaweed?
Olivia: Back at the training in Wiscasset, the volunteers were practicing weighing the rockweed–it takes a bit of finesse. Though the technique is still a work in progress, the method is nondestructive, meaning the seaweed doesn’t have to be cut to be weighed. A mesh weighing bag works like a sling to hold the rockweed up off the rocks, and, like the quadrats, the weighing bags are homemade. I asked Hannah who made the bags, and she told me about the crucial role a citizen scientist has played in Project ASCO without ever collecting any data.
Hannah: I knew that I couldn't sew these bags, and I went to our then head of housekeeping who knows everybody, and I asked if she had a sewing person on staff who could do this weirdo thing, and she said oh yeah, Peg is amazing. So, Peg Rush makes our bags for us. Peg, too, has refined the model to make it more sturdy and durable bag so it doesn’t fall apart as easily in the intertidal.
Olivia: While she was using Peg’s bags to weigh the rockweed in her plot, I asked Elin Peterson, a volunteer from Phippsburg, Maine, what brought her to the training at the Wright Boat Launch.
Elin: Well sure, I’ve spent many summers on the Maine coast with my children growing up and spent many many hours exploring the tidal pools and the intertidal with my kids and yeah, it’s an environment that I love. And I have gotten involved in other citizen science projects as well in Maine, you know bird counts, monarch watch, and the Maine Big Night looking at amphibian migration in the spring.
Olivia: What has been your experience with citizen science? Has it changed the way you interact with the natural world?
Elin: Well, you certainly see what you’re not seeing ordinarily, you know. You just never knew to look for all these amphibians moving when conditions are right in the spring, and now I won’t be able to look at a seaweed bed and not think about what’s growing there, and how it’s growing, and what’s living underneath, and how climate change is impacting it.
Hannah: The intertidal zone, wherever it exists, is a place that people find deeply engaging, so why not ask people to go out to a place that they already love to help us by providing some data? It’s a good way to get people to engage with the natural environment. They would engage otherwise, I'm not really opening a door but I’m saying, hey look at this part of the room you might not have looked at otherwise.
Olivia: Through my reporting for Sea to Trees, I’ve gained a respect for the power of citizen science as a research tool. Citizen scientists contribute knowledge that scientists otherwise wouldn’t have, allowing for comparison between modern-day and historical biodiversity, like through Landscape of Change. When rockweed managers, scientists, harvesters, and property owners expressed a need for more information on rockweed, citizen scientists answered the call up and down Maine’s coast. I think what’s stuck with me the most, is how citizen science gives participants a deeper understanding of, and appreciation for, the world around them. In Episode 1, we heard how Dragonfly Mercury Project volunteers learn about mercury pollution in their own communities, and in Episode 2 we learned that using iNaturalist can make any backyard or city park ripe with adventure. In this last episode, we realized the beauty, and ecological importance, of unexpected textures and colors in the intertidal zone, as well as the joy of learning at any age.
Olivia: But, the challenge with citizen science is that these benefits are limited to who participates to begin with. Citizen scientists tend to be overwhelmingly white, economically advantaged, and more likely to hold advanced degrees. The same holds true here in Acadia, and with the volunteers I interviewed for this podcast. There are barriers to accessing outdoor spaces where citizen science happens, and not everyone feels welcome in national parks in the first place. As Acadia and other parks work to become accessible to diverse visitors, citizen science projects, too, should grow and evolve to engage communities in research questions that matter to them. Not only will the science itself become more relevant and meaningful, but more people will experience the joy of learning that often comes with participating in citizen science. In a poem called “Sometimes,” Mary Oliver wrote, “Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” I think Mary’s instructions get at the heart of what citizen science can accomplish. Acadia, and National Parks in general, are excellent places to live a life on Mary’s terms. And, doesn’t everyone deserve to pay attention to the world, to be astonished by it?
Olivia: I’m reminded of the first conversation I had for Sea to Trees with a citizen scientist named Margie Patlak who uses iNaturalist to learn about the insects around her home.
Margie: So yeah, the more I learn about the natural world the more it flabbergasts me, it’s just amazing everything that’s out there. It’s sort of like when you look at the stars and all you can see is the Big Dipper, the universe doesn’t seem vast. But, when you can recognize all those other constellations, if not use a telescope to see galaxies, the world becomes much more immense. Some people find that overwhelming, you know, that they’re used to themselves having a greater importance, but I feel like if you can connect to a greater sphere, then you become more immense, right? It’s both humbling but also, uh, enlarging.
Olivia: Whether through participating in citizen science projects, visiting a park in your neighborhood, or learning more about your own community, I hope you can find your own way to connect to a greater sphere.
Mikayla: Thank you for listening to Sea to Trees, a podcast from Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park. Acadia National Park is on traditional lands of the Wabanaki, People of the Dawn. This show was made by Olivia Milloway, the Cathy and Jim Gero Acadia Early Career Fellow in Science Communication. Catherine Schmitt is our senior editor. Additional editorial and production support was provided by Mikayla Gullace, Maya Pelletier, and Patrick Kark. Our music was written by Eric Green, performed with Ryan Curless and Stu Mahan and recorded at North Blood Studios in Damariscotta, Maine. The cover art was created by Sarah Luchini. Laura Sebastenelli of Schoodic Notes recorded the soundscape at Bass Harbor Head Light Station heard at the beginning of the episode. Special thanks this episode to Maya Pelletier, Ari Leach, Hannah Webber, and John Grotton for sharing their expertise with us. Also, thanks to all the Project ASCO volunteers, and especially to Anne Hoffner, for all their hard work. As a nonprofit partner of the National Park Service, Schoodic Institute inspires science, learning, and community for a changing world. To learn more, visit schoodicinstitute.org.
Maya Pelletier calls rockweed, a type of seaweed, “the van Gogh of the intertidal.” How can citizen science help paint a picture of the state of rockweed on Maine’s coast?
Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park: www.Schoodicinstitute.org
Project ASCO 2023 Interest Form: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSebLgZFFoGSiW8uoz1tRMk5RRe2x4IHzjr3FlPc5d0guIE0dw/viewform
Schoodic Notes: https://schoodicnotes.blog/