Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Seapoint and Crescent Beaches, Kittery

Looking for information on Crescent Beach in Cape Elizabeth?  Try THIS POST.  

What do you think of when you hear "Kittery"?  The Trading Post?  First rest stop in Maine?  Outlets?  Bob's Clam Shack?

Me too.  But Kittery is way more than that.  It has some amazing coastline, terrific views, and beaches.  Yes beaches.

This weekend we had a true taste of spring, with a bluebird sky, warm sun, and temps in the 40's.  The warmth was much appreciated by everyone who ran the Half at the Hamptons race on Sunday (myself included, despite having a wicked bad cold), and brought people out in droves to the parks and beaches.  Damon and I dragged the dog down for a weekend exploring and running.

Lots of rules.  Nice beach.
I might have made it sound like we should pity Kittery, being best known for shopping gridlock and rest stops.  But I think that's the way Kittery wants it, actually.  I think they don't want anyone outside of town to know about their amazing beaches.  Go ahead and stop at our businesses, tourists.  Nothing else to see here.  Move along.  Go on up to Boothbay after you've spent your money.  The beaches aren't set up for crowds.  There's very little space for parking, and it's limited to town residents in summer.  (Another reason we love off-season.)  Clearly, Kittery wants to keep this to themselves.

Sponges washed up on the beach.

A mussel with kelp holdfast and drill hole from Nucella (dogwhelk).  This guy didn't stand a chance!
After finding the busy parking area (on street) we clipped the leash on Dory and headed over the snowbanks.  Seapoint Beach, the northern portion of these two beaches) is pretty well protected, with some actual sand (interspersed with cobble and even some old salt marsh turf).  There were plenty of people taking advantage of the off-leash dog rules (which only apply offseason), with lots of fetch and chase and dig in the sand underway.

Looking north at Seapoint Beach

The southern end of Seapoint Beach used to be a marsh -- notice the old mucky remains of detritus.
Damon and I really enjoyed the point separating the two beaches.  Jutting into the sea, it had promising tidepools (but the tide was too high to check them out) and some terrific boulders to sit on while pondering the sea and soaking up the sun.  With breaks offshore, waves were wrapping around them coming ashore from several directions.

I love how you can see waves coming in multiple directions here.

Damon looks happy.  Dory looks like she's stuck with us losers.
Crescent Beach is much more exposed than Seapoint.  This is a cobble beach; with varying sizes of rocks to clamber over.  There were some amazing winter berms on the beach (which of course the pictures never can show); clearly there have been some big waves this year.  Although cobble beaches don't turn some people on, I love the sound of the waves sweeping and rolling the rocks around.  The southern end of the beach was piled with flotsam -- seaweed that was drawing quite the crowd of robins, probably finding insects in there to gobble down.

Crescent Beach  -- cobbles and winter berms.

How long have these been rolling around in the surf?

Robins hunting in the flotsam.

Me -- at the finish line of the half marathon!  Whoop!
 TO GET THERE:  Take Rt 103 north from Kittery.  Go right onto Chauncy Creek Road (in summer home to excellent clams at the Chauncy Creek Lobster Pier).  Go ~1 mile; you will see parking signs on the right hand side of the road.  Unless you're a local, visit off season or bike in.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Soft Shell Clams in the News, Pt 2

Green Crabs:  

DISCLAIMER:  As a scientist, I'm paid to be a skeptic.  (Some would say I go above and beyond the cause by being a cynic as well, but that's just their opinion . . . .)  I bring this skepticism to my interpretation of green crabs in the news.  Being skeptical doesn't mean I don't think green crabs are an ecological problem, and an economic problem.  It means I think we should base opinion and policy on valid research results.  Not that quality research always translates easily into good management decisions!

Green crabs (Carcinus maenus) are an invasive species thought to have come to New England sometime in the mid 1800's, from a sailing ship.  In the old days, these ships were ballasted for trips with little cargo with cobbles taken from the intertidal.  When they arrived at a port and took on more cargo, they dumped this ballast overboard.  Often, the ballast stayed moist throughout the voyage, so the hitchhikers on the cobbles fared just fine, and made a new home when thrown overboard.  (This is how common periwinkles got here too.)  

Recently, there's been a lot of news about an "exploding" population of green crabs in Maine.  One news report quotes someone as saying "They just boil out of the water" -- and uses these words:  swarms, horror movie, and infestation.  An interesting use of language.  Unfortunately, Maine hasn't invested in science very well in the past (or present), and we have no actual surveys that can inform us about how green crab populations are changing -- just anecdotal evidence.  The state hasn't conducted a survey of green crabs for over 20 years, leaving us reliant on our own poor judgement about how many crabs there are now compared to previous years. 

Far be it for me to be a judge of good journalism, but I have to call out some of our Maine journalists for not doing their homework.  If my students repeated in writing what I've seen in recent articles about green crabs, they'd be pretty unhappy with their grades.  Here's a "fact" I've heard repeatedly:  green crabs can eat 40 soft shell clams a day.  First off, we should all be left scratching our heads on this figure.  How big are these clams they're talking about?  Full size?  Because that simply seems physically impossible.  Babies, just settled from the larvae?  Possible in terms of fitting inside a crab, that's possible, but the likelihood of a crab finding 40 recently settled clams seems poor.  Remember, they have to find their prey, handle it (break the shells back to get to the adductor muscle), then eat it.  To top all this off, nowhere can I find an actual paper that documents this "40 clams a day" figure.  If anyone can find it, please let me know -- I'd be happy to see it.

What do we know about green crab foraging?  This study by Ropes provides some pretty basic information.  They feed from spring to fall. (At least they did in 1968 when the paper was written; with warming water temps, they could be eating year-round.  Since clams settle out of the larvae in late summer/early fall, any extension of the period crabs feed in could make a major impact on clams.)  They are omnivores (I did not know that until today!); in New England eating Spartina (from salt marshes) for example.  They eat a variety of animals; Ropes found their stomach contents contained a mean of ~1.3 clams for large crabs and ~0.2 for small crabs.  Large crabs seem to concentrate on soft-shell clams more than small crabs.  This study suggests large crabs can eat ~21 small clams per day, dependent on how dense the crabs were -- more crabs meant fewer clams eaten per crab (I assume they are too busy interacting with each other).  Apparently Glude (1955) found crabs in a lab ate ~15 clams a day, but I've had trouble finding a copy of that paper. 

I have no doubt crabs are responsible for substantial declines in clam populations.  What's the difference between 40 and 15 clams a day?  Either way crabs have a substantial effect on clam recruitment.  A decline in clam populations was already noted in the middle of the last century (and even then attributed to the invasive green crab), so in fact we are working on a shifting baseline anyways -- what we think of as a normal clam population is probably much smaller than what it actually is (what it would have been 400 year ago).  But I'd like to see more attention paid to basic science (Sea Grant, fund some surveys over time) and better journalism.  Things I think will help clams:

1)  Fund FOARAM -- Federal Ocean Acidification Research and Monitoring.  This act was passed by Congress in 2009 but has never been fully funded.  If we're a society that values science we should fully fund FOARAM, which at less than $20 million/year, is a bargain.  What we don't know will hurt us.
2) Establish a true clam ecology program in Maine, with surveys of clam recruitment, crab density, and harvests.
3) Continue to try some crab exclusion programs.  Or try some experiments in making their habitat more complex (complexity reduces predation).  

Now, Janet's rant is over.  I'm heading down to Kittery next weekend to walk the beach -- I hope to have some terrific info and photos, with no science or whining.  

Monday, February 10, 2014

Seaside Snowshoeing at Wolf Neck State Park

Wolf Neck is one of my favorite parts of Maine.  Where else do you find an exceptional state park sandwiched between Casco Bay and the Harraseeket River; a locavore farm with "Oreo cows" (belted Galloways, I think they're actually called); a wonderful little campground; and the Coastal Studies for Girls campus?  What's not to like?

I get out there quite a lot in summer -- Freeport is the next town over from us -- and in winter, if it's a nice day, the hiking there is terrific.  This weekend Damon was freshly home from the Maine Snowshoe Racing Championships (where he finished second in his age class, ie, the old guys), and he was willing to go out with a slow snowshoer (a slowshoer?) -- me.  The dog was thrilled to come along.

Plenty of folks were out enjoying the February day.  The sun beckoned to us all!

The state's "Take it Outside" trailer.  Superb!

The inside of the van.  Now seriously, is there a better use of state funds?  Plus a grant paid for a lot of it!
I was really excited to see so many people out and about when we got there.  Sometimes people forget the state parks are just as great in winter as summer.  In fact, the state's "Take it Outside" trailer was there -- my tax dollars at work!  I'd seen this on their website, but never in person.  What an amazing program -- a trailer chock-full of cross-country skies and snowshoes in all sizes, just waiting to be used.  The parking lot was full and many people were on the trails -- skiing, snowshoeing, and just plain hiking (it wasn't at all icy, and frankly the snowshoes were a bit of overkill for the conditions).

In the lead, as usual.

Hand-harvested oysters.  Looks like a perfect appetizer to me.

Exploring at low tide.  That island is an osprey preserve -- no people allowed!

Oyster digging?
On the way down to Casco Bay, we met a fellow in hip-waders with a bucket of oysters.  My kind of guy.  He says he regularly collects them right on the shore there.  I find oysters out at Bowdoin's Coastal Studies Center, but I was surprised to here he found them right in the mud at Wolf Neck -- especially since I didn't see a rake with him.  But apparently he just gets them from the intertidal.  I'm not quite as hardy as him, so I think we'll file this under "investigate when temperatures increase".  They looked delicious though!
This guy is actually really, really fast on snowshoes.  He's going to the national championships!

Dory says hurry up.  HURRY UP.  There's so much to smell!

The Harraseeket River.

In the coastal hemlocks.  Except that's a birch there.
After a quick reconnaissance of the small cove looking out over the osprey reserve (they'll be back soon -- late march, so less than two months until mom and dad come home and start rebuilding the nest destroyed by a big storm last year) we headed out on the trails.  What a great day.  As usual, Dory was out in front, and we can never go fast enough for her.  The sun was warm enough to be felt even through the trees, and the hemlock forest on the Harraseeket side was as peaceful as ever.  The river was pretty quiet; all the boats moored in South Freeport in summer were resting happily under their winter covers -- except for one sitting in the shallows across the way.  That one seemed at rest too.

The beach under its winter coat.  Now imagine living in there!
In addition to the great day snowshoeing, yesterday was one of my favorite days of the year -- the first day the sun sets after 5:00.  We're pretty far east in the time zone, with early sunrises and early sunsets.  So it's a thrill to know I can see the sun still up when I leave work (on those rare days I leave at 5, that is!).  Spring's coming.  I can feel it.  I can't wait!

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Soft Shell Clams in the News, Pt 1

Soft-shell clams are important in Maine -- both ecologically and economically.  So it's  not surprising to see them in the news once in a while.  But recently I feel like I've seen a lot about them, here, and here, and here, to name a few.  So I thought I'd take some time to wade through these issues and explore their causes and what they might mean.

Bags of clams on the Freeport Town Docks.

Ocean Acidification:  Most of us are familiar with the threat of climate change, resulting from increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  One consequence of high atmospheric CO2 levels that many people are unaware of is ocean acidification, but it's a relatively straightforward concept.  If you ever combined baking soda and vinegar, and were able to explain the resulting explosion of gas, you can understand ocean acidification.

1)  Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration is increasing.  There is excellent evidence that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are increasing consistently.  In 1960, there were 315 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere; where as today the level is 396.81 ppm.  (The level considered safe and sustainable in terms of sustaining human culture and health is 350.  Yeah, that's a downer.  I would add that the vast majority of scientists, as in, virtually all, support the idea that our modern society is causing this increase in carbon dioxide.)    

The CO2 concentration last month was:

Atmospheric CO2

2)  Our oceans absorb about a third of the carbon in the atmosphere.  CO2 can exist as a gas in the atmosphere, but it also can dissolve into water, and is absorbed by our rivers, lakes and oceans.  The oceans have been an important buffer for the CO2 we've been pumping into the atmosphere, acting as a "sink".  

3)  Absorption of CO2 causes the oceans to become more acidic.  A few reactions go into this process, but the end result is a bunch of CO3 2- (carbonate) and H+ (positively charged hydrogen ions).  It's the conversion of the hydrogen in water to hydrogen ions that changes pH -- pH is a measure of how many of these H+ ions are around (a lower pH means a substance is more acidic and has more H+ ions).  Since before the industrial revolution, the oceans have dropped from a pH of about 8.2 to their present level of 8.1.  This might seem like a small difference, but the pH scale is logrhythmic, so this actually is a large change, in fact representing an increase in H+ ions of at least 25%.  

4) The end result of higher CO2 levels is a reduction in CO3 available for clams to make their shells.  Shellfish (and corals, urchins, and plankton, to name a few) have shells composed largely of CaCO3 -- calcium carbonate.  But they can only make these shells if the water is saturated with CO3.  With all the extra H+ ions around, CO3 (which is negatively charged) is hard to come by for clams.  Plus, their shells can dissolve in acidic water -- just like when you combine vinegar and baking soda (which is full of carbonate).  This is leading to thinner shells for many species (but some species actually do better with greater CO2 levels -- like lobster). 

On their way to the dinner table.
It's been a very busy week for me here at school -- a new semester is well underway, and this year my work load has doubled (no, my salary has not, unfortunately).  I think I'll save the green crab portion of this problem for next week!  Those papers aren't going to grade themselves, now, are they?