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UNH to Host International Team of Scientists to Search for Bioinvaders

By Dave Kellam, Piscataqua Region Estuaries Partnership
July 25, 2007

What has ten legs, hairy claws, and may soon be your neighbor? The answer is the Chinese mitten crab; however, an international team of scientists will soon be scouring the Seacoast to find this and other unwanted invasive species before they become well-established in New Hampshire.

From July 24 to July 31, researchers from across the globe will be looking around marinas, piers and shipyards in Massachusetts and New Hampshire in search of invasive marine species. The team will collect hundreds of plants and animals and transport them to UNH laboratories where the specimens will be identified by species.

Called the Northeast Rapid Assessment Survey (RAS), it provides a “snapshot” of the local marine ecology and may provide early detection of an invasive species. The survey was last hosted by the New Hampshire Estuaries Project in 2003.

Crabs are not the only creatures threatening the Seacoast. The team will be on the look out for other known bioinvaders, such as the “Down Under” barnacle, the kelp-like red algae, and a sea squirt from Japan commonly called the Club Tunicate. These and native marine species will all be cataloged to better understand the dynamic ecology along the coast.

Jan Smith, director of the Massachusetts Bays Program and a co-organizer of the effort, stresses the importance of bringing the best people together to identify species.

“There are a very limited number of people in the world with the expertise to quickly and accurately identify marine species. We have recruited scientists from Holland, Brazil, Canada and throughout the Unite States to make this monitoring effort possible,” Smith said. “With the aid of researchers and laboratories at UNH, we will be able to identify a wide-range of specimens, some of which may be new bioinvaders.”

An example of a bioinvader the team will be looking for is the Chinese mitten crab. Originally from Asia, this medium-sized crab first appeared on the west coast of the United States in the early 1990s.

The crab lives in both fresh and saltwater and competes for food and space with native species. Its habit of burrowing into stream banks has been especially damaging to earthen dams and delicate shorelines. In 2005, Chesapeake Bay fishermen reported catching Chinese mitten crabs in their blue crab traps. Two years later, the invasive crabs had reached Delaware Bay. And just last month, a male crab was found in the Hudson River.

Smith said, “This is not good news for New England.”

The Northeast RAS is just one of the monitoring efforts supported by the New Hampshire Estuaries Project.

“Monitoring the environmental condition of our estuaries is the only way to effectively manage these vital natural resources,” said Jennifer Hunter, director of the New Hampshire Estuaries Project. “By routinely measuring chemical indicators, like dissolved inorganic nitrogen; biological indicators, like oyster bed size; and even human-caused indicators, such as rate of development; we can identify trends that show in environmental degradation before it is too late to do anything about it.”

The Northeast RAS is a collaborative effort of three regional estuary programs, including the New Hampshire Estuaries Project, and is jointly coordinated by the Massachusetts Bays Program and the MIT Sea Grant Program.

The New Hampshire Estuaries Project is a cooperative environmental program involving governmental agencies, universities, non-profit organizations, businesses, and the public to protect, monitor, and enhance the ecological health of the state’s coastal bays and rivers. It is funded in part by a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, through an agreement with UNH. For more information, go to www.nhep.unh.edu.

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