Concord Rotary Grant Helps Bring the Film 'Including Samuel' to Concord Schools
By Rebecca Zeiber, NH Sea Grant
June 11, 2008
Students from Oyster River Middle School gather around a tank filled with eelgrass at UNH's Jackson Estuarine Lab to learn about the importance of this aquatic plant in the Great Bay.
A decade ago, children dangling their feet off a dock in the upper Piscataqua
River might have come across eelgrass growing below the water’s surface.
Fast forward to today and the aquatic plant is unlikely to be discovered along
the shores by curious kids.
Eelgrass is an aquatic plant with long, ribbon-like leaf blades that grows
in estuaries including New Hampshire’s Great Bay Estuary. It often grows
in clusters called beds that fulfill a very important ecological niche: the
roots help stabilize substrate, the leaves slow down wave action to protect
shorelines from erosion, and the beds provide nursery habitat for juvenile
fish and crustaceans. However, since 2002, eelgrass populations in the estuary
have been steadily declining in distribution and density.
“It struck me that we have this decline in eelgrass in the bay but that
message is not necessarily getting out to the public,” explains Nora
Beem, UNH graduate student in natural resources. “Most people aren’t
aware of the crisis that’s occurring in the estuary.”
Part of Beem’s graduate work entails public outreach and education about
local environmental issues, including eelgrass and water quality in the Great
Bay estuary. With the help of Fred Short, UNH research professor of natural
resources, a few volunteers and some funding from the UNH Marine Program and
the Great Bay Stewards, Beem led an outreach event on June 4 and 5, 2008, for
fifth graders from Oyster River Middle School. Students spent time at the University’s
Jackson Estuarine Laboratory learning about eelgrass and water quality first-hand.
“Outreach events like this provide students with the tools necessary
and the understanding to be able to teach the community about the importance
of eelgrass and of keeping the bay healthy,” Beem notes. “Hopefully
the students will be able to take some pride in what they’re doing.”
The students rotated through three stations where they conducted water sampling
on the bay, learned about eelgrass ecology, and then compared the current water
quality parameters with what is needed to maintain healthy eelgrass populations.
Beem also addressed the positive and negative roles that humans have on the
In the upcoming weeks, the students will be creating interpretive panels similar
to research posters that will incorporate what they’ve learned and how
to help, Beem says. They will then present their information to the Durham
Conservation Commission and discuss personal and community-wide changes that
can be made to improve the health of the estuary.
“We need to establish and maintain a relationship between the research
community and the public to keep people informed about what’s happening
with the bay’s health,” Beem adds. “Scientific information
needs to be dispersed and shared to be truly meaningful.”
Historically, eelgrass beds were located throughout the estuary, including
Great Bay proper, the shorelines of Little Bay and the Piscataqua River, as
well as in Portsmouth harbor, Short says. Currently, there are no eelgrass
beds in Little Bay and very few in the upper Piscataqua River. Although the
number of beds in Great Bay itself remains steady, the biomass of the plants
in the beds continues to decline.
The crux of the problem includes nutrient inputs and suspended sediments in
the water, Short explains. Nitrogen and phosphorus are coming into the estuary
from septic systems, lawn fertilizers and sewage treatment plants in the area.
Excess nutrients cause increased algal growth on the plant blades that prevents
sunlight from reaching the plant.
Sediments are carried into the water when rain hits land being cleared for
development or impervious surfaces like parking lots and enters the local waterways.
The combination of increased nutrients and suspended sediments has led to degraded
water quality and clarity.
The eelgrass beds in Great Bay have managed to survive because they grow on
mud flats where the plants are exposed to direct sunlight at low tide, Short
says. The deeper, murky waters of Little Bay and the Piscataqua allow less
sunlight to reach the leaf blades and so very few plants remain there.
“It’s incredibly frustrating,” he acknowledges regarding
the declines. He has spent years monitoring the estuary, trying to establish
healthy eelgrass populations and working to spread the word about the bay’s
Short also admits that convincing the general public to become involved in
this issue is a hard sell, particularly for people who might not feel they
have a direct connection to the estuary. But for those whose livelihoods depend
on a healthy bay, the impacts could be detrimental.
“A large portion of the New Hampshire seacoast economy is supported
by tourism,” Short says. “We all want clean water, a nice place
to fish and sail, clean beaches and a healthy environment for our children.
If the bay continues to degrade, there could be a very negative direct impact
on tourism and on the lives of local fishermen, and other indirect impacts
on the rest of the public.”
“Something needs to be done to reverse these trends before it’s
too late,” Short adds. “Local towns and the public need to work
together to implement ways to decrease the discharges into the local waterways.”
Despite these challenges, Short and Beem remain upbeat about the potential
to make a difference.
“This outreach event is a great start,” Short says. “We
are hoping to expand it to other schools around the bay.”