Safe Beaches & Shellfish
The Safe Beaches and Shellfish project, a three-year study and $6 million award from the National Science Foundation, is the first collaboration through the New England SusTainability Consortium (NEST). As long-term trends indicate worsening coastal pollution, this research informs choices and provides a promising model for interactions between science and decision-making.
NEST mobilizes cutting-edge theory and methods from the emerging field of sustainability science and a range of disciplines to tackle problems related to the closure of shellfish beds and posting of beach advisories due to high levels of pathogenic bacteria in coastal regions. Given that the estimated annual value of coastal recreation amounts to as much as $20 billion nationally and $400 million in ME and NH, these coastal closures represent a significant sustainability problem with complex and interacting economic, social and environmental dimensions.
Using the Gulf of Maine as a laboratory for investigating interactions between coupled natural and human systems, NEST’s interdisciplinary team of natural scientists, social scientists and engineers are investigating: 1) how natural processes and human activities in coastal waters and watersheds influence bacterial dynamics; 2) the reciprocal interactions between such scientific knowledge and the processes that influence closure decisions; and 3) the potential role of social feedback processes in reducing the frequency and magnitude of closures. Building on a tradition of durable partnerships with diverse stakeholders, researchers are collaborating with all levels of government, the private sector, tribal communities, non-governmental organizations, and citizen scientists.
In addition to helping understand and solve problems involving coastal closures, this project expands New England’s collective research capacity to conduct solutions-focused research on other sustainability problems and help train a highly skilled 21st century STEM workforce.
The project 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 University of Southern Maine and College of the Atlantic and University of New England in Maine.
Citizens interested in participating in the research have an opportunity to join the New England Stewardship Network which was 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. View Poster
A number of study sites were selected in each state that differed in ecological and social attributes (e.g., closure frequency, watershed loadings, economic impact of coastal tourism or shellfish harvests). Researchers investigated 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.
We use a collaborative process in which resource managers participate in defining problems, identifying research needs, interpreting results, and designing solutions.