Safe Beaches & Shellfish
Equipping resource managers to make science-based decisions about beaches and shellfish beds
Given that the estimated annual value of coastal recreation amounts to as much as $20 billion nationally and $400 million in Maine and New Hampshire, coastal closures represent a significant sustainability problem with complex interactions between economic, social, and environmental factors. As long-term trends indicate worsening coastal pollution, sustainability research can be used to inform choices and increase the safety of beaches and shellfish beds.
The Safe Beaches & Shellfish project, a three-year study funded by a $6 million award from the National Science Foundation, was the first collaboration of NEST. Researchers from Maine and New Hampshire used cutting-edge theories and methods from the field of sustainability science 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.
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 investigated three major questions:
- How natural processes and human activities in coastal waters and watersheds influence bacterial dynamics
- The reciprocal interactions between such scientific knowledge and the processes that influence closure decisions
- The potential role of social feedback processes in reducing the frequency and magnitude of closures
A number of study sites were selected in Maine and New Hampshire 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, such as water flow in rivers, and human activities, such as land development in coastal watersheds influence bacterial dynamics. Much of the work focused on how to understand how scientific knowledge is used for making resource management decisions, such as decisions to close shellfish beds to harvesting.
Building on a tradition of durable partnerships with diverse stakeholders, researchers collaborated with all levels of government, the private sector, tribal communities, non-governmental organizations, and citizen scientists. The collaborative process allowed resource managers to participate in defining problems, identifying research needs, interpreting results, and designing solutions.