Location: Bowdoin / Environmental Studies / Activity / 2012 / Professor John Lichter on Resilience Thinking: Ecological Recovery in Coastal Maine

Environmental Studies

Professor John Lichter on Resilience Thinking: Ecological Recovery in Coastal Maine

Story posted July 25, 2012

Maine used to be a major fishery. Salmon and Alewives used to fill its rivers by the millions and fish such as Cod and Blue Fin Tuna could be found in abundance along Maine’s shores. However, in recent decades the fish populations have plummeted, greatly decreasing the biodiversity of Maine’s marine habitats and also effecting  economic sectors, such as professional fisherman and tourism, that greatly depended upon these fish for their livelihood.  Bowdoin’s Biology and Environmental Studies Professor John Lichter has long been interested in the causes behind this phenomenon and the appropriate responses to improve and prevent further degradation.  His interest was especially peaked when Ted Ames, Bowdoin’s 2010-2011 Coastal Studies Scholar, presented the idea that the dams built along Maine’s river were an important factor in both the river and ocean fishes’ population decline.

For the past two and a half years, Professor John Lichter has been working as a part of a team that received a subaward from a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to study sustainable ecological and economic recovery in coastal Maine.  The team with whom Lichter works directly includes other Bowdoin faculty- Guillermo Herrera, Phil Camill, Eileen Johnson, Ted Ames, and Dewitt John and professors from Bates College and the University of Southern Maine. The wide ranging expertise, interests, and skills of the professionals involved in the project are a manifestation of what Professor Lichter believes is 21st Century science. This team is going beyond identifying problems and gathering information. They are also trying to figure out viable solutions to the problems. This is why the team not only includes biologists such as himself, but also economists, fishermen, and policy experts; taking a 'knowledge to action' approach, an approach that Professor Lichter believes is fundamental to bringing environmental change not only to Maine’s waterways but to the world. Read more about this project here.

Half way into the five year project, Professor Lichter and his team have discovered that there is a connection between river water quality and fish population. Maine’s rivers such as the Kennebec and the Androscoggin have notoriously been polluted for years, with the Androscoggin often unable to meet water quality standards.  In addition, they have discovered that dams have affected the ability of fish such as Salmon and Alewives to get upstream and spawn. A reduction in their population has led to a reduction in the food source for fishes such as Cod, thus leading to a decline in the amount of Cod found on the coast of Maine. In other words, the dams have disturbed the complex food chain and consequently affected fish populations in Maine’s marine environment. Overfishing has also affected the complex food web. If the team is able to address these issues, then perhaps the fish will return to Maine, providing countless opportunities to the state.

The team is attempting to address these issues with the help of various Maine communities. They now have a strong scientific understanding of the problem, so are focusing on the challenge of addressing the social side of the problem. They are trying to involve the community by illustrating the beneficial economic effects that a restored fishery could have. For example, tourists may return in great numbers to fish and this would create more jobs in Maine.  A large and varied fish population would create a varied economy, providing it more security, just as diversity provides security to ecosystems.  A restored fishery could also provide more food to local populations.

Overall, this is a very exciting project that could have important beneficial effects in Maine. Professor Lichter and his team have two and half more years of work under their current grant. The work that will come out of this next couple of years could bring great change to Maine.  

Click here to watch video Desperate Alewives

This article was written by Grace Hodge '13.

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 The team is taking a 'knowledge to action approach', an approach that Professor Lichter believes is fundamental to bringing environmental change not only to Maine’s waterways but to the world.