Bowdoin Awarded $365,000 Luce Foundation Grant for Ecological Study of Merrymeeting Bay

Story posted April 11, 2003

Bowdoin College has been awarded a $365,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation's Environmental and Public Policy Program to establish a long-term ecological study of Merrymeeting Bay.

Merrymeeting Bay is a large, globally rare, freshwater tidal ecosystem located just a few miles from campus. Bowdoin's Environmental Studies faculty focus on Merrymeeting Bay because it is a living laboratory ideal for participatory learning and teaching, and an important local resource that has not been thoroughly and methodically studied in the past.

Six rivers empty into Merrymeeting Bay forming a combined watershed that covers one-third of the area of Maine. Its expansive intertidal mud flats support extremely productive emergent vegetation that feeds tens of thousands of migrating ducks and geese each year. Anadromous fish such as salmon, shad, striped bass, sturgeon, alewives, and smelts make their way in mass each year through Merrymeeting Bay to upriver spawning habitat. Bald eagles and osprey abound throughout the area.

Yet Merrymeeting Bay has not always been a showcase of Maine's wildlife and scenic beauty. Land-use practices throughout its huge watershed combined with the byproducts of industrial and municipal growth along its tributaries seriously impacted the water quality of Merrymeeting Bay for many decades. During the 1970s, the Androscoggin River was considered one of the nation's ten most polluted rivers. Today, Merrymeeting Bay faces different, more subtle threats. Trace metal pollution, invasive species, suburban sprawl, and recreational overuse are the major concerns.

The Luce funds will be used to establish a fundamental scientific study of the hydrology, biogeochemistry, and aquatic ecology of Merrymeeting Bay and the lower Kennebec River. The plan is to collect weekly water and plankton samples at key locations throughout the ice-free season, and quantify seasonal variation in water flow, water properties and chemistry, and phytoplankton and zooplankton abundance and composition. The resulting data will provide baseline information about the health of this important ecosystem.

In addition, monitoring and experimental studies will be conducted to better understand the dynamics of the emergent plant communities on which so much wildlife depends and to learn more about the ecology of invasive plants, which have radically altered many freshwater ecosystems in the Northeast.

A second area of research will involve reconstructing the environmental history of Merrymeeting Bay from stratigraphic, chemical, and fossil evidence preserved in sediments, and from documentary records and oral interviews. Bowdoin students working in independent study and honors projects, and summer research fellowships, will accomplish much of this research.

Numerous courses cross-listed between Environmental Studies and biology, geology, and chemistry will also benefit by having access to and learning from the accumulating database and by visiting Merrymeeting Bay during class field trips.

Bowdoin's Educational Technology Center (ETC) will build and manage the Merrymeeting Bay database and geographical information system that will be available beyond Bowdoin, as well, to students, local municipalities, and conservation organizations. ETC will continue to support the system even after the Luce funding has ended.

Some 60 to 80 Bowdoin students each year will be directly involved with the Merrymeeting Bay program through their work in at least 10 courses, summer research, and independent study and honors projects.

The research program will be led by John Lichter, assistant professor of biology and environmental studies. Other faculty involved include Matt Klingle, assistant professor of history and environmental studies; DeWitt John, Thomas F. Shannon Director of Environmental Studies and senior lecturer, environmental studies and government; Peter Lea, associate professor and chair of geology; Peter A. Schilling, director of the Educational Technology Center; Eileen Johnson, Environmental Studies program manager; and Jaret Reblin, biology laboratory instructor.

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