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In the shallow coastal waters of Frenchman Bay, in the northeastern U.S. state of Maine, profound changes in the marine habitat have decimated once plentiful fish populations. But now, thanks to the efforts of a team of scientists at a nearby research laboratory, the coastal habitat is making a slow but steady comeback. Scientists hope the fish will do the same.
Where have all the flounder gone?
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About 40 years ago, flounder were plentiful in the waters of Frenchman Bay, a scenic harbor near Maine's Acadia National Park. But over the past 30 years the flounder, and many other species of fish, have virtually disappeared.
Scientists blame the disappearance on the destruction of eelgrass, an important underwater plant on which many marine animals depend.
Dr. Kevin Strange is director of the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory, also known as the Biolab; an independent, non-profit biomedical research facility located near the bay.
Strange says that when the bay was filled with eelgrass, cod, halibut and other marine organisms came to breed and raise their young.
But without the eelgrass, Jane Disney, an environmental scientist at the bio lab, says their shelter was destroyed.
"Eelgrass is really important because of the habitat it provides to lots of marine organisms, especially larval forms of organisms that need a place to hide and a place to eat and a place to grow up," she says.
Why did eelgrass beds disappear?
George Kidder, a senior scientist who's been at the Biolab for 30 years, believes modern fishing practices caused the decimation. Specifically, he blames the harvesting of other species of marine organisms by dragging the bottom of the bay.
"When you harvest mussels for instance, you pull up a sample of the bottom, keep the mussels and throw what's left of the eelgrass back overboard," Kidder says.
He adds that the process of uprooting is a form of clear cutting. "But because it occurs below the water, most people don't see it. If they did see it," he says, "they would be outraged."
Restoring eelgrass to the bay
For the past three years, Kidder and Disney have worked with citizen scientists to restore this essential underwater plant to Frenchman Bay.
Kidder says eelgrass restoration involves three basic steps.
"Part of the job is research; finding out how best to do this. The second part of the job obviously is to do it; to try to promote as much eelgrass restoration as we can in the process of doing this. And the third part of the job, which is probably just as important as any of them and maybe in the long run more important, is educating public consciousness about the desirability of preserving eelgrass," he says.
A painstaking process
Disney used various techniques to restore eelgrass. The most common method involves tying individual strands of eelgrass plants with their shoots, one-by-one, to metal grids that are then weighted with bricks and placed onto the ocean floor.
Over time the eelgrass plants set in roots and start to grow. Once they're stable, Disney and her team remove the grids so the plants can further root themselves in sediment and start germinating.
Restoring eelgrass to the bay has been a painstaking and time-consuming job, but Disney says she sees results. In the past several years, they've seen thick beds of eelgrass where before, "we had nothing."
Eelgrass benefits many marine organisms
While the newly planted eelgrass beds are attracting many forms of invertebrates such as mussel seeds, it is the vertebrate creatures that seem to be generating the most excitement.
"There are a few fishes that we are finding in the eelgrass beds and that's making us feel optimistic," says Disney. She recently spotted a school of herring and several fishermen reported seeing some flounder.
"So we're feeling like, wow, maybe flounder can start to rebound out there," she says.
The return of fish to Frenchman Bay
The slow but steady return of fish to Frenchman Bay, says Biolab director Kevin Strange, is good news not only for the local fishing industry, but also for the rest of the world.
"Our oceans are really international," he says, "so nothing can be done in one part of the globe to the oceans that doesn't start to impact the other parts of the ocean in some way."
"Trying to restore environments, trying to learn about what we're doing to these ecosystems, trying to prevent damage, is critically important," he says.
Seeing flounder and other species of fish back in Frenchman Bay has been an encouraging development for scientists at the Biolab. They plan to monitor the eelgrass beds for further signs that the health of the ecosystem has been restored.