Environmental Quality in the Gulf of Maine
A convergence of science, technology and policy promises a new view of the Gulf
By Peter H. Taylor
I live along the Maine coast in a house overlooking a tidal inlet that connects circuitously to the Gulf of Maine. At the edge of my property, a roadside drainage swale collects runoff and carries the water from the surrounding lawns and wooded areas into the inlet. Although some of the homes in my neighborhood have stood here for a century or more, people are building new houses and our small town is pressured by suburbanization. It makes me wonder about the potential effects on our coastal and marine habitats.
My neighborhood (like many neighborhoods) can be seen as a microcosm of the Gulf of Maine region in terms of the challenges of environmental management. The watershed drained by our humble swale covers only four or five acres. Even so, if one wanted to determine the amounts and sources of pollutantssuch as fertilizers, sediments and pesticidesentering the swale and tidal inlet, a sizable investment in data collection and analysis would be required. To assess the effects of land use on wildlife and ecosystem processes, additional research would be needed. Addressing environmental problems in the neighborhood would require the participation of several landowners, each with their own priorities and needs.
Now scale up to 350,000 square kilometersthe approximate area of the Gulf of Maine and its watershedspanning federal, state and provincial jurisdictions. The hurdles in studying and managing such a large ecosystem are obvious, but in some ways the issues and challenges are the same as those in my neighborhoods little watershed and inlet. How can we determine the environmental problems and priorities? How can the needs, interests and priorities of diverse landholders or jurisdictions come together to make environmental progress? How do we know if were making progress over time? In the past, management efforts have tended to focus on parts of the Gulf of Maine region, rather than the entire ecosystem. Now, however, effective management of large marine ecosystems is emerging as an attainable and important goal, made possible by an unprecedented confluence of policy initiatives and scientific advances. Nowhere is this potential more evident than the Gulf of Maine.
Last year, the independent, non-partisan Pew Oceans Commission issued a report calling for a new, coherent U.S. ocean policy that would encompass sustainable ecosystem management, more funding for management and research and a reorganized governance structure for the nations ocean waters. Notably, the Commission recommended watersheds and large marine ecosystems, not politically defined jurisdictions, as fundamental units for management. Likewise, the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy has been working since 2001 to develop recommendations to the President and Congress for a comprehensive national ocean policy. Across the border, the Canadian government in 2002 released its Oceans Strategy, a national framework for protection and sustainable use of the marine environment. These major initiatives indicate a general shift in thinking about our relationship with the ocean and a trend to revamp marine management.
A core constraint for understanding and managing the oceans on a regional scale has been information: collection of data for research and monitoring; data sharing, integration and analysis; and regional exchange of findings and management solutions. These challenges are magnified by the geographic size and ecological complexity of a system like the Gulf of Maine. A glance around my neighborhood can indicate something about its land use patterns (loss of woodlands to residential development) and ecosystem health (lobsters, snails, fish, seals, ducks and occasionally bald eagles live and feed here, suggesting a reasonably healthy ecosystem). It is much harder to obtain such a perspective on the entire Gulf of Maine region that is comprehensive and accurate enough to guide management actions.
The Gulf of Maine lends itself to regional scale, ecosystem management because it is clearly defined geographically, oceanographically and ecologically. Recently, a surge of technological initiatives and regional cooperative efforts seems likely to make ecosystem-level management of the Gulf more feasible. While each has its own merit, the fact that all of these efforts are developing at the same time offers the potential for an integrated understanding of the Gulf of Maine ecosystem from seafloor habitats to oceanography to freshwater streams. The following are examples of programs that could weave together to facilitate this larger understanding.
2001, the Gulf of Maine Ocean Observing System has collected hourly
oceanographic data from buoys around the Gulf and provided the data
on its Web site.