Garbage Patch Kid

You’ve probably read about the giant patch of floating trash in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  Well, we have our own plastic trash poisoning the Gulf of Maine.  Let me show you where it comes from.

 Saturday was a warm, sunny afternoon, and a lovely day to be outdoors.  We live on the edge of a salt marsh, and a couple of times a year I go out and pick up garbage.  Saturday seemed like a good day to do that.  There had been strong Spring Tides earlier in the month – with that lots of litter is flushed down-river and deposited at the tide line.  It is not unusual to fill up a trash bag or two in less than an hour.

90% of this trash is plastic.  By volume it is mostly urethane foam and Styrofoam.  The remainder is plastic bottles – bottled water and sports drinks primarily.  Yesterday I picked up 42 bottles.  

The trouble with plastic is that it doesn’t biodegrade but it does UV-degrade.  In other words, it doesn’t break down in the environment, it simply breaks up.  What is most irksome is Styrofoam packing material (the kind your new computer came boxed in).  I find big chunks woven into the marsh grass.  When you go to pick them up, they disintegrate in your hand into little white pellets that blow away in the wind. 

Eventually, most of this plastic pollution is washed out to the sea.  Hundreds of millions of tons of plastics and chemicals make their way into the ocean every year. 

A bag of trash and a block of styrofoam packaging

The United Nations Environment Program estimated in 2006 that in every square mile of ocean there may be 46,000 pieces of floating plastic – mostly microscopic bits.  In places like the Pacific Garbage Patch plastic outweighs plankton at a ratio of six to one.  It is not that bad in the Gulf of Maine – yet.  But this stuff accumulates.  I don’t harbor any illusion that picking up a bag of trash for recycling amounts to much in the scheme of things.  It is simply an act of hope.

Ocean Is Our Muse

I grew up on the beach.

My mom had summer rental cottages at the shore, where we worked and lived.  Accommodations were spare but from the front door step the vista was limitless.  The sound of surf was always in the background.

My dad was a scuba diver at a time when the sport was new and dangerous.  He introduced me to diving when I was eight – outfitted me with a home made wetsuit and child-sized scuba tank .  For a few summers I spent all my spare time in the water.  I would find places to  sit quietly on the ocean floor, nestled into the seaweed, observing the fish and conserving my air as long as I could.

In college I realized what I wanted.  I had been studying business but it was a life destined to be lived inside – I left it behind.  Traveling the coast of Maine I found a piece of waterfront which I could afford, built a camp, and bought a boat.  I set out to learn the trades that would allow me to live and work on the water.

Commercial fishing has taken me places I never dreamed I’d go, both in experience and in thought.  The thread woven through my life has been a love of the ocean environment.  Now I want to talk to people who feel as I do.  John on board

We imagine ourselves as terrestrial beings.  But standing on the beach looking out to sea, you glimpse the edge of a larger world.  This is a water planet.  Ocean governs our lives.  As living things, we carry little bits of ocean chemistry walking on land.

There are people out there, a sub-set of population, who have an ocean vision.  I am using this new medium, web networking, to reach out. Blogging is a little embarrassing for a taciturn old Yankee.  I’m not doing this to hear myself talk – I’m trying to solicit a response.  I want to meet you and learn about your ocean experience.

Please use this website.  Let’s find out who we are.



Where the Wild Things Are

Dave Lamoureux with the 157-pound bluefin, a record tuna for an unassisted kayak fisherman.  Copyright NY Times.

Dave Lamoureux with the 157-pound bluefin, a record tuna for an unassisted kayak fisherman. Copyright NY Times.

As the turtle said, “Dude, you’ve got serious thrill issues.”

 There aren’t many places in the world where bluefin tuna venture so close to shore that a person can paddle out to cast for them from a kayak.  But Race Point off the tip of Cape Cod is one of those places.  On the outgoing tide, all of Massachusetts Bay is trying to empty out around that one point of land, and that is where big fish congregate to feed.

 Fly fishing from a kayak has become a sport in recent years.  Recently, the New York Times reported on a fellow who had been trying his hand at kayak-fishing for striped bass last year near Race Point, when he hooked up a small bluefin tuna.  The tuna took him for a ride.  He has since been perfecting his technique, and so far, the paper recounts, his biggest fish landed weighed 157 pounds! “Bluefins are powerful enough, he said, that if given too little line, they can cause a kayak to flip end over end.”  Now there’s a thrill for you.

 There is no exaggeration in his assertion either.   Bluefins are awesome fish – anytime you hook one is a thrill.  Frankly, a 157-pound fish may be a trophy to a kayak-fisherman but it isn’t even a keeper for someone with a commercial tuna license.  The biggest fish I ever caught weighed in at over 900 pounds – gutted and dressed!  It took three of us four hours to land it.  Boy was that fun. 

Sort of like hunting mastodons with pointy sticks.

Not that I want to dismiss the accomplishment of the kayak-fisherman – he’s got more moxie than I do.  There is something elemental about fighting big fish from a small open boat (ask Santiago).  These sorts of elemental challenges are becoming fewer as human engineering rules the planet and the natural world is more removed from daily life.

 The planet needs wilderness.  People need wilderness too – especially civilized people. 

 The ocean is wilderness at our doorstep.  Once you get away from the shore and below the waves, it’s wild.   The ocean is where I go to connect, again, with something unmistakably real.

Urban Sprawl in the Ocean

John on Press Herald Post


Have you ever attended a planning board meeting?

There has been considerable discussion of “urban sprawl” in southern Maine. Town planning departments and planning boards are where citizens confront these questions of sprawl and manage the effects of development.

But imagine, for a moment, a planning board where all the members happened to be builders and real estate developers. Imagine a housing development up for review by this body – what sort of standards would they apply.

Sidewalks? – Too expensive. No one walks any more. Waiver granted.
Extend a water main? – Home owners can drill wells. Waiver granted.
Wetlands? – Breed mosquitoes. Drain them – waiver granted.

You get the idea. Fortunately we don’t do municipal planning this way (though some would like to). Land use is strongly tied to community values and the people who make those decisions have to represent the whole community.

“Marine habitat destruction” is the ocean equivalent of “urban sprawl”.

A few summers ago I attended a two-day workshop at the UME Darling Marine Center campus in Walpole. Meeting there were US and Canadian planners and scientists looking at human-caused stressors to marine habitats in the Gulf of Maine. They determined that, in every kind of marine habitat, from open-ocean to estuary, the greatest impacts by far come from commercial fishing.

Then they asked the question, “If fishing is altering marine ecology, who manages the impacts of fishing?”

Answer: in US waters the responsibility falls to the New England Fishery Management Council. Hmmm – not what people expected.

Therefore, today I am attending the New England Fishery Management Council’s Habitat Committee meeting. It’s not an easy assignment to sit through. The day’s discussion is focused on a federal proposal – guidelines for protecting corals from damage by fishing operations. The chairman, an intelligent, well meaning man, is running the meeting – he is a charter boat captain. The vice-chairman owns a groundfish trawler. Three members are employees of marine resource agencies in NH, RI and CT.

The final member is an industry trade representative with a large trawler background – he has been speaking at length against the federal proposal – specifically, recommendations to close areas where corals are found to many forms of commercial fishing. Listening to him you would understand that bottom trawlers, clearly, are no threat to coral and should not be included on a list of destructive gear-types. “Really. Trawler captains avoid coral areas. They don’t want to get into the stuff. Damage to coral comes from lobster traps and gillnets, not trawlers. No need to close them out of these areas.”

fish Okay. Yup. We know how he’s going to vote.

Few people realize that there are beds of hard coral in areas of the Gulf of Maine. Cold-water corals that grow in deep basins and canyons along the continental shelf edge. Species which live for 500 years. One pass of a trawl-door or a carelessly retrieved net can wipe out a long biological history in an instant. Scientists estimate that 80% of coral biomass in New England has been lost to interaction with commercial fishing over two centuries, in little bits and pieces over time.

So how long shall we leave a piece of sea-bed undisturbed in order to regenerate coral communities? No one in the fishing industry is going to ask that question. Instead, the debate may be whether to protect some of what is left. And coral is just one of many issues of this sort.

Comprehensive planning for marine environmental quality? No one has invented that yet.

I Hate Balloons

 John on Press Herald Post 


You have to love those clear hot July days on the water.  The boat leaves harbor at sun-up and runs straight out to sea for two hours to a favorite offshore fishing ground.  As the morning wears on the sun beats down, the air becomes still and the surface of the water as smooth as glass.

balloonThen you see them.  Little dots of color on the horizon.  Balloons.  Party balloons.  Helium balloons that have lost their lift.  They float on top of the water barely touching the surface, trailing streamers of colored ribbon like a kite with a tail.

I hate balloons.  I especially hate mylar balloons – they don’t seem to break down in the environment.  I’ve found mylar balloons floating at sea that had obviously been around for years.  The foil and pigment had flaked off, the balloon just clear plastic with algae growing on it.

The Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary program does research on whales.  Last summer, during tagging research, we counted 42 animals one day feeding in an area of two-mile radius.  You could stand on top of the boat and see whales everywhere you looked, mouths wide open coming up out of the water.

I picked up half-a-dozen balloons that day from my boat, plus all sorts of other plastic detritus.  I’m sure a balloon wouldn’t kill a whale if it accidentally shallow one. It’s just the idea of it – plastic litter at sea.  It’s not right.

People don’t hold onto their balloons!  That’s why I don’t like balloons – they have to end up somewhere after they fly away.  I suspect that after a good summer’s weekend, with kids’ parties, weddings, county fairs and  sporting events, all the helium balloons in New England end up in the North Atlantic (if the wind’s right).

Of course, I don’t like parties either.  Especially birthday parties.  Especially mine.

Butts on the Beach

John on Press Herald Post


The International Coastal Cleanup has become a big event worldwide (  Volunteers not only collect tons and tons and tons of trash from beaches and shore lands; they actually inventory the items they pick up.  Understanding where the trash comes from is the first step to stopping it at its source.

The single largest category of item collected every year: cigarette butts.  Millions and millions of cigarette butts.

It’s a big ocean.  Cigarette buts are small things.  You wouldn’t think there would be a significant impact from something so innocuous.

But, catch this news from Down Under.  A report from the Townsville Aquarium in Australia of “a green sea turtle that had died of nicotine poisoning after consuming 300 cigarette butts (presumably washed into the sea from storm water drains).”

Storm drains.  Someone walking down the street finishing a smoke, crushes the cigarette under his shoe and kicks it to the curb.  You’ve seen it.   Just a thoughtless habit.  But the next rain – into the storm drain and out to sea.

All pollution makes its way to the sea.

Poor turtle.  I tried Skoal chewing tobacco once – it made me green too.

The Big Sink

John on Press Herald Post


All life on Earth depends on the ocean.   Even yours.

I’m often struck that when policy makers worry about Climate Change they don’t also talk about Ocean Change.   Ocean IS climate – the two are in an inseparable dance that creates the conditions for life on Earth.

We have been hearing news lately about the Russians, and the Scandinavians, and the North Americans all vying for control of Arctic natural resources.  I did not realize the immediacy of the competition until I saw this website:

The summer of 2008 may be the first time in human history that the North Pole is ice free – meaning that the ice pack is broken up and ships are free to transit Arctic waters, from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

But it’s not just about polar bears, folks.

The ocean is the big sink.  Ultimately, all the byproducts of our civilization find their way to our oceans – heat, pollution, plastics.  But that sink is now filled to the brink and we are starting to discern recognizable change.

As the Pepsi generation is well familiar, carbonated water creates a mild acid.  Carbon from the atmosphere is absorbed by seawater.  The vast volume of water on earth has been mitigating the effects of our industrial revolution for centuries, but that buffering may now be fizzed out.  And a little change goes a long way to tip the balance.

Think “acid rain” on a massive scale.

Ocean scientists hypothesize that seawater will become 10% more acid by 2050.  That great a change in PH is enough to destroy all the coral reefs on the planet!  But we can live without coral, or polar bears.  What we can’t live without is zooplankton.  These tiny animals are the basic food-stuff of the sea, and without them the entire food-web collapses.  When you look at zooplankton under the microscopic you see that most of them are tiny crustaceans with tiny calcium shells.  Calcium dissolves in high PH.

A marine ecologist friend, who has been working at Biosphere Two, will soon be publishing a paper on primary productivity in the face of elevated seawater acidity.  I’ll post it when it’s out.

Meanwhile, NOAA fishery scientists from Woods Hole, MA recently reported that primary productivity (the food that the fish eat) in the Gulf of Maine appears to be trending down over the last decade.  Let’s hope that trend reverses sometime soon.

Message from a Lapel Pin

John on Press Herald Post


Barak Obama seemed a bit bewildered.  I’m sure he hadn’t given it much thought.  But suddenly people were asking him “Why don’t you wear a flag on your lapel?  Don’t you love your Country?”  Of course he loves his Country – it’s a given that anyone who serves in an elected office has to love their country.  Why else would one take on the personal sacrifice that comes with public service?

But it has become pro forma today for politicians to wear a flag pin in their lapels.  When everyone does it, I’m not sure what it means.

Lapel pins should mean something!  They should be a subtle form of expression, sort of like “wearing your heart on your sleeve” only cooler than that.  It’s just a small bit of decoration but it can also offer a hint of the individual.

I have two lapel pins – one is a halibut and the other is a humpback whale.  When I go to meetings, one or the other is on my suit coat.

The halibut is a symbol of my work over the last 15 years – to restore groundfish in New England.  Halibut are mighty fish – when you catch one you know it.  And yet fishermen in dories fishing with hooks collapsed that population in 19th century.  It is so easy to underestimate our collective power to do harm.

The humpback is my symbol for the whole of marine life.  You would think that an animal that large would be an apex predator, but they are not.  They occupy a niche right at the center of the marine food web.  Humpbacks are intelligent creatures, minds in the water – they observe, they respond, they are conscious of what’s around them.  We humans harm them in many ways but they don’t fight back (they could) and they don’t run away.  They just endure.

So.  Perhaps now you have a glimpse of a crusty old guy – all from a small lapel pin.

Maybe I should get a tattoo next.

Recreational Fishermen Revolt!

John on Press Herald Post


Recreational fishermen are up in arms!  Soon they’ll be protesting in the streets of Augusta, pounding on the doors of the Legislature.  Liberté! Equalité! Fraternité! Unite against bureaucracy!

So what’s the fuss?  Because a recent federal law now requires NOAA Fisheries to establish a registry of recreational saltwater anglers by 2011.  The law empowers NMFS to charge a minimal fee.  However, states that have a pre-existing recreational saltwater license system are exempt.  In anticipation, the Baldacci administration is proposing a Maine saltwater license, to cost between $15 and $25 annually, which will supersede a federal license.  The new state revenues will be earmarked to improve saltwater access and facilities for recreational fishermen.

Good reason to burn the Governor in effigy!  Not really.  Recreational fishermen, as an interest group, have got to be smarter than this.

The first reason to support the Maine Department of Marine Resources license proposal is just too obvious. If the State does not do this, the Feds will – count on it.  A registry is national law.  Future fees collected by the Feds will not be spent in Maine – count on that too.

Second reason is that saltwater angling is increasing in popularity.  You have to stand in line some days, shoulder to shoulder, to go striper fishing on the Mousam and Ogunquit Rivers – from June right through to October.  On weekends there is a virtual boat parade of recreational craft trolling the Saco.  Look at the license plates of the cars parked bumper-to-bumper on the shoulders of the road – half of them are from out of state! You can bet that this added traffic costs Maine residents.  So why shouldn’t non-residents pony up through a license fee?

The third reason is the most important though.  Fact is that saltwater recreational fisheries are growing every year, in size and impact on the resource.  The current system for collecting data on recreational effort, MRFSS, is just not working.  The polling is too random.  Therefore, when fishery scientists do stock assessments on species like striped bass, cod, haddock or black back flounder, they can make a pretty accurate estimate of catch by commercial fishermen, but only a guess of catch by recreational fishermen.

When the numbers are uncertain, science advice to managers is usually very conservative.  The law now requires that scientists and managers set firm caps on fishing effort annually.  These caps will not be exceeded.  In the future, managers will have a pretty good idea of how much catch to allocate to commercial or charter vessels.  But unless they have accurate data on recreational landings, the catch limits on personal recreational fishermen will be conservative.  That means that in the future, without good data, chances are that recreational fishermen could be bumping up against limits on catch and they wouldn’t have the tools or information to negotiate something more appropriate.

So what’s the cost of ignorance?  Compare that to an annual investment in a saltwater license.  $15 is less than the price of a tank of gas for an outboard, for pity sake.

Fountainhead of Life in the Gulf of Maine

John on Press Herald Post


From the deck of a boat it all just looks like water.  But from a fish eye view, this is a wonderful place.

Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is at the ecological heart of the Gulf of Maine.  This is where cold nutrient-rich water, pushed south by the Maine Coastal Current, washes over deep basins, boulder fields, sand banks and dramatically rugged terrain.  Plankton blooms support prolific populations of bait fish.   Forage draws cod and flounder, tuna, sharks, whales, porpoise, dolphins, seals, sea birds and diversity of species that all come there to feed.

This is the fountainhead for life in the Gulf of Maine.

Nestled into the mouth of Massachusetts Bay, 900 square miles between Cape Ann and Cape Cod, the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is an urban sanctuary.  Designated by Congress in 1991, Stellwagen is surrounded by the 6 million persons of the Boston metro-region.  One of the ten best places in the world to watch whales is within sight of the Boston skyline.

This is where human population meets ocean wilderness head-on.  Industrial development, shipping, and commercial fishing compromise every aspect of ecology.  A sanctuary in name only, without protection it is approaching crisis.

Over 200 people have labored for six years to craft management recommendations for Stellwagen.  But the management plan has been released without any regulatory proposals.  This is New England’s National Marine Sanctuary.  The planning issues are ones that we will soon confront in coastal Maine as well.