This summer I worked alongside Andy Bell, Cory Elowe, Holly Jacobson, Catherine Johnston, and Ben Towne on an ecology project funded generously by the Sustainability Solutions Partners. This research was the first summer of a five year, multidisciplinary project centered on the Merrymeeting Bay ecosystem.
The river and bay located near Bath, Maine once supported a large and diverse food web, including large quantities of fish. Many of these fish were anadromous, meaning they spent most of their lives in the ocean, but swim up rivers to breed. An example of an anadromous fish that once flourished in the Kennebec River system is cod. However, historical overfishing and pollution beginning with European colonization led to depletion of the cod, and may other fish populations. The goal of this project is to help the system recover not only for the benefit of the ecosystem, but also for human benefit. A population of cod to rival the historical population would lead to economic gains for people as well as biological gains for the river and bay.
In order to foster recovery in Merrymeeting Bay and the Kennebec River Estuary, we set about learning more about the current state of the system. To do this, we surveyed vegetation populations, invertebrate populations, as well as juvenile and adult fish populations.
The work that we did over the summer raises a number of philosophical questions as well as biologic questions. The whole project is based around assumptions about ecological recovery. One of these is that it is, indeed, possible to bring the river back to a state it experienced in the past. Another assumption is that ecological recovery is desirable. This seems to stem from an intuition that the original state of an ecosystem is the best state for that ecosystem. This is problematic, however, because ecosystems are never really stable, making it difficult to establish any meaningful baseline from which to compare recovery. Furthermore, it is not clear that a restored ecosystem is as valuable as one that was never degraded in the first place. For example, an exact copy of a Picasso painting is considered practically valueless when compared to the original, even if it is such an accurate copy that a Picasso expert is not able to tell the original from the copy. Similarly, a restored ecosystem that an ecology expert cannot tell apart from a pristine ecosystem may not be as valuable as an ecosystem that was never degraded in the first place.
I am interested in both the philosophy and the ecology involved in this recovery project, as well as how one affects the other. Based on my experiences this summer, I look forward to creating a project to be considered for honors based on ecosystem recovery and this summer’s work. I am grateful for my experiences this summer because I have discovered a passion for environmental research.
Faculty Advisor: John Lichter
Research Funded by the Sustainability Solutions Partners