Scientists and Anglers Partner to Study Striped Bass


Scientists think that Maine’s striped bass population is made up of fish that are spawned locally and fish that migrate from more southerly regions, but it is challenging to understand the relative contribution of each group. After all, if you catch a striper in the ocean, how can you tell where it came from?

This gap in our understanding has hampered efforts to determine the cause of a recent downturn in the catch of stripers and to identify the changes in management that might reverse the trend.

Our researchers believe the fish may have telltale characteristics that could be used to decipher their origins and life histories, but there is little available data on Maine’s stripers and no commercial fishery to help collect it.

To address this critical lack of data, GMRI has partnered with the Maine chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association to engage anglers as citizen scientists. The Snap-A-Striper program allows them to share valuable information about the fish they catch and to help us build the knowledge needed to better manage this resource.

When anglers catch a striped bass, they fill out a data card and photograph the fish next to it. Using image analysis software, our science team can obtain accurate body measurement data and look for distinct body shapes that might allow them to tell fish from individual populations apart.

Anglers can also bring the head of any legal fish they keep to one of several drop-off locations so our science team can perform chemical analyses on the fish’s ear bones. The estuaries where stripers are spawned impart distinct chemical characteristics to the ear bones. When this data is combined with the body shape analysis, it will allow us to determine the origin of individual fish.

Snap-A-Striper had its first field season in the summer of 2013. Anglers along the coast contributed about 140 images and 13 striper heads. A promising initial analysis of this data revealed a body shape difference between stripers caught in the Kennebec River and in Casco Bay that may enable us to differentiate fish based on photographs.

Will these initial findings hold up across more locations and times? How will this compare with what we learn from the fish’s ear bone chemistry? We’ll be working closely with Maine’s anglers again this summer to try and find out.

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PowerHouse Brings Climate Change Home for Maine Students


powerhouse_psa_collageGlobal issues like climate change are challenging for adults, let alone 12-year-olds, to understand. GMRI’s newest education program,  PowerHouse, takes climate change out of students’ textbooks and onto their kitchen tables – allowing them to grapple with this complex issue through the lens of their own electricity usage.

Maine leads the nation with the highest installed base of smart meters. With 95 percent of homes equipped with these advanced electricity meters, almost all Maine families now have access to detailed information about their household energy use.

PowerHouse fuses this detailed data with an educational framework that helps students conduct experiments and examine the impact of their families’ electricity usage. Equipped with this information, they can use the program to set electricity management goals and monitor their families’ progress.

Engaging students with this personally relevant data places them at the center of their learning, a key approach of our education programs.

Earlier this month, PowerHouse garnered national recognition from the White House and the Department of Energy for its latest enhancement – a feature called, “How Clean is Your Shirt?” This new tool overlays students’ hourly home electricity usage with its hourly carbon emissions. They can then explore how and why the carbon impact of their electricity usage varies throughout the day. The DOE selected it as one of four finalists for Best Overall Application in its Apps for Energy Challenge, earning us an invitation from the White House to show off the site in Washington, D.C.

Over the summer, we will be conducting a major update to the prototype PowerHouse website. We expect to bring the program out of beta in the fall and begin the rollout to classrooms across the state.

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Securing the Sustainability of an Unregulated Fishery


jonahMarket demand for Jonah crab has more than quadrupled during the last 20 years, but the fishery still lacks a management plan to monitor and protect it from overfishing.

Found in coastal and shelf waters along the Atlantic coast, Jonah crabs serve as an important source of supplemental income for lobstermen, who are responsible for 98% of their harvest from federal waters in the northeast. This overlap in fisheries has led to Jonah crab being treated as a bycatch of the lobster industry; however, fast-growing market demand has increased the targeted fishing pressure on the species in recent years.

In the absence of a comprehensive management plan and stock assessment process, this growing interest in Jonah crab has compromised the long-term health of the fishery.

Just this week, however, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) acted on the recommendation of an industry-led group, which we have been facilitating since 2012, to incorporate Jonah crab into the management plan that governs the lobster fishery.

New England fishermen, scientists, retailers, regulators, and processors formed the working group to proactively pursue sustainable management of the Jonah crab fishery and safeguard its long-term health. During the last two years, we have worked alongside the group to identify threats to the sustainability of the fishery and create a work plan to address them. Our briefing to the ASMFC this week summarized the data we have gathered and provided a set of recommendations for management of the fishery.

The lobster management board will now review our recommendations – including crab size limits and reporting requirements – and propose a management plan that protects the Jonah crab fishery and ensures the continued availability of this resource.


Jonah crab landings


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Adapting to Our Changing Climate


2012-07-25252007_18_03_revThe Gulf of Maine is steadily getting warmer, bringing significant changes to both the ecosystem and the economics of the region.

Throughout the summer of 2012, ocean temperatures spiked to 3 to 5 degrees above the long-term average. This ocean heat wave provided us with a glimpse at how species might react to the warm temperatures that are predicted to be the norm by the end of the century.

Working alongside researchers from the University of Maine, Stony Brook University, and NOAA, we found that some species moved north to seek refuge in cooler waters and others migrated earlier than usual. These behavioral changes had substantial impact on commercial fishermen, affecting both the species variety and the selling price of their catch.

Gulf of Maine lobsters, for instance, migrated shoreward about a month earlier than usual, bringing an early start to the summer harvest. While lobstermen proceeded to catch a record number of the crustaceans, the abundance flooded the market and the price paid to lobstermen tanked.

Another response to warming waters is that new species from more southerly waters have begun to appear with greater frequency. Summer flounder, scup, black sea bass, Atlantic mackerel, butterfish, longfin squid, and Illex squid are all now regularly seen in the Gulf.

In order to sustain marine ecosystems, scientists and fishery managers need to be able to rapidly adjust to changes in climate. In a research paper on the 2012 ocean heat wave, we outlined a number of recommendations to help them prepare for and react to a changing climate, such as:

  • Models that link physical changes to ecosystem and economic impacts
  • Using real-time data streams to detect and predict unusual events
  • Greater flexibility in fishery management to accommodate and adjust to future climate events

We also recently published, “Preparing for Emerging Fisheries: An Overview of Mid-Atlantic Stocks on the Move.” This report focuses on the opportunities and challenges associated with seven emerging species in the Gulf of Maine to help fisheries managers prepare for the changes that are headed our way.


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Dealers Delivering on Continuous Improvement


GoMRHsealThe Gulf of Maine Responsibly Harvested® brand provides consumers with an easy way to identify Gulf of Maine seafood that meets science-based criteria around responsible harvest. But for dealers, joining the cooperative branding effort means much more than just putting a label on their seafood.

Licensed dealers commit to yearly goals focused on what we call “continuous improvement” of their business’ overall sustainability. Since joining the program, dealers have engaged in projects such as reducing energy usage by upgrading cooling and lighting systems, investing in equipment for composting fish waste from processing, using biodegradable plastics for packaging, and improving their processing systems to reduce water usage.

Sanders Lobster Company, a licensed dealer in Portsmouth, NH, is a third-generation, family-owned business. Two years ago, they set the goal to reduce their waste by finding a recyclable alternative to the wax-coated boxes they traditionally used for shipping live lobsters. Wax-coated boxes hold up well to carrying wet lobsters, but they are not recyclable and typically end up in a landfill after a single use.

By working closely with their packaging supplier, Sanders tested multiple iterations of a biodegradable, recyclable box made of 100% recycled cardboard. Over the course of more than a year, Sanders piloted the boxes and continued working with their supplier to make further improvements. The new boxes are now in regular use, and Sanders estimated that 40,000 pounds of waste was diverted from landfills with the first 25,000 boxes shipped.

Look for the Gulf of Maine Responsibly Harvested brand next time you’re shopping for seafood at Hannaford, Shaw’s, or Big Y. Under each label, you’ll find seafood you can feel good about. Behind each label, you’ll find a licensed dealer working hard to increase the overall sustainability of their industry.

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New Partnership Enhances Impact Assessment


The mission of our science education programs is to support student’s development of “science literacy”—a complex suite of critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and communication skills. We’ve long had a pile of anecdotal evidence that our programs are working, but how can we be certain that the 15,000 students who engage with our programs each year are developing these essential yet hard-to-measure skills?

Over the last year, we’ve been working with two faculty members at the University of Maine, Jon Shemwell and Dan Capps, to look more deeply at student learning in our programs, particularly around the skill of reasoning with evidence.

For our LabVenture! program, the UMaine team spent a month recording student conversations and observing student teams in action. They then analyzed the conversations to look at how successful students were at identifying and using relevant evidence as a team.

The research revealed that LabVenture! was indeed achieving the goal of engaging students in challenging activities in which they identified and reasoned with evidence. The researchers also found that the tasks were appropriately challenging for students, and that the program engaged them in higher-order thinking about a range of science topics.

For our Vital Signs program, Shemwell and Capps are currently collaborating with our staff and Maine teachers to develop a virtual investigation that measures students’ reasoning and collaboration skills. They are also working on a survey to measure students’ interest and attitude toward science both before and after participating in the program.

Innovative education programs require equally innovative assessment programs, and this type of in-depth evaluation has long been one of our aspirations. Our recent partnership with University of Maine, paired with our work with Stanford University, is allowing us to understand our programs like never before and discover new ways to better serve Maine’s students.



A variety of teachers, students, parents, and thought leaders share their perspectives on GMRI’s education programs.

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MREP expands to the Gulf of Mexico


MREP-Southeast-Logo-altWhile fishermen, scientists, and regulators don’t always share the same language, their long-term goal is essentially the same – make use of fishery resources today in way that supports them being here tomorrow. Over the past decade, GMRI has collaborated on a fishing industry-led initiative to build greater understanding and trust among these groups through the Marine Resource Education Program (MREP).

This intensive training program immerses fishermen in the science and policy behind fisheries management, helping them understand the information, language, and processes that govern their industry. Equipped with this vital primer, fishermen can better engage in the regulatory process, ensuring that their valuable perspectives and insights are heard.

As word of the New England-based program spread, applications began rolling in from faraway places such as Texas, Maryland, and even Puerto Rico. GMRI and our partners first piloted program extensions in the Mid-Atlantic, and this year we launched MREP Southeast to serve the Gulf of Mexico, South Atlantic, and Caribbean fisheries. To kick off the effort, we convened a local steering committee consisting of a diverse group of stakeholders from around the region. The group hosted their first science and managements workshops in April and September 2013.

The science workshop featured a series of hands-on stations, a tour through the Florida Fish & Wildlife Research Institute, and a visit aboard research vessels. Discussion topics focused on species protection including barotrauma reduction, turtle excluder device compliance, and habitat restoration.

The Management workshop, largely designed around a mock council scenario, allowed everyone to try their hand at decision-making and negotiations within the fishery management process. Council staff from the Gulf of Mexico, South Atlantic, and Caribbean regions offered tips on participating effectively in the council forum and provided resources to engage with ongoing council developments.

MREP Southeast will be offered again in 2014. For more information on workshop dates and the application process, visit

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Otolith Growth Patterns Shedding Light on Alewives


Annual rings - verticalWhile alewives spend most of their life at sea, their early days in freshwater spawning grounds are some of the most influential of their lives. Environmental conditions during this time can set the lifetime growth trajectory of the fish, influencing their susceptibility to predators and long-term survival when they reach the ocean. These conditions can vary greatly among river systems and offer scientists a unique opportunity to identify markers that link a fish back to its spawning location.

Our Fisheries Ecologist, Lisa Kerr, is looking at alewives’ growth patterns during their first 30 days of life by examining their inner ear bones. These structures, called otoliths, contain growth rings like those found in trees. By viewing an otolith under a microscope, we can measure how much it grew each day and then calculate the growth rate of the fish.

If we can identify patterns in early growth among alewives, we might be able to use otoliths to identify the spawning location of an individual alewife, as well as understand the factors that might be driving differences in growth among river systems.

Alewives along the east coast of the United Sates have been dwindling for decades and were even recently considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act. While some rivers still support healthy runs of alewives, others only support a few thousand returning adults each year. Without a way to tell which populations alewives caught at sea are coming from, it’s impossible to tell whether some groups are being disproportionately caught as bycatch by fishermen targeting other species.

We’ve already been able to identify differences emerging in growth patterns, and we’re now trying to determine the factors that might be driving those differences. Otoliths from all 14 sampling locations show similar growth rates in the first few days after hatching, but we see much more variation by the end of their first month.

We’re currently looking for correlation with environmental differences between systems, such as temperatures, habitat availability, and fresh water flow. If we can understand the mechanisms underlying these differences, we’ll be able to better identify unique characteristics of populations.


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Developing National Learning Standards


staff-3959By Sarah Kirn, Education Programs Strategist

While there are many opinions on what it means and how to go about it, Americans wholeheartedly agree on the importance of education for our young people and for our country’s future. One strategy that education policy makers employ to try to improve education in the United States is the identification of standards – defined learning outcomes, or performance expectations that students should meet by certain times in their education.

Two unprecedented national efforts have begun rolling out across the country: the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for Mathematics and English Language Arts and the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). These are the first national efforts designed to create and increase opportunity for states to collaborate and share best practices on teacher preparation and curriculum development.

In 2012 Anita Bernhardt, then Maine’s State Science and Technology Specialist and currently Coordinator for Standards and Instruction, asked me to serve as one of the Maine educators reviewing the NGSS drafts. Our task was to evaluate the developing standards’ adherence to the Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas, a 2010 research report by the National Research Council designed to guide the development of the NGSS with a bold vision of what science education should be.

Participating in the NGSS review process was a great opportunity for me to hear firsthand the reactions of classroom educators and school administrators to the standards and to represent GMRI’s broader perspective as informal educators. The NGSS authors had an enormous task in translating the research-based vision of the Framework into performance expectations for K-12 students. No doubt, the debate about how well they did this, as well as the feasibility and appropriateness of standards, will continue into the future.

As you read these debates, I encourage you to remember that the standards are meant to create common targets, not defined pathways. I know that the explicit intention of the NGSS was not to define curriculum but to define a suite of interdependent practices, knowledge, and ideas that students need to master.

I don’t think we’ll know the impact that the NGSS will have on education until the corresponding assessments are developed, which is an effort still in the planning stages. But whether the standards eventually take hold or not, it’s clear that the transformative ideas of the Framework for K-12 Science Education are solid and are already helping educators re-envision the way we teach science in schools.

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Report Recommends Changes to Lobstering Licenses


Pulling trapsA lot has changed since the current licensing system for Maine’s lobster fishery was created almost two decades ago. Landings have almost doubled and shifted eastward, fuel costs have tripled, and the estimated wait time for a license in most zones has grown to greater than 20 years.

During the summer of 2012, Maine’s State Legislature and Department of Marine Resources (DMR) contracted GMRI to conduct an independent, objective examination of the limited-entry licensing system and look for potential ways to improve it. We held a series of public meetings to understand the concerns of affected communities and conducted a written survey of more than 7,000 licensed lobstermen, apprentices, and individuals on the waiting lists.

A key finding was that management of the fishery is being significantly complicated by a disconnect between how much lobstermen are licensed to fish and how much they actually fish. This “latent effort” poses a significant threat to the lobster population as the number of traps in the water can double without additional licenses being issued.

The final report offered several recommendations designed to protect the fishery, reduce wait times, support coastal economies, and establish a method to prevent overfishing of the lobster population. One such proposal was the creation of a tiered licensing system that would assign scale licenses based on lobstermen’s landings history. This approach would greatly reduce the latent effort in the system, and it would allow new lobstermen to start with a smaller number of traps and increase over time.

The report has provided us with valuable insights into the lobster fishery and inspired us to seek out answers to a number of questions that have emerged from our research:

  • How did the 2012 ocean heat wave affect the profitability and timing of landing in each zone? What does this tell us about the future if temperatures continue to rise?
  • How does the timing of the summer lobster harvest interact with the international market structure of the lobster industry? Is there way for lobstermen to pace their landings in a way that would maintain a higher value for Maine lobsters?

Look for updates on our efforts to answer these questions as our research progresses.

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