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January 5, 2023

New program to study impact of climate change on whelks, worms and mollusks

person in sweater by harbor and rail fence Courtesy / Department of Marine Resources Meredith White will implement new monitoring programs to develop long-term data on trends in marine ecosystems.

The state has a new focus on how climate change is affecting clams, oysters, mussels, seaweed, marine worms, periwinkles and whelks.

Meredith White, who was the director of research and development and interim director of hatchery operations at Walpole’s Mook Sea Farm, has been hired to lead the nearshore marine resources program.

Mook Sea Farm is one of the Maine oyster industry's top producers whose team has been tackling issues related to climate change.

She has also been a visiting assistant professor in the department of earth and oceanographic sciences at Bowdoin College and as a postdoctoral research scientist at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay.

“All of my scientific research has been focused on understanding climate change impacts on marine organisms,” White said in a news release.

The nearshore marine resources program is a revamp of the Department of Marine Resources’ shellfish management program and is under the umbrella of the Maine Department of Marine Resources’ Public Health Bureau. 

The recent name change was made to more accurately reflect the work of the program.

“This program has evolved over time to include far more than just the management of soft-shell clams,” said DMR Public Health Bureau Director Kohl Kanwit. “Scientists in this program manage all species of clams, oysters and mussels as well as other important species including seaweed, marine worms, periwinkles, and whelks.”

Courtesy / Heidi Leighton, DMR
Soft-shell clams

In 2021, harvesters landed $25 million worth of soft-shell clams, $10 million of oysters, $4.4 million of blue mussels and $5.5 million of bloodworms, according to DMR data.

The revamp also created the new senior scientist position now held by White, plus two supporting scientists. The program’s staff includes biologists Heidi Leighton, Hannah Annis and Ari Leach, who work throughout coastal Maine. The team will be joined by recently promoted DMR scientists Meryl Grady and Katie Tilton.

The goal, said Kanwit, is to address “new and dynamic challenges confronting municipalities and harvesters caused by climate change.”

The revamp, said White, reflects the state’s recognition “that climate change is a real issue” and its commitment to taking action in order to sustainably manage marine resources.

White will help create surveys to monitor resources and evaluate the impact of climate change on those resources. She will also support the co-management system between the state and municipalities for clams and oysters in Maine.

One of the program’s first projects to be developed is an intertidal monitoring program at sites statewide. White said she will collect long-term data on trends in the ecosystem, including the diversity and prevalence of species; invasive species; the effects of predation and recruitment of young animals. 

Based on harvester input, in the coming months she will also develop a marine worm larval study to evaluate changes in the abundance. 

“Recently, wormers have come to the department with questions about what they’re seeing and asking us to do more surveys to look at the abundance of marine worms and see if there are changes,” said White. “We want to respond to the needs of harvesters by conducting surveys that help answer questions they have about what they are seeing.”

She will lead research into Maine’s wild harvested seaweed resources and evaluate the abundance and management of blue mussels.

Data from the work will be used to inform management decisions, especially at the local level. 

“At the municipal level, we will work with towns to develop shellfish management plans that outline steps needed to manage and conserve their shellfish resources, especially in light of the rapid environmental change facing our coastal communities,” White said.

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