Gulf Threats

by Dan Earle
May 26, 2002

The Gulf of Maine is an environment whose biological vitality is driven by the forces of the land-based watershed in an interaction with the forces of the sea. The Gulf itself is a big mixing bowl happily churning away and mixing the waters of its watershed with those of the cold Atlantic to the benefit of a complex food web. Threats to this environment can, therefore, be expected to come from both directions.

People are most aware of the big news, sea based, items potentials for oil spills, issues related to oil exploration and drilling, the destruction of the sea bottom by dragline fisheries, whales caught in fishing gear, concerns over aquaculture, offshore trash dumping, and oil and septic wastes from recreational boating.

Threats to the ecology and economy of the Gulf come as well from the land side of the equation. The key issue is land-based watershed management, or lack thereof.

Consider the fact that any potential pollutant that drops into a stream or river anywhere in the Gulf's watershed eventually ends up in the Gulf itself. Thus, runoff and erosion from forestry and agriculture, industrial wastes, municipal sewage, excess herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers, and all the material that gathers on urban streets, roof tops and parking lots, eventually gets flushed into the Gulf waters. How much is that? It is 100% of the runoff in Maine, 70% in New Hampshire, 56% in New Brunswick, 41% in Massachusetts, 36% in Nova Scotia, and under 1% in Quebec. There are some 32 watersheds surrounding the Gulf, each with its own particular issues that we will be exploring on our journey.

Environmental threats at the edge are somewhat unique to the zone. Development of the seashore for residential, recreational, industrial, and other uses are most apparent. We can document destruction of dunes, waterways, wetlands, and beaches. We can find discharge pipes, see closed shellfish beds, and inventory the types of trash on the beach. We can find oil soaked birds, medical waste, fish kills, maimed turtles, balls of oil, and other such indicators of problems. The edge concentrates human impacts.

Less apparent to those on the shore are the potential impacts of near-shore recreation. Larger power and sailing vessels are easy to spot and they do contribute human, engine, and other waste and trash to the seas. Less evident is the impact of the thousands of smaller boaters as they paddle the shores and camp on the islands. Their impact is of a cumulative nature. Each excursion has the potential for its little bit of destruction. The edge of an island gets eroded by landings and carrying of gear, the campsite compresses the soil, campsites expand from one to two to more and more, deadfall and limbs from trees are used for campfires depleting the biomass that sustains the fragile forest, roots become exposed, trees are easily toppled by windstorms, the opened areas are subjected to water and winds that carry away forest litter and soil, diversity of habitat and its animal and birdlife are lost, the once forested island becomes a desert.

As you can see, the issues we are dealing with extend in range from the big picture that has to be dealt with by regional agencies, government agencies at all levels, NGO's, and the political realm, to those of direct responsibility taken by the coastal recreational user such as us.