BOOTHBAY HARBOR — A delegation of members from the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee left the confines of the state Capitol last week and took a bus ride to the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences.
Situated in East Boothbay, the laboratory is one of Maine’s most important research facilities.
Over the course of more than two hours, the legislators got an introduction to the institution from laboratory President Deborah Bronk and met with several senior scientists, who explained their cutting-edge research and some of its potential impacts on Maine’s environment and economy.
Founded in 1974 by Charles and Clarice Yentch, scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, the Bigelow Laboratory is unusual in that it has made its worldwide reputation over the years through the study of tiny aquatic organisms — phytoplankton and microscopic marine algae — and their impacts on the marine ecosystem rather than on large creatures such as whales that, Bronk told the legislators, are the focus of much oceanographic research.
According to Bronk, the laboratory has 90 full-time employees and last year had revenues of more than $11.1 million. Most of that money comes from grants funded by the National Science Foundation, NASA and NOAA Fisheries to fund research on a variety of projects.
Those projects include finding ways to count microplastics in the ocean more rapidly, determining the impacts of growing kelp and mussels in close proximity and finding a way to produce astaxanthin, a chemical compound added to aquaculture feed to turn the flesh of farmed salmon pink, from phytoplankton in the same way that wild salmon consume the compound by eating tiny krill and shrimp. Currently, much of the astaxanthin added to commercial fish feed is synthesized from petrochemicals.
While much of the laboratory’s work is aimed toward the future, Bigelow also regularly tests shellfish for the Department of Marine Resources to check whether they contain dangerous levels of the biotoxins that produce paralytic shellfish poisoning and amnesic shellfish poisoning. That testing, in part, gives DMR the information it needs to decide whether to close an area to shellfish harvesting.
Until recently, biotoxin testing was done by feeding ground up samples of shellfish to mice. Bigelow uses a chemical method that is “much more precise” Bronk told legislators, so DMR can define areas that need to be closed more narrowly and harvesters don’t have to stop fishing in areas that are safe.
In addition to its research, the laboratory has several educational programs, and not just for graduate students or scientists pursuing postdoctoral research.
The Keller BLOOM (Bigelow Laboratory Orders Of Magnitude) Program provides Maine students with an opportunity to do “a hands-on ocean science research experience” working alongside professional researchers. The program is open to up to 16 high school juniors who are curious about the ocean. Participants are chosen from public and private schools and home-schooled students from around the state.
Among the scientists who explained their work to the legislators were Barney Balch and Nichole Price.
Over the past 20 years, Balch and a team of other scientists, has loaded a truck-mounted portable laboratory he designed aboard a ferry and crossed the Gulf of Maine some 200 times to acquire a continuing stream of data about changes in the kinds and quantities of phytoplankton in the water.
Price explained how growing kelp and mussels together at an aquaculture site in Casco Bay produced animals with stronger shells, the result of what she described as a “halo” of improved water quality created by the kelp.
Bronk told the legislators that the laboratory would be glad to serve as a “source for all the scientific information” committee members might need to do their work and that the laboratory was committed to creating “a new model” for institutions so that it could “stay ahead” in global marine research.