The Shaw Institute has sampled and reported on water quality in Frenchman and Blue Hill Bay for 30 years. In the past, we've collected data on fecal bacterial and harmful algal presence, and we now collect data on PFAS contamination, to inform the public and the state about the safety of the Maine outdoors and our drinking
Plastic pollution has reached a crisis point for ocean wildlife and human health. The Shaw Institute utilizes an instrument we purchased in 2022 to understand the impact of plastic pollution on the environment and on human beings.
Marine Mammal Response
Designated as a stranding response location, the Institute responds to ocean animals in distress or needing rescue. Necropsies are performed in the event of death and tissue samples added to the Institute’s tissue bank for ongoing marine mammal research.
Human Health Impacts
What impacts the planet, affects human health. The Shaw Institute focuses on contaminants such as PFAS chemicals and microplastic pollution within the human body, and seeks to understand implications for public health and safety.
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Environmental monitoring of the Blue Hill Peninsula
Environmental and nutrient pollution of surface waters along US coastlines is a growing concern. In addition to industrial chemical contamination, coastal areas, beaches and lakes are increasingly threatened by pollution coming from land. This includes excess nutrients reaching the ocean as well as fecal waste containing harmful bacteria1,2. Impacted by climate change, flooding and extreme weather events can facilitate the spread of pathogens and excess nutrients, contaminating marine aquaculture and threatening public health3,4.
Two major contaminants of the nation’s beaches are pathogenic bacteria from fecal waste and excess nutrients causing harmful algal blooms (HABs), causing upwards of 90 million illnesses in swimmers annually5, including ear and eye infections, respiratory diseases, and gastrointestinal illnesses6. Unsafe amounts of fecal bacteria make their way to surface waterways, beaches and lakes via diverse sources including pets and wildlife, water sewage overflows, and pollution runoff7. As climate change brings stormwater runoff, nutrients and fecal pollution from land to waterways, the risk of illness is likely to increase8.
For over a decade, Shaw Institute has monitored Enteroccus sp., the standard indicator for pathogenic fecal bacteria, as well as harmful phytoplankton, such as the species that causes red tide, at beach locations in and around Blue Hill Bay, in concert with groups like the Maine’sHealthy Beaches Program. Spikes in harmful phytoplankton species or bacteria levels, when sustained, are reported to state and local officials to protect public safety. Weather indices and water quality parameters including surface temperature, pH and salinity will also be measured to understand the role of exogenous factors and climate change-driven weather in waterborne pathogen spread and HABs presence.
Results are shared online9 as well as via a bacteria report that concerned community members can sign up to receive. The findings will advance understanding of how climate change might influence the threats from HABs and fecal bacteria pollution.
1. Lee, S. et al. Residential urban stormwater runoff: A comprehensive profile of microbiome and antibiotic resistance. (2020) doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.138033.
2. Schmale, D. G., Ault, A. P., Saad, W., Scott, D. T. & Westrick, J. A. Perspectives on harmful algal blooms (HABs) and the cyberbiosecurity of freshwater systems. Front Bioeng Biotechnol 7, 128 (2019).
3. Dakhlalla, A. O. & Parajuli, P. B. Sensitivity of fecal coliform bacteria transport to climate change in an agricultural watershed. Journal of Water and Climate Change 11, 1250–1262 (2020).
4. Moore, S. K. et al. Impacts of climate variability and future climate change on harmful algal blooms and human health. Environ Health 7, 1–12 (2008).
5. Microbial Source Tracking: How did that get in there? | US EPA. https://www.epa.gov/sciencematters/microbial-source-tracking-how-did-get....
6. Heaney, C. D. et al. Fecal indicators in sand, sand contact, and risk of enteric illness among beachgoers. Epidemiology 23, 95–106 (2012).
7. Colford, J. M. et al. Water Quality Indicators and the Risk of Illness at Beaches With Nonpoint Sources of Fecal Contamination. (2006) doi:10.1097/01.ede.0000249425.32990.b9.
8. Patz, J. et al. Climate Change and Waterborne Disease Risk in the Great Lakes Region of the U.S. Background Climate Change and Hydrologic Extremes. Am J Prev Med 35, 451–458 (2008).
9. Beach Bacteria Monitoring | Shaw Institute. https://www.shawinstitute.org/coastal/bacteria-monitoring.
Assessing Global Risks to Marine Mammals Across Three Oceans
Marine mammals suffer from concomitant stresses including pollution, climate change, and depletion of food webs. According to the IUCN, 40% of the 127 extant marine mammal species on Earth today are at risk for extinction within 10-15 years. Past die-offs among marine mammals have been attributed to chemical-induced immune suppression and sweeping viruses, but the combined effects of global warming and pollution on the resilience and ultimate survival of marine mammals are unknown.
Shaw Institute is partnering with the Swedish Museum of Natural History, Southern Illinois University, Jinan University (China), Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, and Icelandic Seal Center to conduct research assessing the impacts of climate change and flame retardant chemicals on nine species of cetaceans and pinnipeds from the Atlantic, Baltic, and Arctic seas. This research builds on results of the Institute’s long-term investigation, Seals as Sentinels: Assessing Toxic Contaminants in Northwestern Atlantic Coast Harbor Seals.
Between 2017-2019, blubber and liver samples were collected from harbor, grey, and ringed seals; harbor porpoises; white-sided and white-beaked dolphins; and long-finned pilot, minke, and humpback whales. Chemical analysis included legacy (PBDEs, banned) and new flame retardants (NFRs) which are surfacing with ice melt and have never been assessed in marine mammals. NFRs are structurally similar to PBDEs and have similar potential for persistence, bioaccumulation, and toxicity.
The study compares concentrations (body burdens) and toxicity of flame retardants in the animals across three ocean regions and a 10-year time span. Climate trends and hot spots along migratory routes were examined to understand the interplay between pollution and ocean warming on the future survival of these ocean predators.
40% of the 127 extant marine mammal species on Earth today are at risk for extinction within 10-15 years.
Climate change is an existential threat to marine mammals, particularly for those from the rapidly warming Arctic. With a drastic reduction in ice cover, many species face starvation due to limited access to feeding areas and shifts in prey availability. Climate change also affects the deposition and toxicity of chemical pollutants in the marine environment in complex ways.
This international study is generating important, new information about marine mammals inhabiting the northern hemisphere that previously did not exist. The findings will help determine which species are likely to survive in a radically changing environment and will help drive conservation and policy actions to curb ocean pollution and address the climate crisis.