Research 2021

At Shaw Institute, our research team is gearing up for an exciting new field season along the Maine coast. With new investigations and new partners, we’re exposing the threats – from plastic pollution to pathogens, species loss and climate change – and creating data-driven approaches to a healthier future.
Please join us in this year of emergence and discovery.

The Plastic Threat to Maine Seabirds
Ocean Plastic as a Hub for Superbugs
Safeguarding the Maine Outdoors
Edge of Extinction: Marine Mammals of the Northern Hemisphere
Eye On Change: Sea Stars and Diet Risks of Eating Vegetables

For more information, contact:


Susan Shaw, DrPH
Shaw Institute Director/Senior Scientist
Professor, School of Public Health, University at Albany, NY

Michelle Berger, MA
Senior Research Associate

Heather Richard, MS
Research Projects Coordinator


Addie Heifetz, BS
Marine Research Intern

Philip Brahana, BS
Microplastics Research Intern

Kaitlyn Reny, BS
Microplastics Research Intern

Mila Schowtka, BS
Microplastics and Bacteria Intern

Hannah Gortney, BS
Microplastics Research Intern

The Plastic Threat to Maine Seabirds 

Ingestion of Microplastics and Associated Risks to Seabird Colonies in Eastern Maine

Few species are as vulnerable to the threat of plastic debris as seabirds. Drastic population declines of seabirds, coupled with rising ocean plastic, raises concerns about the fate of many species. By some calculations, 90% of individual seabirds have ingested plastic waste items, and that number is expected to increase to 95% by the year 2050.

Plastic ingestion in seabirds has been observed since the 1960s, with effects ranging from intestinal blockages and punctures to changes in blood chemistry. As plastic breaks down, the ingestion of microplastics particles may pose a more insidious, ongoing risk to seabird health. Once internalized, microplastics can cause chemical and physical toxicity, leading to cell damage, inflammation and immune system injury.

Prior research by Shaw Institute revealed that microplastics are readily detected in mid-Maine coastal waters and in tissues of commercial seafood (bivalves, fish). Our feeding study in blue mussels showed that mussels’ intake of normal food (algae) decreased by 50% in the presence of microplastics, setting the stage for nutritional deprivation and weakening. A follow-up study revealed the potential for microplastic ingestion in larval lobsters to reduce oxygen consumption and survival in early stages.

Plastic waste is killing seabirds worldwide. As plastic breaks down, the ingestion of microplastics may pose a more insidious threat to their health.

Partnering with the National Audubon Society (NAS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Maine Maritime Academy (MMA), Shaw Institute is launching research to assess the health risks of microplastics ingestion in seabirds inhabiting eastern Maine’s critical nesting islands. Target species include Atlantic puffins, Arctic terns, common terns, double-crested cormorants, herring gulls, great black-backed gulls, laughing gulls, and common eiders.

Our research team will measure microplastics in seabird guano and surface water samples collected around Seal island, Ship island, and Petit Manan Island. Samples will be analyzed for microplastics at the Institute’s Blue Hill Research Center. Polymer identification will be performed using pyrolysis GCMS at MMA.

Findings of this study will be widely disseminated to guide Maine seabird conservation and resource management actions as well as plastic reduction strategies. The study is supported, in part, by a grant from the Eastern Maine Conservation Initiative.

Ocean Plastic as a Hub for Superbugs 

Beach Bacteria: Assessing Pathogen Risks from Marine Microplastics

The major contaminants of the nation’s beaches are pathogenic bacteria in fecal waste, causing some 90 million illnesses in swimmers annually, including ear and eye infections, respiratory diseases and gastrointestinal illnesses. 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 runoff. The problem is compounded by the alarming volume of plastic entering coastal and marine waters. Recent studies show that microplastics particles are a vector for pathogenic bacteria and viruses and can act as a hub for the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in wastewater, posing disease risks to marine life and human health. As climate change brings stormwater runoff and fecal pollution to waterways, the risk of pathogenic illness is likely to increase.

For over a decade, Shaw Institute has monitored Enteroccus sp., the standard indicator for pathogenic fecal bacteria, at beach locations in and around Blue Hill Bay in concert with the state’s Healthy Beaches Program. Spikes in bacteria levels, when sustained, are reported to state and local officials to protect public safety. For two years, we have simultaneously measured microplastics along with bacteria levels at these sites. With three years of data, the 2021 study will examine possible correlations between microplastics and bacteria to detect hot spots that may signal disease risks. 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.

Microplastics attract bacteria and viruses and can act as a hub for the growth of antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

Results will be shared via targeted meetings with officials and the public to guide mitigation efforts and timely public health alerts about unsafe beach conditions. The findings will advance understanding of how microplastic pollution may act as a vector for dangerous pathogens in coastal ecosystems.

Safeguarding the Maine Outdoors 

From Patten Bay to the Acadia Coast

Environmental 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 from fecal waste containing harmful bacteria. With climate change, flooding and extreme weather can facilitate the spread of pathogens, contaminating marine aquaculture and threatening public health. Bacteria loading can increase in the presence of microplastics in coastal waters.  Microplastic particles attract bacteria on their surface and can act as a hub for the growth of waterborne pathogens and antibiotic-resistant superbugs.

Patten Bay, a small, shallow bay located between the mid-Maine and Downeast Acadia coast, has been contaminated by fecal bacteria from unknown sources for decades, resulting in long-term shellfish closures and health concerns. This spring, Shaw Institute is launching a new research initiative to provide environmental monitoring of the bay and surrounding shoreline. The aim is to characterize the overall condition of the bay, identify pollution issues, and guide sustainable management actions to restore and protect ecosystem and public health.

The project is supported by grants from the Surry Conservation Commission and Under Canvas/Acadia, new upscale camping facility on the Patten Bay waterfront. With proximity to Acadia National Park, Patten Bay has become a high-use part of the Maine coastline. The study will monitor the shoreline around the new facility to ensure sustainable use of coastal resources and address potential impacts of development on the bay.

Patten Bay, a small, shallow bay located between the mid-Maine and Downeast Acadia coast, has been contaminated by fecal bacteria for decades.

From April to November, we will measure bacteria levels and water quality at sites on the Patten Bay shoreline, in streams, at Surry Town Wharf and the campground to locate possible hotspots of fecal bacteria pollution that need remediation. Correlations between bacteria spikes and microplastics will be examined to see if hot spots may signal a disease threat. Over the summer, we will assist the Maine Department of Marine Resources and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection in a shoreline survey to identify pollution sources and areas where shellfish harvesting could be restored.

The study findings and their implications will be shared via targeted meetings with stakeholders and local and state officials, policymakers and the public. The resulting data and final report will be widely disseminated to guide conservation and management actions to protect this coastal ecosystem.

Edge of Extinction: Marine Mammals of the Northern Hemisphere 

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.

Eye On Change: Sea Stars and Diet Risks of Eating Vegetables 

Declining Sea Stars, Warming Seas

Currently, common sea stars (Asterias rubens), keystone species inhabiting the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, are steeply declining and are at high risk for extirpation. Although the reasons for the declines are not fully understood, sea stars are highly vulnerable to climate change and extreme weather. With a low ability to mitigate the impacts of sea temperature, warming waters decrease survival and growth rates in larvae and adults. Sea stars are also sensitive to ocean acidification, with young stars eating less and growing slower in acid conditions. In Pacific sea stars, warming oceans was linked to a lethal wasting disease that led to large-scale die-offs. 

As the hottest average temperatures were recorded in the Gulf, an anomalous population boom of sea stars appeared along the Maine coast. 

In 2020, the hottest average temperatures were recorded in the Gulf of Maine. Surprisingly, an anomalous population boom of sea stars appeared along the coast from Schoodic to Stonington and was documented through a Shaw Institute community science initiative.

From May to October, our team will track the distribution and abundance of common sea stars in the Gulf of Maine to determine whether the population explosion is a recurring event and under what conditions. Given that the Gulf is among the world’s fastest-warming bodies of water, it is important to understand how changing ocean chemistry may affect the survival of this critical sentinel species.

Diet Risk: Microplastics Uptake and Accumulation in Commonly Eaten Vegetables

Microplastics have pervaded the biosphere and are readily detected in water, air, soil, and the food web. Human intake of microplastics is not trivial – we eat, drink, and breathe hundreds of thousands of plastic particles each year. Human ingestion of microplastics is highest in seafood, followed by a wide range of everyday food items. Recent studies discovered that certain fruits and vegetables readily take up microplastics into their roots from soil and water and store the fibers in edible parts of the plants, posing a diet risk for human consumers.

Scientists were surprised to learn that plants take up microplastics from soil and water into their roots and edible parts.

In 2021, Shaw Institute is piloting a laboratory experiment to understand the uptake and kinetics of microplastics in commonly eaten vegetables. The study uses hydroponics to grow Swiss chard and tomato plants with and without fluorescent microplastics particles. Microplastics in exposed/unexposed plant tissues will be isolated and compared to understand accumulation and the potential for human ingestion of plastic in two species of commonly eaten plants. The pilot study will expand in 2022.