Drones Assist Rockweed Research

MMA researchers explore sustainable harvesting options to protect an important resource

With over three thousand miles of coastline, Maine’s shores range from wide sandy beaches, quiet bays and hidden inlets to marshlands and rocky outcroppings. The sights and sounds of these coastal environments are familiar to anyone who has ever spent time nearby: the exuberant hush of waves crashing, the call of gulls, and the sweet, briny smell of the shore.

For as long as humans have inhabited this land, the sea has provided for the wealth and health of its communities. In many ways, this place has become synonymous with the riches of its seas, and people around the world recognize Maine for its famous fisheries. However, as our environment changes and the Gulf of Maine continues to warm, researchers are beginning to take a closer look at our marine ecosystems and many people who make their livelihoods on the water are beginning to explore sustainable options for their future.

Enter seaweeds.

Maine’s most recognizable seaweeds are rockweed, officially known as Ascophyllum nodosum, or bladderwrack, Fucus vesiculosus. These are the seaweeds that you might see swaying gracefully in the water during high tide or fanning out across slippery, wet rocks when the water is out. With long fronds and mustard colored air bladders, they hold fast to rocks in the littoral zone; during storms, large quantities of rockweed break off their base and move where the current takes them. These float-away pieces can survive on their own in the water but frequently wash up on beaches, breakwaters, or jetties. When dried, their color darkens to a deep greenish-brown and the fronds become brittle and flaky. Both are nearly ubiquitous in Maine but there is no definitive data about how much of each exists along our coast.

For Dr. Jessica Muhlin, Professor of Marine Biology and Chair of Maine Maritime Academy’s Corning School of Ocean Studies, rockweed presents a kaleidoscope of opportunity. As a marine botanist, and specifically a phycologist (someone who studies algae), she has studied the plant closely. “I have always thought seaweeds were beautiful,” she explains. “But they are also really important to the overall health of the ecosystem and people often don’t give them much thought.”

Muhlin’s interest in rockweed is multidimensional, but her curiosity is broadly motivated by three main categories of inquiry: the ecological health of Maine’s intertidal environments, commercial potential, and the ability to measure change over time in the Gulf of Maine.

“Rockweed is what we call a foundational species,” says Muhlin. “If you think of [the ecosystem] as a building, rockweed is the foundation. It provides a buffer in terms of the physical environment, and the chemical environment provides opportunities for organisms to live on it, within it, and among it.”

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