Our COBALT Fellows

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Our 2022 COBALT Fellows

Our COBALT Fellows are a global cohort of motivated and diverse individuals with wide ranging experience from environmental sciences, geographic information systems software, public health, sustainability, to social sciences.

The COBALT Fellows featured on the left of the screen completed their COBALT fellowship from June to October 2022.

Our New 2023 COBALT Fellowship

Context

Seagrasses are marine flowering plants that inhabit shallow coastal waters globally from the tropics to the Arctic.  Casco Bay, has some of the most extensive seagrass meadows in the Gulf of Maine, but we know very little about their extensive, their overall health and the potential for restoration.   

Objective

The 2023 COBALT Fellowship welcomes 12-16 people who are interested in working in small teams to contribute to a better understanding of each of these dimensions. It has been estimated that seagrass extent has declined globally since the 1930s and is being lost at a rate of 7% per year.

Importance

Loss of seagrasses results in a loss of the rather stunning ecosystem services they provide such as carbon sequestration and storage, essential fish habitat, water filtration and nutrient cycling, protection from erosion and inundation, as well as biocultural importance to many coastal communities.  


Seagrass in Casco Bay

The Casco Bay National Estuary Partnership describes Casco Bay as remarkably healthy compared to many other US estuaries yet warns of a series of major changes “underway that warrant a timely response to protect the Bay and the many people whose livelihoods and quality of life depend upon it” (Casco Bay National Estuary Partnership 2021). Holistic, science-based mapping, monitoring and restoration of seagrass meadows is a social innovation that is emerging in locations around the globe such as Wales, Australia and in Chesapeake Bay in the USA (Unsworth et al. 2015, Unsworth et al. 2022). Casco Bay is an ideal location to co-create a grand social innovation effort as Team Zostera and this COBALT Fellowship will pioneer a range of activities that will likely serve as the foundation for mapping, monitoring and restoration of seagrass in Casco Bay.

Nested within the wider Gulf of Maine, the Casco Bay covers 985 square miles, and according to the Casco Bay Estuary Partnership, this represents 4.4% of Maine’s land area and includes 48 municipalities, 25% of the state’s population, 32% of active employment, and 38% of economic productivity as measured by GRP. Casco Bay is a tidally dominated ecosystem with 575 miles of shoreline over 360 islands, receiving fresh water from Presumpscot River, Royal River, Kennebec River (indirectly) and 31 smaller tributaries (Casco Bay Estuary Partnership, 2021). Morphologically, Casco Bay is unique in the Gulf of Maine because of the abundance of islands, many of which have shallow tidal and intertidal habitats that are ideal for seagrass meadows. Eelgrass (Zostera marina L.) is the dominant species of seagrass in Casco Bay, a marine angiosperm present in shallow coastal waters. Seagrasses worldwide form some of the most productive ecosystems on Earth; it is estimated that seagrass meadows globally cover just 0.2% of the ocean’s bottom yet account for more than 10% of yearly estimated organic carbon sequestration in the ocean (Fourqurean et al., 2012). As discussed in a recent study in Nature (Olsen et al., 2016), Z. marina specifically provides an extraordinarily wide array of ecosystem services. These include but are not limited to: wave attenuation (protecting coasts during storms), erosion control, nutrient retention (thus helping to avoid toxic algal blooms), provisioning and sheltering of high-value edible fish and invertebrate species (including cod, still recovering in New England after decades of overexploitation) and highly effective carbon sequestration.

Seagrasses worldwide form some of the most productive ecosystems on Earth; it is estimated that seagrass meadows globally cover just 0.2% of the ocean’s bottom yet account for more than 10% of yearly estimated organic carbon sequestration in the ocean.

(Fourqurean et al., 2012)

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which has statutory authority to document seagrass meadows in the state of Maine is a core parter in the COBALT Fellowship.  ME DEP conducted surveys of eelgrass extent in Casco Bay in 2013 and 2018, using on-the-ground surveys and aerial photography analysis (Barker, 2018). This produced highly valuable datasets of eelgrass extent and density in Casco Bay for these years. However, the surveying was laborious, and thus a rare event.  In 2021, a team from COBALT (Collaborative for Bioregional Action Learning & Transformation) met with leaders of Maine DEP and other organizations interested in seagrass conservation and explored the potential of launching a community science effort dedicated to mapping and documenting the health as well as restoration of eelgrass meadows where feasible in Casco Bay.  In spring/summer 2021, meetings were held with leaders from the Friends of Casco Bay/Casco Baykeeper, Casco Bay National Estuary Partnership, as well as from Maine DEP and seagrass researchers who had experience in the region. Recognizing this was a pilot exploratory effort, the COBALT team named themselves Team Zostera and coordinated a series of SCUBA diving sessions with Maine DEP to contribute to their long-term data collection that were based on a set of key management questions.  This collaborative work was successful and a more formal launch was planned as part of a Bioregional Learning Journey. One of the early actions of Team Zostera was to explore use of satellite imagery and Sam Matey generated the following “dashboard” as part for Team Zostera.

The 2023 COBALT Fellowship

The fellowship will build on this type of work and explore a wide range of issues such as local ecological knowledge/wisdom from indigenous partners, innovations in mapping, developing a quality assurance monitoring plan and strategies for developing infrastructure for long-term and holistic restoration activities. Small teams will form with clear products to generate in advance of a Bioregional Learning Journey scheduled for June 12-16, 2023 in Portland Maine.  The working groups will complete their work based on information gathered during the Bioregional Learning Journey and complete their work by end of July 2023 when the COBALT Fellowship concludes.

The time commitment is roughly 20 hours per month for February, March, April, May and all Fellows will be invited to attend the Bioregional Learning Journey with full support for lodging, most meals and transportation from June 12-16. The fee for participating in the Bioregional Learning Journey is also waived. The Fellowship does not currently offer stipends other than this level of support that is estimated at $3000.

Fellowship Timeline

February 16th, 2023Session 1Orientation and the formation of working groups
March 2nd, 2023Session 2Local ecological knowledge and wisdom related to stewardship of seagrass meadows
March 23rd, 2023Session 3Timeline of Response to Ecosystem Change in Casco Bay with Focus on Health of Seagrass Meadows
April 13th, 2023Session 4Current Mapping of Seagrass Meadows in Casco Bay – what are the areas for development?
April 27th, 2023Session 5Current Monitoring of Seagrass Meadows in Casco Bay – how to develop quality assurance and quality control?
May 11th, 2023Session 6Restoration of Seagrass Meadows in Casco Bay – what do we need to know?
May 25th, 2023Session 7Large scale engagement with the ARTS around seagrass stewardship
June 12th – 18th, 2023Session 8Casco Bay Learning Journey
June 29th Session 9 Refections from learning Journey and Final Products
Session 10 Final Product Presentations – Reflections on Fellowship Experience