Since taking office, President Obama has been a strong advocate for clean, renewable energy. His administration has frequently cited the need to reduce greenhouse gases while reducing our dependence on foreign oil. Though a comprehensive energy plan has not been formed or announced yet, the President did indicate his desire to increase offshore oil drilling primarily in the Atlantic. The areas would include 50 miles off the coast of Virginia, 125 miles off the Florida Gulf Coast, and the region of Alaska’s Cook Inlet. Though Cape Cod is not included in this proposal, this is a dangerous precedent for new, potential leases elsewhere.
Unfortunately, this expanded region for offshore oil drilling will threaten the Atlantic coastline, and the local economies and fisheries in this region. There is a reason why a moratorium has been in place for decades through both Republican and Democrat administrations. The risks of oil spills and coastal contamination are too great, and the oil industry does not have a good track record in preventing or containing spills.
When the oil reaches the estuaries, bays, and salt marshes, it has a devastating effect on any animal species present. It is particularly damaging to the young larval stages of commercially important shellfish and finfish. Birds are killed when the oil interferes with their natural insulation, as well as the toxic effects of ingesting oil as they preen their feathers. Any endangered mammals offshore, such as whales, are killed in oil spills.
The effects on a coastal community are both immediate and long-term. When the oil first blackens the beaches, tourism comes to a halt. The oil may also linger in the sediments for years. There is still evidence of oil in Prince William Sound in Alaska, a community victimized by the Exxon Valdez oil spill of l989.
The United States uses 20 million barrels of oil a day. If all the oil was taken from the proposed area, it would only last a few years, assuming that the oil would be sold in the United States, and not to other nations. This drilling proposal will have little impact on the country’s energy needs, nor will it affect gasoline prices. Yet a single spill could damage a coastline for many years and do millions of dollars of damage.
To make this a part of a climate control package makes even less sense. Global warming is caused by the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation. We should be reducing our consumption of oil, coal, and natural gas, not increasing their development. It would be nice if President Obama remembered the policies of candidate Obama. As a candidate he reiterated his support for the offshore oil drilling moratorium.
COASTAL HABITATS OF NANTUCKET SOUND
BY GILBERT NEWTON
One of the reasons that southern Cape Cod is so fascinating to study is because of its rich coastal biological diversity. Nantucket Sound covers an area around twenty-five miles wide and thirty miles long. The shorelines of the Cape and Islands are characterized by a variety of marine habitats including salt marshes, barrier beaches, and estuaries. These systems are both ecologically and economically important. Their special status is the result of the warm southern Gulf Stream mixing with the colder northern Labrador Current.
The waters and coastal habitats of Nantucket Sound harbor many protected and endangered animals, including several species of sea turtles, grey seals, and piping plovers. But these are just the most well-known marine animals. There are many more species in this region, all of which contribute to the area’s remarkable diversity.
Let’s consider some of the significant habitats along these shores. Salt marshes are considered the most productive coastal systems, supporting large numbers of commercial shellfish and finfish populations. Marshes are composed of several conspicuous grass species that provide food and shelter to dozens of different animals. Spartina alterniflora, or cordgrass, is a tall, perennial species that buffers the edge of a marsh, and provides food by direct grazing, or decomposed plant material in the form of detritus. Large mats of cordgrass are transported out to sea at high tide to be consumed by small animals in the water column.
The bulk of the marsh is composed of Spartina patens, or salt marsh hay. This plant grows further from the water’s edge, and also contributes to the productivity of the marsh. Small marsh snails crawl to the tops of the marsh hay blades during high tide. Large populations of fiddler crabs scurry around at low tide. These crustaceans are important ecologically as a food source for birds, and aerate the peat with their burrows, and fertilize the sediments with their wastes.
Salt marshes, and the bays that sometimes surround them, are also homes to commercially important species such as quahogs, oysters, and scallops. Blue crabs, spider crabs, and mud snails can be seen feeding in the creeks. Small schools of mummichogs move into the creeks with the high tide. Occasionally, a horseshoe crab can be seen stranded in one of the numerous pools, or pannes.
Sometimes salt marshes are a part of a larger system known as a barrier beach. A long sand dune community may separate the open sandy beach from an estuary and salt marsh behind it. The estuary is influenced by the ocean and a source of freshwater, either a stream, river, or groundwater.
There are over 200 barrier beaches in Massachusetts, but one of my favorites is a small system in Osterville called Dowses Beach. This is a popular recreational beach in the summer, and is characterized by several “microhabitats” linked and interacting together. The sandy beach is often covered with thousands of slipper snail shells, often tangled with the invasive green alga Codium. At low tide small sanderlings and herring gulls can be seen foraging in the intertidal zone for mole crabs and burrowing worms. Overall, this zone is a relatively hostile environment for living things because of the constant wave action, and rapid changes in temperature, salinity, and oxygen concentration.
The sand dune community has an entirely different assemblage of plants and animals. Beach grass is abundant and helps hold the dune in place with its strong adventitious roots. However, there are other plant species which make up the plant community, including dusty miller, beach pea, wormwood, and seaside goldenrod. The introduced salt spray rose (Rosa rugosa) provides colorful pink and white flowers to the dunes during the summer.
Animal life here represents a transition zone between the marine and terrestrial environments. The protected piping plovers will nest in the open areas, nearly indistinguishable from the sand. Diamondback terrapins make the Cape their northernmost distribution point, and can be found laying their eggs in the dunes. Of course this is also the habitat for the notorious deer tick. The deer tick can inject the bacterium that causes Lyme disease if they bite you.
There are a number of important bays and estuaries which exist along the southern Cape shore including East Bay in Osterville and Waquoit Bay in Falmouth. These ecosystems are major nurseries for fish populations and resting places for migratory birds. Most of these bodies of water are sheltered, and are therefore attractive to species seeking food, habitat, and protection from predators.
Unfortunately, many of these coastal habitats are exhibiting environmental stress from the pressures of increased human populations. One major coastal problem is nitrogen loading which acts as a fertilizer, resulting in harmful algae blooms. The nitrogen is coming from septic systems, road runoff, lawn fertilizers, and the atmosphere, due to the burning of fossil fuels. When the algae die and decompose, the bacteria responsible for decomposition consume oxygen dissolved in the water. Large mats of algae such as Codium can block sunlight to subtidal eel grass beds.
Even recreational uses of sandy beaches can have an adverse effect on these fragile systems if not properly managed. Marine debris can choke and entangle pelagic birds and marine mammals. Nesting sites of endangered bird species such as piping plovers and least terns can be disrupted if not correctly identified and marked. And, as describe earlier, excess nitrogen can seriously damage bays and estuaries.
These critical coastal systems of Nantucket Sound can continue to be enjoyed and sustained for future generations if we remain vigilant in our efforts to understand and protect them. Continued scientific research is the key to maintaining and managing these resources. Fortunately, one of the communities in this region is Woods Hole with its eminent research facilities such as the Marine Biological Laboratory and the Wood Hole Oceanographic Institution. These organizations, along with the many local conservation groups, are perfectly situated to provide data and guidance for this unique and vital region.
The shoreline of Cape Cod Bay from Sandwich to Provincetown is rich in the diversity of marine plants and animals. Most of these species have washed up on the numerous sandy beaches, but several may live embedded in the hostile intertidal zone, or attached to the many rocks and jetties in front of the beaches. Bring your field guides, a hand lens, and a camera to effectively explore these various habitats. You may be surprised what you will find.
Any exploration starts with the plants, or more accurately in this case, the algae. Commonly called the seaweeds, the marine algae are divided into three main groups based on their pigments: green, brown, and red. Depending on the time of the year, you may encounter several different species that vary in shape and size. Green sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca) may be found in large sheets, or maybe you will see the notorious and invasive green fleece (Codium fragile) which can grow on scallops and other shellfish in large quantities. Attached to rocks and jetties will be the brown rockweed (Fucus vesiculosus), determined by its presence of air bladders along the branches. The red algae may be represented by several bright and attractive species, including the edible Irish moss (Chondrus crispus), or the pervasive filamentous Polysiphonia.
The most common find will be the different sea shells along the shore. Many of these species are recognized because of the economic significance. Others are important ecologically, and frequently wash up in enormous numbers. The popular and edible quahog (Mercenaria mercenaria) can be easily identified by its thick shell and purple coloration on the inside. If you see something squirting at you from the substrate, it could be the soft-shelled clam (Mya arenaria), or steamer. It points its siphon upwards for feeding while remaining firmly attached to the substrate with a strong foot. Long, cylindrical razor clams (Ensis directus) are often found on mud flats. If you examine the banks on the extensive marshes around the bay you will find a group of ribbed mussels (Modiolus demissus) embedded in the mud.
Another common group of animals are the crustaceans which includes crabs and shrimp. Usually you can only find a piece of one of these animals as they are often the victims of larger predators, such as gulls. The perfectly camouflaged spider crab (Libinia emarginata) may be concealed by a colony of algae, bryozoans, and sponges glued to its shell, or carapace. Be careful if you see a live blue crab (Callinectes sapidus). They can pinch, and need to be handled with extreme care. In the salt marsh, you may see the substrate riddled with small holes which are the homes of the important fiddler crab (Uca pugnax). These small animals aerate and fertilize the marsh, and are a major food source for other animals. By the way, the male is the one with the large claw. Of course one animal that may be seen is commonly mistaken as a crab, and that is the horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus). This animal is more closely related to arachnids, such as spiders and ticks. It evolved millions of years ago, and today is known for its contributions to medical science. Harmless to you, it feeds mainly on worms and clams.
Cape Cod Bay is home to many other important plant and animal species as well. Take your time exploring the various habitats, including the sandy beaches, the salt marshes, the mud flats, and the dunes. Look carefully under rocks and clumps of seaweeds. Examine the surfaces of shells and crabs with a hand lens. You will find a fascinating and interesting world of marine life along this valuable shore.