University of Massachusetts Professor Jefferson Turner has been sampling the waters of Buzzards Bay since the Dukakis administration--and when he embarked aboard the R/V Lucky Lady last week, he began his third decade of monthly sampling, a record of perseverance rare in environmental science.
"There are few coastal environmental studies that have sampled as many parameters simultaneously for as long as we have," said Turner, who holds a joint appointment in UMass Dartmouth's Biology Department and School for Marine Science and Technology. "There are some that have sampled for a few years--five, even ten--but only a few dozen such multi-decadal studies in the whole world."
Month after month for twenty years, Turner--along with an evolving cast of students, technicians and volunteers--has toured eight stations throughout the bay, sampling for water quality, nutrient levels, and plankton demographics. While a few measurements are made on board, most samples yield up their data only upon painstaking analysis back in the laboratory. For every six-hour cruise, many times that amount of laboratory work remains to be done before the measurements can begin to be assembled into a recent history of bay water quality.
What stories these samples have to tell, we still don't know, because a lot of the samples have sat for years on the shelf, awaiting analysis.
The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Quality Engineering (now Department of Environmental Protection, DEP) started funding Turner's water quality project in 1987, shortly after Governor Michael Dukakis declared UMassD a "Center of Excellence in Marine Science." For the first decade, the state supported the sampling cruises and laboratory analysis, but in the 1990s, the funding became intermittent and then evaporated altogether.
For years thereafter, Turner was able to cobble together enough support to maintain the monthly cruise schedule, but lab work was financially out of the question. So he stored the samples against a hoped-for restoration of funding, freezing or otherwise preserving them to prevent decomposition.
When the late 1990s brought a crash in the Buzzards Bay lobster harvest, the Bay's water quality was suspected to have played a role. Brian Rothschild, then Dean of SMAST, recognized that Turner's dataset was the only one that could address that suspicion: it was year-round and in the right place, and it spanned sufficient time to capture crucial changes in water quality. Rothschild secured support for Turner's work through a mixed-species grant from NOAA Fisheries.
The first decade-plus of analysis was completed and summarized in the report "Plankton and Water Quality Monitoring in Buzzards Bay, 1987-2000." Now, with the NOAA funding, processing has been completed on the full twenty years of environmental samples, leaving the remaining years of plankton samples to identify and count.
Aside from Turner himself, there have been two constants throughout the project. UMassD's R/V Lucky Lady, which had been acquired by the University just months before Turner's first Buzzards Bay sampling cruise, has been the project's exclusive research platform ever since. The other constant is that the same two captains, the father-son team of Ron and Ray Rock, have been in charge of the vessel for the last 12 years. The captains not only operate the vessel, but also do most of the maintenance on it. These two factors have led to an extraordinary record of safety and successful operation of the boat.
Only one month was missed over the 20 years of the project. A quick cold snap in January 2004 froze the harbor, and the Lucky Lady was stuck in the ice for the month--a month that included the coldest night for 50 years.
The original DEQE grant bought the necessary equipment and funded graduate students as research assistants for the project. Volunteer students--some 100 or more over the 20 years of the project--have also played a significant role. Turner noted that "a student often learns more marine science in a few hours aboard the boat than might be learned in several days in a classroom."
The data generated to date, explained Turner, show Buzzards Bay environmental parameters to have been highly variable over the past two decades, but with no significant long-term change in most places. However, with the changeover in New Bedford to secondary sewage treatment in 1996, the station off Fort Rodman near the sewage outfall showed almost immediate improvement in several parameters. There have also been signs of improved water quality in New Bedford Harbor, and Turner expects that the sewage treatment upgrade likely had some role in that.
"But we don't know yet about subtle changes in plankton communities," Turner pointed out. "We need more analysis; the environmental parameters are done, but not the biological parameters. But now at least we have numbers instead of frozen samples."
"We also don't know yet about possible signals related to climate change. We've had a lack of icy winters recently; will we see the changes in timing--of spring algae blooms, for instance--that Europe has seen?"
"This is the kind of data you need to answer the questions people are asking about fisheries and climate change. We needed a baseline to get a handle on what is normal so that we could recognize what is abnormal. We started monitoring related to sewage treatment issues; no one anticipated that 20 years later we'd be using the data to address lobster fishery questions."