Nov 4, 2009

Sears Island estuary - a teeming autumn fish nursery

An environmental group with a special license from Maine's Department of Marine Resources has discovered a teeming autumn groundfish nursery in upper Penobscot Bay - directly in the path of a state proposal for a containerport and railyard.  Penobscot Bay's larval fish abundance  has been studied in spring and summer (13 pg pdf). On the other hand, fall and and winter abundances in the shallows of the bay are less studied. are less studied.

Rockland-based Penobscot Bay Watch says initial results from their November 1, 2009 survey reveal  juvenile cod, hake, perch, flounder, herring and many other fish, shrimp and crabs abound on Sears Island's shoals, often  in waters less than three feet deep. 
"We don't have final numbers on their abundance, but, extrapolating from the hundreds of fish captured in a single short pass of our beach seine, one could easily estimate more than a million young groundfish are on the 100 acre shoal, feasting on  great swarms of shrimp-like krill" said Ron Huber, executive director of the group. "This is apparently a quite critical habitat area for juvenile Penobscot Bay groundfish."

The nursery shallows adjoin long-disputed Sears Island, a 1,000 acre undeveloped island that shelters a large estuarine complex in the brackish headwaters of Penobscot Bay.  The island is surrounded by Stockton Harbor on its east side and Searsport Harbor on its western side. 

Debate over the island's future has split mainstream and grassroots environmentalists, with Sierra Club's Maine Chapter and Maine Coast Heritage Trust favoring the recent division of Sears Island into port zone and  privately managed conservation area, while fishery activists and  local citizens have filed lawsuits seeking to protect the fish nursery. 

Maine Superior Court Justice Jeffrey Hjelm is reviewing the cases, which ask him to overturn the state's decision earlier this year to grant the Maine Coast Heritage Trust a perpetual conservation easement on two thirds of the island. The plaintiffs contend that the easement is part of a quid pro quo designed to stimulate development of a port on the island's west side, with the "protected" east portion counted as compensatory mitigation "balancing" the dredging and filling of eelgrass beds and the island's forested wetlands that drain into them.  The moderate environmentalists have accepted the compromise, dropping their their decades of opposition to industrial development of the western part of Sears Island.

"If the state moves ahead and builds a containerport on this island, and dredges these shoals, the natural recovery of Penobscot Bay's groundfish will be jeopardized," Huber said.  We very much hope that Judge Hjelm agrees"

Penobscot Bay Watch - People who care about Maine's biggest bay

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