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News Feature

Blue Hill
Originally published in Community News, January 23, 2014
MERI partners with group that pairs scientists with outdoor enthusiasts

Abigail Barrows of Blue Hill’s MERI records an instructional video with Mike Kautz

Abigail Barrows, Coastal Monitoring and Outreach Coordinator, records an instructional video for field protocol for volunteers. Beside her is Mike Kautz, the director of Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation. MERI and ASC are partnering to connect outdoor enthusiasts who can collect samples while out enjoying the ocean.

Photo courtesy of Marine Environmental Research Institute

by Jessica Brophy

The Marine Environmental Research Institute is expanding its microplastics monitoring program, but rather than sending out more people into the field, the organization is partnering with Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation.

ASC is an organization that connects outdoor enthusiasts with scientists, according to director Mike Kautz. “We’re like a matchmaker,” he said. “We’ve worked on all seven continents, doing everything from collecting lichen samples on Mount Everest to collecting seawater samples in Alaska.”

Microplastics are miniscule pieces of plastic smaller than five millimeters and mostly invisible to the human eye. They are the product of degraded plastic debris. In 2012, MERI began collecting data about Blue Hill Bay and other areas along the Maine coast. Liter samples of water are taken and then finely filtered to see what microplastics are in the water.

In 2013, volunteers sampled 94 liters of water from around the area’s waters. Each liter was filtered and analyzed over the course of the summer. In those 94 liters, 2,330 pieces of microplastics, or an average of 24 pieces per liter, were found.

Microplastics often are made with or absorb toxic chemicals, and because they are so small, there is the chance for “bioaccumulation,” or when smaller sea creatures like filter feeders ingest the microplastics and then are ingested by larger sea creatures.

The goal of Montana-based ASC is to help outdoor enthusiasts “help protect places they recreate,” said Kautz. More than 1,200 adventurers across the world currently conduct field research or gather samples for more than 120 scientists. The research needs to be conservationist in nature, said Kautz.

Kautz, who grew up in western Maine, said he was excited to be working with MERI to expand the microplastics monitoring program. The study will tap recreational boaters from Boston to Eastport to collect regular samples, as well as samples sent from around the world.

Abigail Barrows, Coastal Monitoring and Outreach Coordinator at MERI, said she’s very excited to receive samples from all over the world. “There will be a year-long intensive study in New England,” she said. The effort will pull in many partner organizations, including universities, the Maine Island Trail Association, Maine Maritime Academy and more.

Sampling protocol is established by MERI, and Kautz and Barrows have filmed a video to demonstrate proper sampling technique. Protocol includes recording temperature, pH and the dissolved oxygen levels in the water, as well as the air temperature, weather, wind speed, rainfall and other conditions at the time of sampling.

Patagonia, which is helping to fund ASC’s recruitment efforts, will be putting displays in their Freeport and Boston stores, encouraging people to get involved. “I think the project will reach new audiences,” said Barrows.

Kautz said the ability to compare samples from up and down the Gulf of Maine with samples from different parts of the world will allow MERI to see how results are different from or similar to Alaska or Thailand.

To sign up to be part of MERI’s microplastics effort, visit adventure andscience.org/microplastics.html.