Coastal Research Volunteers help researchers see the big picture

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On a chilly late spring morning, Alyson Eberhardt opened a heavy wooden box on a fish ladder on a New Hampshire river. She was hoping that translucent baby eels swam into the box, attracted by the fresh water. The ~60mm (~2.5in) American eels she found were so small they fit in the palm of her hand.

Eberhardt, coordinator of the Coastal Research Volunteers (CRV) program and an extension specialist for N.H. Sea Grant, and some of her volunteers monitor the eels in support of N.H. Fish and Game Biologist Jessica Carloni’s eel stock assessment work. They measure them and chart their growth and then return them to the frigid water. The eels will live and grow to full size in the coastal waters before migrating back to the Sargasso Sea in the western North Atlantic.

Doyle Fellow teaches volunteer how to measure glass eels.

Above: Shea Flanagan, a 2013 NHSG Doyle Fellow from Dartmouth, works with a CRV participant in measuring the length of a young-of-the-year American eel as part of the N.H. Fish and Game eel stock assessment.

Ongoing since 2001, the study is part of a coast-wide monitoring effort coordinated by the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission to characterize trends in the annual recruitment of the American eel on the Atlantic coast of North America.

“The CRV program allows the state to monitor an additional site in New Hampshire to further the understanding of young of the year eels recruiting to New Hampshire,” explains Carloni. “The volunteers are highly reliable and enthusiastic about this project and have been crucial in collecting more data on these interesting fish.”

The CRV program began three years ago. Steve Jones, the founding coordinator of the CRV and associate director of N.H. Sea Grant, said that the main goals of this volunteer program are to provide volunteers with opportunities to engage in meaningful science and to benefit scientific research in the region.

By working with volunteers, researchers can expand their sampling range to collect more data. The CRV plays an important role in helping to bridge the gap between scientific research and community understanding of human impact in the Great Bay watershed and adjacent coastal regions. Volunteers not only gather the data, but enthusiastically share it with their neighbors.

Middle school students identify bugs collected from a stream.

Above: With the help of CRV participants, sixth graders from North Hampton (N.H.) School identify benthic macroinvertebrates to examine the impacts of Sagamore-Hampton Golf Course’s green turf management on the health of Cornelius Brook.

The volunteers have delved into several projects, including examining populations of eels, horseshoe crabs, saltmarsh plants and oysters; measuring pollutants in stormwater runoff; quantifying the amount of microplastics (pulverized plastic) on N.H. beaches; evaluating the impacts of green turf management practices by a golf course on the health of its streams, and engaging residents of the Northeast in collecting phenology data in a joint effort with Maine Sea Grant.

Volunteers learn how to record phenological data.

Above: CRV coordinator Alyson Eberhardt, right, trains volunteers on collecting phenology data as an indicator of climate change.

The CRV has been involved with restoring oysters to Great Bay since its inception. They measure the young oysters on the project’s nursery raft over the two-month period they are held there. The data the volunteers gather are used to assess survival and growth before the oysters are put into the estuary at restoration sites, according to project director Ray Grizzle, UNH research professor of zoology.

“Bottom line is that the volunteers provide data that we otherwise would likely not be able to get,” he adds.

Volunteers measure size of baby oysters.

Above: Two CRV members measure juvenile oysters as part of an effort to restore oysters to the Great Bay Estuary.

Sitting around a table in the N.H. Sea Grant office in Lee, N.H., Terry and Mike Stockdale, Lee residents, praise their co-volunteer and friend Sarah Rieley, a resident of Durham, for raising “award-winning” oysters. As part of a Nature Conservancy project to restore the oyster population in Great Bay, members like Rieley are helping to raise young oysters (spats) into adults. The oysters filter and clean the estuarine waters. This helps to support the growth of eelgrass, promote species diversity, and is vital in reducing suspended sediments that increase turbidity in the bay.

“Sarah raises them. We measure them,” says Mike Stockdale, who has been involved in the project for almost three years. “You put the hours in, but it goes by so fast and you learn so much.”

The CRV program reaches out to community members and gets them engaged in high quality science. It is clear that the volunteers are dedicated to personal growth, stewardship and lifelong learning. Not only are these naturalists choosing to care about Great Bay and the state’s coastal zone, but they are also building a strong, interconnected community. This effort is presenting New Hampshire residents with the opportunity to actively contribute to the health of our marine resources.

To learn more about the CRV program, visit on the N.H. Sea Grant website.

Story by: Brian Kispert, Krystal Costa and Peter Martin

The authors are UNH undergraduates who worked with N.H. Sea Grant during the fall of 2013 as part of Eng 502, a technical writing course.