Meredith White is the supervisor of Maine’s Nearshore Marine Resources Program. Childhood exploration of tide pools at Potts Point sparked her interest in marine biology. (John Gormley photo)
Meredith White began her education as a marine biologist while a child exploring the tidal pools around Potts Point in Harpswell.
White was recently named supervisor of the state’s Nearshore Marine Resources Program, which makes her the chief scientist leading the state’s efforts to protect and manage its valuable populations of shellfish, notably soft-shell clams, quahogs and oysters. Those summers on Potts Point played no small part in preparing her for her current role.
In 1889, her great-great-grandfather built a cottage on Potts Point. Later her family added another cottage. Through the years, Potts Point was where members of her extended family gathered during the summers.
She loved exploring the shoreline. “I got really interested in all the animals I found under the rocks,” she said. “I didn’t understand until I was 13 that it could be a job.”
It was then that she met Diane Cowan, who is now president of The Lobster Conservancy, a Maine-based nonprofit. Back then, Cowan was a postdoctoral researcher conducting surveys of juvenile lobster populations in Harpswell. White worked with her as a volunteer.
What White learned with Cowan changed her life. “A job could be working with intertidal animals. I didn’t know that,” she said.
Today, White is responsible for ensuring that those inshore marine organisms prosper. It’s a daunting task in challenging times.
The marine environment in Maine is undergoing dramatic changes. The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than almost any other saltwater body on Earth. Warmer waters can attract new invasive species or cause booms in the populations of existing ones — think green crabs. Warmer water can also spur the growth of pathogens that harm shellfish directly, or sicken people who eat them, thereby forcing the closure of clam flats to harvesting.
White, 39, of Bath, brings an impressive educational and professional background to the job. She earned her doctoral degree in 2013 from a program run jointly by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.
She went on to spend three years as a postdoctoral research scientist at the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay. Next came a year at Bowdoin as a visiting assistant professor of earth and oceanographic science.
In her last job before becoming a state employee, she spent six years as director of research and development at Mook Sea Farm, a producer of oysters in Walpole.
The Maine Department of Marine Resources program that White was hired to lead was created through a restructuring of its predecessor, the department’s Shellfish Management Program. The new regime constitutes more than a name change. Most significantly, the scientific staff that White will oversee has been enlarged from three biologists to five.
“That’s a big deal,” White observed.
The increase will allow the state to conduct scientific research in ways that had not been possible before, research that should help White and her team get a better understanding of the forces threatening shellfish populations and devise more effective management techniques to protect those populations.
One of White’s first initiatives will be to launch a long-term research program involving 10 “sentinel sites” along the Maine coast. Each site will be monitored once a month to measure what species are present and in what numbers. The researchers will also log variables such as temperature, salinity and pH.
“We need a minimum of five years of data to start looking for trends over time,” White said.
“Our program is in a very exciting position for this type of work because we have consistent funding from year to year,” she added, “while research programs that are funded through grants can struggle to maintain long-term monitoring work through multiple grant cycles.”
The long-term nature of the study should allow the researchers to differentiate actual trends from less meaningful blips in the data. And the number of monitoring sites spread out along the coast should help establish the geographical extent of any trend.
White readily acknowledges that it is not in her group’s power to reverse global forces such as ocean warming or acidification. But her group’s research, as well as their dissemination of others’ research, might lead to better management techniques, such as keeping the green crab population in check.
“Green crabs are a major predator of soft-shell clams and contribute significantly to soft-shell clam mortality,” White said.
“We would like to develop better predator control techniques,” she continued. “It’s a large-scale problem that will require creative solutions.”
A shellfish harvester works on the flats of Middle Bay, Harpswell, Feb. 2. (John Gormley photo)
Aside from trapping and predator barriers, she does not know of any short-term solution to the threat posed by green crabs. But research could help point the way.
“Different organisms have different vulnerabilities at different life stages. If you can identify the most vulnerable stage, you could devise a plan that focuses on that stage,” she said.
She also realizes that the development of better shellfish management techniques and predator controls will emerge from a variety of places. Those places include municipal bodies, such as the Harpswell Marine Resources Committee.
“It’s a highly functioning marine resources committee,” she said. For example, it does its own surveying of clam flats and processing of the data. She also noted its work to raise juvenile quahogs for reseeding clam flats.
“I do not presume to know more about the shellfish resource in Harpswell than harvesters and committee members, but I do look forward to working with them and sharing the results of our upcoming work,” she said.
White emphasized that the state will not impose on the towns whatever approaches she and her team come up with based on their research. Whether to adopt their suggestions will be up to each town.
“As we start to document climate change impacts on the shellfish resource throughout Maine, we may be able to develop new and innovative management strategies that towns may choose to adopt,” she said.
White hopes to involve municipal marine resources committees from around Maine in the search for more effective management techniques. With this goal in mind, the state plans to award grants to local committees to help them devise innovative conservation methods.
Her staff will be available to advise towns on how to design projects and how to carry out the field work, but “we can’t do the whole project for them,” she said.
The fund will have $20,000 to dispense annually. Grants will be for a maximum of $5,000. This year’s deadline for applications is March 3. Awards will be announced in early April.
While science is at the heart of White’s job, her success will largely depend on her connections to Maine’s coastal communities — their harvesters and their committees.
“My first step is to build relationships with these towns,” she said. “Communication and outreach are key.”
She intends to meet municipal shellfish committee members in person by attending meetings in each town, but “not all this year,” she said.
“I want to let them know that we are here to support them. That’s really important to me,” she said. “I want to hear directly from the committees and harvesters.”
A big part of that support will come from serving as a kind of clearinghouse and provider of the best scientific and technical information available from all possible sources, whether those sources are scientists, municipal officials or harvesters. “We’re going to share,” she declared.
The grant program to encourage development of innovative management techniques was designed with the goal of sharing information.
Grant recipients will be required to evaluate the information they collect and provide the results “so that other municipalities can learn from them,” White said.
Paul Plummer, Harpswell’s harbor master and marine resources administrator, welcomed White’s enthusiasm for disseminating information.
“Information sharing is key,” he said. He noted the collaborative efforts of the Casco Bay Regional Shellfish Working Group, a forum created to “equip municipalities with the knowledge and experience to manage their intertidal shellfish resources in the changing Casco Bay ecosystem,” according to its website.
The members of the working group meet quarterly. “We just share information,” Plummer said.
To be able to do that on a statewide basis would be great, he said.
The problems Harpswell’s shellfish harvesters face are severe, especially for those who depend on the town’s once-abundant soft-shell clams.
David Wilson, a commercial harvester who chairs the Harpswell Marine Resources Committee, said that he has largely given up on soft-shell clams. For the last four or five years, he has switched almost entirely to quahogs. Most other harvesters in town have reached the same conclusion.
“There isn’t enough soft-shell out there to dig,” he said.
One area in Harpswell that continued to contain a substantial population of soft-shell clams, Middle Bay, was hit hard by an algae bloom last summer. “It wiped out 90% of the native clams. It killed them overnight,” Wilson said.
Whatever help White and her team of scientists might be able to provide can’t come soon enough for Harpswell.
“The town of Harpswell is a desert when it comes to soft-shell clams,” Wilson said.
John Gormley lives in Cundy’s Harbor. A retired journalist, he holds a recreational shellfish license and served on the Harpswell Marine Resources Committee from 2011-2016.