Issue 67: Wild Harbor

By: Ron Huber

Before Rockland’s still un-reincarnated Harbor Planning Committee divides up Rockland Harbor between cruise ships, marina expansions, new anchorages, floating restaurants and other people-purposes; before it okays altering harbor circulation with wind breaks, wave attenuators, and more, let’s get to know the wild residents of this Harbor, both the indigenous ones and those which chance, fortune or climate change have brought.

For just as the Wabanaki were forcibly ejected from this important part of their homewaters, little more than 2 centuries ago, so too are Rockland’s native fishes, shellfishes, shorebirds, sea birds, kelp forests at risk NOW. From natural marine microbial communities with their ancient climate-controlling languages, to seals , kelps and sturgeons that, together with myriads more, make up the harbor’s living tapestry. These rich ecological and economic treasures are at risk of being forced out of this lovely waterbody, as ruthlessly as was the Penobscot Nation, which was so completely erased from Rockland that, in a place they inhabited for thousands of years, only one known archaeological site exists.

So let us go then, you and I… to the harbor. We’ll begin where the breakwater meets the land . But as we walk the path below the Samoset golf course to the base of the Rockland Breakwater, we’ll pretend a few things:

(1) That the water is as clear & breathable as the air above, but

(2) The water is still denser than air: we two leggers cannot run along the harbor floor any better than we can while wading chest deep. As we’ll see, the fishes, marine mammals and plankton are not so restricted.

The Journey Begins

Rockland Harbor’s roughly 2 square miles expanse has many pathways through its variegated submerged public lands For this first journey, we’ll merely walk the harbor floor parallel to the Breakwater. Here we’ll encounter nearly every harbor habitat type and wild species as we transit this bayfloor from shore to nearly a mile out.

It’s low tide as we leave the walkway from Marie Reed Park and step onto the beach below the Samoset golf course, on the harbor side of the Breakwater. Surprise! We are already treading on high quality, high-tide fish habitat. Those boulders? That cobble area? That hard gravel/pebble reach beach you race your dog along at low tide? Why, when the moon’s tug refills this beach with water, the smaller fishes, the junior big fishes and many other water species swim, crawl or fly into the now sunken beach with the water.

All of those are high value fish habitat – during high tide. For when you’re less than an inch long, even gravel is complex cover, fine for concealment from predator,s and for discovering food of one’s own.

The gaps between the stones of rocky cobble beaches likewise are perfect for our smaller and younger fishes to shelfter, hunt and hide within. “Hard” beaches, of ledge and boulder cobble and gravel, especially those colonized with anemones seaweeds, barnacles, bryozoans, sponges, corralline algae – those too the most important among intertidal finfish nursery habitat. But other places are mostly tidal flats whose mud , while existential to lobsters and worms and shrimp.

Are we keeping that all important interface environment in good shape? Bagging dogwaste is a great step, but what else is entering this intertidal interface, neither wholly land nor sea
Before our heads go under we take a last look upon Rockland Harbor’s surface, On this summery day, the waters sparkle blue as the sky above. We see the breakwater stretch to the lighthouse, the forested Owls Head peninsula, the western bay, the Fox Islands. masts, many masts. Boutique cruise ship Independence fresh from Camden, Beyond, the immensities of open space.

What goes on beneath that glittering surface? What below on the harbor floor?

We’ll parallel the Breakwater, for this first expedition.

Having paid our respects to the vital intertidal, under we go. But already this is a crowded place. For despite their deceptive blandness, the muddy floors of soft sediments stretching into the distance bustle with life. We notice we’re suddenly ankle deep then knee deep Soft enough to push your hand down into, elbow deep. A frantic small lobster fairly geysers sediment as he digs down away from us.

That’s fine with Homarus Americansus, for our local lobster loves nothing so much as burying herself or himself until only feelers and claws are visible. Then arising to seize edible passers by, or to feast at the baited traps,

We see these burrows (some tiny, some with a large lobster eyeing us pugnaciously, claws en garde), stretching out into the distance, the great mudlands pocked with holes like prairie dog towns.

Abandoned, the lobster burrows start filling in immediately. It is a mobile landscape, shaped by hydrology, indented by life and by our anchors, traps mooring stones and dredges. but always seeking a soggy equilibrium at its watery interface of water and soil.

As we slog on, the mud thins. We are soon on firmer ground, leaving the mud behind. (we think). But not the traps; they are everywhere

Ahead, darker masses rising above the pudding-like expanse are great boulders and ledges a scant 50 yards out from the breakwater. Each boasting a triple canopy of kelp, corallines and bryozoans and other natural fouling species. As they hove into view, we see that, even here, the mud flats continue to play a role.

For every kelp frond, every anemone every pink and purpled coralline patch and sponge is covered by a quarter inch of sediment. To touch a kelp or a boulder in this part of Rockland Harbor is to create a small dust storm in the water, as the accumulated sediment is jarred loose into plumes.

One wonders, is this heavy dusting, “natural” or is it the result of the mud plumes raised by cruise ship propellors and their navigation water jets? Perhaps it is simply the result of the circulation patterns of Rockland Harbor. Thanks to the breakwater, Rocklands inner currents are weak; the base of the breakwater may be a natural collecting point for sediments.

Indeed as we venture further into the harbor toward tthe outer end of the breakwater, the kelp are washed nearly clean of the silt their inshorerelations. Insteadabuzzingwhirligigofkrillandfishlarvae darts around each kelp mini-forest where it stands atop its personal boulder, popping through openings in the kelp canopies, with below anemones, bryozoans, mussel larvae, and other bivalves cling to the kelp and rock.

But this dance is not going unnoticed. As we amble past, suddenly flashing around us: young mackerel. Massing in fish-flocks, they race through these sunlit shallows, darting at the krill, probing around rocks, rushing away in alarm from startled lobsters and mummichogs and succumbing to the cunners, striped bass and other eaters of mackerel. Including (with a sudden splash), ospreys. Not to mention the baited hooks of the recreational fishers casting from the breakwater.

These age zero mackerel are too small to catch, but following them come the bluefish and striped bass, to whom the small mackerel are perfectly delicious.

There is much more going on here at the outer edge of the breakwater, where Rockland harbor drops off. Was that a swordfish, smacking macks with his terrible bill and devouring the stunned victims?

But as thee tide turns, so do we, heading back toward land. But careful! we almost tripped over a sturgeon snorting away on the bottom in quest of edibles. This throwback to life before the bony fishes swims off indignantly.

Again we pass the kelp ledges and their thrumming mini-jungles, slog once more through the mudlands with their lobster and crab burrows past and present , then rise above the water onto – wait – the intertidal – the place that the fishes timeshare with we land creatures.

Back on the path by the Samoset golf course, above the tides at last, we look over the harbor we just trekked through. Much more to explore, we realize. But all in all, an ecosytem and resource worth conserving. Worth protecting, under the various laws of the land (and sea).

A troublingly sprawl-based economic model appears to have gained ascendancy among some city officials, with the interests and needs of natural commmunities given short shrift. This can result in harbor seafood species and all their ecological cohabitants dying the death of a thousand cuts: boosted sewage here, increased pesticide runoff knocking off zooplankton there, a naturally eroding shore replaced with rip rap there, cheating nearby eelgrass of their sediment supply. Heated coal tar-tainted waterrunningoffnewlyresurfacedparkinglots. Greatmudplumesraised by cruiseships’ sidethrusters and props, choking the innocent gills of sponge and barnacle alike and hiding prey from hungry cormorants, ospreys and striped bass.

Nor should decisonmakers downplay the significance of petroleum and chemical waste spill sites on or near the Rockland shore.

To prevent a harbor ecological meltdown, Rockland nascent harbor plancommitteemustcommittostartingoffits planningprocesswitha high quality ecological inventory of Rockland Harbor in all seasons, and an assessment of habitat quality and species abundance, from fish and shellfish, shorebirds and seaducks, rockweed and brown kelp.

We know the species mix is changing, as the water temperatures and pH change and exotic species exploit the changed conditions But until we actually survey Rockland’s wild harbor communities, we won’t know what changes are really happening.

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