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November / December 2004


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UMaine Today Magazine


Insights

Decreasing Diversity

Jonah Crab
 

Links Related to this Story
 

For most of the past 4,500 years, cod was king in the Gulf of Maine's coastal waters. Today, the groundfish have given way to the Jonah crab, with potential long-term consequences for coastal fisheries, according to a recent University of Maine research report published in the journal Ecosystems.

With crabs and lobsters at the top of the proverbial heap, the Gulf may have entered a new stable phase marked by the presence of expansive kelp beds and the near absence of sea urchins. These findings also could signal the likelihood of significant biological changes in other heavily fished parts of the world's oceans.

The authors of the report, Robert Steneck, professor of marine sciences at UMaine's Darling Marine Center, and former UMaine graduate students John Vavrinec and Amanda Leland, analyzed fishing records and previous studies to gather evidence for the changes brought on by fishing pressure in marine ecosystems.

For example, ancient coastal middens have revealed evidence suggesting that Native American fishing activities were beginning to affect near-shore ecosystems several thousand years ago. Analysis of colonial and modern fish landing records shows that such changes accelerated with the adoption of new fishing technologies.

It is a revolution of sorts — an overturning of the established order brought on by fishing pressure — that leads to major changes in the coastal marine ecosystem, according to the article, "Accelerating Trophic-level Dysfunction in Kelp Forest Ecosystems of the Western North Atlantic." In the Gulf of Maine, the revolution was brought on by the drastic reduction in the number of cod and other top predators in the past century.

"While there is no fear of these species going extinct," Steneck says, "entire sections of the food web have become so rare that they no longer perform critical ecological functions in the marine community. This is called food web (or trophic-level) dysfunction."

When such species as cod were no longer able to perform their function of keeping their prey species in check, the ecosystem entered a new phase, marked by abundant sea urchins and a lack of kelp beds. Urchins ate so much kelp that they created areas known as "urchin barrens," where only low-growing algae could survive.

In turn, the harvesting of urchins during the 1990s has led to the re-emergence of kelp beds and the dominance of crabs and lobsters.

"The problem is this ‘trophic-level dysfunction' is accelerating. Ecosystem changes persist for shorter and shorter periods of time because the ‘driver' species increasingly fall below functional population densities," Steneck says. "When a threshold is reached, the system changes fundamentally. Everything that came before it is thrown out the window. What this does in the long run is make the system unpredictable."

For the first time, adds Steneck, the low diversity of marine organisms, including Maine's fabled groundfish, have left the system too reliant on a single species (lobster) and too vulnerable to continued and unpredictable large-scale fluctuations.

Funding for the research came from the Pew Foundation for Marine Conservation, Maine Sea Grant, the Maine Department of Marine Resources and the National Undersea Research Program.


Shipshape Composites

Engineers in the University of Maine's Advanced Engineered Wood Composites (AEWC) Center are working with the U.S. Navy and Maine businesses to improve shipbuilding technologies.

With two new federal grants totaling $2.36 million from the Office of Naval Research (ONR), the researchers will focus on redesign of the high-speed Mark V Patrol Craft and the reliability of fiber-reinforced composite ship components.

Improving the Mark V's seaworthiness is a goal, says Robert Lindyberg, manager of technical services for AEWC. The Mark V has developed a reputation for a very rough ride, affecting the performance of SEAL teams and boat crews. Working with Hodgdon Yachts of East Boothbay, Maine, Lindyberg and other UMaine engineers will design and build a prototype that meets the Navy's needs with improved handling characteristics.

In the second project, engineers will study composite material manufacturing processes. Navy tests have revealed significant differences among similar composites produced by different manufacturers. The research goal is to determine why such differences occur and how manufacturers can consistently produce reliable materials for ship construction, says Habib Dagher, AEWC director.

Collaborating on the composites research is Applied Thermal Sciences of Sanford, Maine.


Peering into the Genome

Imagine having a microscope so powerful, it can reveal the three-dimensional nanostructure of genetic material within a cell. Next year, scientists in Maine will have such an instrument — the 4Pi Confocal Laser Scanning Microscope.

The most advanced optical microscope in the world will be the first such instrument in the United States in 2005. It was made possible by a $732,624 National Science Foundation grant to a Maine interdisciplinary biophysical research program, the Institute for Molecular Biophysics.

The institute brings together expertise in biophysics and engineering at the University of Maine; molecular and cell biology at Maine Medical Center Research Institute (MMCRI), Scarborough; and genetics and genomics at Jackson Laboratory, Bar Harbor. IMB's goal: to explore the structure and function of genes and chromosomes in cells to understand precisely how genes control both normal development and disease.

Once installed at Jackson Lab, the 4Pi microscope will enable researchers to examine specific structures in a cell — such as a single gene on a chromosome — at a resolution four to seven times greater than previously possible.

As IMB co-director Barbara Knowles of Jackson Lab and UMaine describes it, astronomers have space telescopes to understand the universe, and physicists have giant particle accelerators to isolate elements of energy and matter. Now geneticists and biologists have an advanced tool to examine the very structure of mouse, human and other genomes.


Best Bargains

In its annual guide, The 357 Best Colleges, the Princeton Review has listed the University of Maine as No. 20 in its "Best Bargain — Public" category. The publication determines academic ratings for institutions, then compares those rankings with tuition costs to create a list of the top 20 public colleges and universities in this category.

"We're pleased with the Princeton Review's ranking, which supports our belief that UMaine is an outstanding value," says UMaine Interim President Robert Kennedy. "We are proud to offer the benefits that come with being a land-grant state university in a wonderful place to work, study and live."

Other universities recognized in the same category include the University of California-Berkeley, the University of Washington, the College of William and Mary, the University of Texas-Austin, Kansas State University and North Carolina State University.


Insight Lite: Sea Veggies

Some of the tastiest foods from the sea don't come with shells or scales. According to University of Maine marine biologist Susan Brawley, five types of sea vegetables growing in intertidal zones along the northeastern coast of the United States are particularly delicious and nutritious, with lots of omega-3 fatty acids, iodine and vitamins; several also have lots of calcium:

In Maine, Porphyra is red seaweed that comes in at least five varieties, each with its own distinct nutty-salty flavor. Commonly known as purple laver or nori, it is dried and crumbled into soups, salads, popcorn or casseroles.

Palmaria, commonly called dulse, is a thick, red sea vegetable with a nutty taste. Dried or smoked, it is added to sandwiches, soups and popcorn. Palmaria has long been a popular snack with Down East natives.
Brown algae or kelp include Alaria and Laminaria that can be dried for flavoring soups, or pickled for salad.

Irish moss has deep red leaves that are boiled to release carrageenan, a tasteless, gelatin-like substance. For centuries, it has been used in New England to make puddings and custards.


Recipe

Sea Moss Blanc Mange (a family recipe passed through the generations)

  • Use bleached-out, white sea moss. Rinse in salt water to remove sand. Dry.
     

  • In a double-boiler, simmer 1 quart whole milk and up to 1 cup of sea moss for 20-25 minutes. Strain.
     

  • Add 1 tsp. vanilla and 1/4 cup maple syrup (optional). Cool. Refrigerate.


Rural Education Online

A leading research journal devoted to rural education, published at the University of Maine, is now exclusively online (www.umaine.edu/jrre) with open access.

The Journal of Research in Rural Education, founded in 1982 by the UMaine College of Education and Human Development, disseminates the results of educational research relevant to rural settings. Topics include learning and instruction; educational leadership and policy; and the cultural, historical and economic context of rural education.

By going online, every aspect of the editorial process is rendered less expensive and more efficient, according to Theodore Coladarci, the journal's editor and UMaine professor of educational psychology. With newly posted articles announced through the journal's listserv, as well as the listservs of several organizations, articles quickly reach many more readers than was possible with a print version. There are no changes in content or editorial policy.

Articles published prior to the online conversion have been archived and indexed in a searchable database.


Making the past part of the plan

A recent $175,000 award from the Getty Grant Program's Campus Heritage Initiative will fund a preservation plan for the buildings and landscapes included in the University of Maine's National Register Historic District.

The preservation plan is expected to be a model for incorporating historic preservation into a campus master plan.

Ten buildings constructed between 1870 and 1908 are on the National Register of Historic Places. The facilities, all part of the earliest construction at the then fledgling university, are centrally located on the 660-acre campus.

A team of historical architects, and structural, mechanical and electrical engineers will extensively evaluate each building in the National Register Historic District to determine existing conditions. As part of the project, original and subsequent architectural drawings will be reviewed, and diagrams and a narrative of the campus landscape history prepared. Documentation will include any landscape resources associated with important people or groups in University of Maine history.

 

UMaine Today Magazine
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