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Science and First Nations community come together to save vital eelgrass


In 2004, Dr. Fred Short got a call. Short, a research professor in both the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, and the School of Marine Science and Ocean Engineering, studies seagrass, also called eelgrass. Eelgrass—not actually a grass, and whose name origins no one can pinpoint—forms beds of long, thin blades like grass, and lives in saltwater and estuaries.  

Eelgrass has a global range—you can find it here on the Seacoast, in Great Bay, and many eelgrass populations are in decline, Great Bay included. Eelgrass is a critical habitat-making species, attracting clams, worms, “juvenile fish, juvenile crabs, small organisms,” as Short described, through its water filtering and dense beds, which provides cover for the juvenile organisms, whom larger fish and lobsters then eat. Geese eat the eelgrass itself during migration.  

As Short said, eelgrass makes an area “a restaurant.” 

The call to Short came from a tallyman of a First Nations community, the Cree, located in James Bay, an area in northern Québec. The Cree depend on geese, historically Brant geese but also snowy and Canada geese, that come to James Bay during twice-yearly migrations, and on the large fish that feed in eelgrass beds. The eelgrass was in great decline in James Bay.  

Historically, when the geese migrate, the Cree “have what they call goose month, where the whole town shuts down and everybody goes out and lives on the coast in little cabins and hunts.” Short said. But in 2004, and since then, there aren’t enough geese. “[The Cree] don’t stay a month, they may stay a week…They go back home without any geese for the freezer.”  

The tallyman asked for Short to plant new eelgrass. Tallymen, as Nick Anderson, Short’s graduate student, explained, are “in charge of a trap line, which is a hunting and fishing territory that a certain number of families use. They keep track of how much hunting and fishing happens there.” Just as the Cree depend on geese, they also depend on larger fish, sharing fish among the community. 

At the tallyman’s inquiry, Short was concerned eelgrass would die again. Short headed to James Bay to find out why eelgrass was dying. 

It was a hydroelectric dam. This dam, which provides Canadian and American consumers with electricity, was installed upstream years ago and has changed the hydrology and water quality of James Bay. The dam has increased turbidity, or murkiness of the water, and decreased salinity, or salt concentrations. Eelgrass, being a plant, requires light to photosynthesize, as well as a certain salt concentration. The dam may have also changed the temperature of the water. 

Short, along with his postdoctoral research associate Dr. Dante Torio, and Anderson (the Short Lab) are not entirely sure that eelgrass decline is associated with these factors. They have been working in James Bay since 2016, spending summers there determining the association of eelgrass decline with these factors, and exactly how, quantitatively, the dam has changed the water.  

Up in James Bay, the Short Lab doesn’t study the water alone. They partner with the Cree land users, from youth to the tallymen, in every aspect of the work. Historically, western science, and government systems, have long ignored the traditional knowledge, or prior knowledge the Cree people have, considering it, as Short said, “hearsay,” like the court systems around James Bay.  

Except, this traditional knowledge is incredibly valuable: “Truly they are the experts; they have been living in James Bay for centuries, and they have been observing environmental change and ecology…they know more about what’s going on.” Anderson said. Regarding western science and traditional knowledge, “One is not better than the other.” But, to pinpoint what is happening, “they need some western science to help them understand.”  

Using this traditional knowledge, the Cree and the Short Lab take motorized canoes to visit sites of interest around James Bay. The Cree indicate which sites they want to study, based on their knowledge of eelgrass in its current state versus historically. At each site, the Short Lab, dressed in safety suits (see photo below), and the Cree sample the water for salinity and temperature.  

As they work, the Short Lab teaches the Cree how to sample the water and study eelgrass. One tool they teach is a pole in the water, which has GoPro Cameras and a white plastic disc attached.  

“They take the pole and set it at a meter and they hold it over the side, and it takes pictures or video of what the bottom looks like, and you can drift across the eelgrass bed and it takes continuous video,” showing the status of the eelgrass, Short explained. “This allows them to collect scientific [quantitative] data.”  

Land management, conservation and legal decisions, such as decisions about land use and management upstream, require quantitative data. The Cree can bring this data to people making these decisions “and say these are the numbers that support what we’ve been telling you.” Short said. With this data, the Cree can better influence land use decisions, reducing the risk of future impact like that of the hydroelectric dam.  

Back in New Hampshire, the Short Lab builds on the knowledge they gather from James Bay. They work at the Jackson Estuarine Lab in Durham, part of the University of New Hampshire. There, they monitor and experiment on eelgrass in Great Bay. They study the impact of changes in its environment, such as temperature changes—what it can tolerate, what helps it, what harms it. These results help explain data from James Bay. 

The Great Bay data and the James Bay are also uploaded to SeagrassNet, a “global network of seagrass monitoring,” Torio said. SeagrassNet is a database, collecting data on changes in seagrass population across its global range. 

Once the Short Lab finishes collecting all this data, they are not done with their work. They run conferences and town hall presentations, presenting to the Cree trappers, all members of the community, and the tallymen.” Anderson said. The tallymen “spread the knowledge to the community.” The Short Lab also partners with Chisasibi Eeyou Resource and Research Institute, a recently established organization “by the Cree for education for…particularly getting young people involved and aware.”  

When the Short Lab returns to New Hampshire, they make sure the Cree can still monitor the eelgrass that attracts the geese and fish. Anderson is developing “a program that when we’re done [with the James Bay project] … these are the methods we can hand over to them and use to continue to monitor eelgrass. We’re developing methods based on the scientific method that they can use in conjunction with their traditional knowledge of coastal James Bay.”  

If this work interests you, the Short Lab is hiring for a field technician for this summer with the James Bay Seagrass Project. They are also looking for help for the remainder of this semester in their laboratory at the Jackson Estuarine Lab. Contact Dr. Short at [email protected] 

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