Residents of a tiny but picturesque village on Mount Desert Island are trying to restore the health of a local bay to re-establish fishing, clam hunting, recreation and other traditional uses.
Otter Creek is located south of Bar Harbor on the eastern side of Mount Desert Island. Half is in the City of Mount Desert and the other half is owned by Bar Harbor. But geographically it is surrounded by Acadia National Park.
“For many years, community members who live around and use Otter Creek Cove have been concerned about the declining health of the Inner Harbor, indicated by marked declines in populations of fish, clams and other organisms,” says a project statement. by Thriving Earth Exchange, a Washington, DC non-profit that promotes community science.
The nonprofit is working with the City of Mount Desert and Acadia to evaluate the health of the Inner Harbor and research the cause of problems that could affect water health and options to remedy the problems.
According to the statement, “Assessing the Health of Otter Creek Inner Harbor and Potential Pathways to Remediate Problems,” the problems “appear to be related to climate change, tidal restrictions caused by a causeway built in 1939, and contamination caused by a plant treatment plant which discharged contaminated effluent into the Inner Harbour.
The village takes its name from a creek that leads to Otter Cove, which sits on the southern edge of Mount Desert Island. The bay is crossed by Acadia’s Park Loop Road via a causeway that creates an inner and outer harbor.
The City of Mount Desert and the city’s sustainability committee are spearheading the project. Mount Desert is a rural community with a population of 2,100 that covers the middle third of Mount Desert Island and includes six villages.
Otter Creek Cove is a central feature of the Village of Otter Creek.
But with “the National Park Service’s ownership of nearly all of the land around Otter Creek Cove and the declining health of the inner harbor, community use of the cove has declined dramatically,” the statement said.
Part of the problem, the statement said, may be due to a causeway across the bay that limits tidal flow to the inner harbour. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the United States Environmental Protection Agency have documented that effluents from a water treatment plant at Otter Creek “contained heavy metals, including copper, zinc and cyanide, in concentrations exceeded the maximum regulatory limits”.
The goal is to determine why there have been “dramatic declines” in the populations of fish, clams and other marine organisms in the Inner Harbor and take steps that could improve their health.
The project began about a year ago with site visits, interviews with residents and scientists familiar with bay conditions and history, and evaluation of existing data describing conditions at the Inner Harbor, Chris Petersen, professor at Bar Harbor’s College of the Atlantic whose specialties include marine biology, and chair of the Bar Harbor Marine Resources Committee, he told the Bar Harbor City Council earlier this month.
Petersen is a consulting scientist on the project and its Bar Harbor liaison.
Petersen said that, in the 18th and 19th centuries, Otter Creek was a bustling farming and fishing community. This changed in the early 20th century when the surrounding land was acquired by the federal government during the early formation of what became Acadia National Park.
The federal government also built the causeway that divides the harbor and limits tidal flow, possibly one cause of the bay’s loss of biodiversity, he noted.
Petersen said he and Hannah Webber, director of marine ecology at the Schoodic Institute, a scientific research nonprofit in Winter Harbor, have been involved with the project from the beginning as scientific advisors.
Two community meetings were held last fall to discuss community concerns, he said.
The two consultants have developed a roadmap for working on the issues, he said.
But the paths are complicated, he added. For example, the disappearance of clams could be related to the presence of the causeway. Or it could be related to larger global problems like ocean acidification.
“So it’s hard to decipher what is being caused by global and regional changes and what may be changing things locally,” Petersen said.
Potential next steps could include further studies to document tidal flows, contaminants and experimental restoration of clam populations, followed by large-scale remediation efforts.