YARMOUTH — For 22 years, Joe Payne has patrolled the waters of Casco Bay, improving water quality, restoring clam flats, protecting young lobsters and mobilizing oil spill cleanup efforts.
This month, he was honored for his work as Casco Bay baykeeper with a new 28-foot vessel christened in his name. But he says he’s equally proud of the increased numbers of waterkeepers who oversee and protect bays, rivers, sounds, channels, inlets, lakes and creeks in 23 countries, on six continents.
Payne realized a few years ago how much the waterkeeper movement had grown when he noticed how many translators were at the annual waterkeeper meeting.
“At that conference, when I heard the Russian, the Chinese and the other languages, I went ‘Holy Moses, it worked.’ It’s amazing,” Payne said at a christening ceremony for his new boat in Yarmouth.
Waterkeepers are typically hired by nonprofit groups to be environmental watchdogs over local bodies of water. The first, John Cronin, came on board in 1983 as the Hudson riverkeeper to patrol the river, restore its fisheries and push for having environmental laws enforced.
In 1992, Payne and six other waterkeepers formed the Alliance of River, Sound and Baykeepers with the aim of growing their numbers. By 1999, their ranks had increased to 34, and they formed the Waterkeeper Alliance, an organization that sets standards for and certifies waterkeepers worldwide.
Now there are 209 members, including a bayoukeeper in Louisiana, a canalkeeper in London and a wetlandskeeper in Australia.
Waterkeeper Alliance Executive Director Marc Yaggi said waterkeepers are found in places as diverse as the Amazon River Basin, the Tigris River in Iraq and the Bagmati River in Nepal, which is considered holy by Hindus and Buddhists.
“I think people recognize we have a right to clean water for swimming, drinking and fishing, and someone’s got to stand up for it,” Yaggi said. “They’ve seen the model work on Casco Bay, they’ve seen it work on the Hudson River, they’ve seen it work on Long Island Sound and all these other waterways, and they’re inspired to replicate it.”
In Casco Bay, Payne looks the part of a mariner — barrel-chested with a big white beard — as he patrols the waters in his vessel, keeping tabs on the health of the 230-square mile bay, which supports commercial fishing, recreation, tourism and shipping.
Through the years, he has worked to combat pollution and had pump-out stations installed at marinas so boaters don’t have to dispose of sewage from marine toilets at sea. When a tanker struck a bridge in Portland Harbor in 1996, spilling 180,000 gallons of oil, Payne assembled a group of volunteers to help clean it up. For more than 20 years, he’s run a water quality monitoring program where citizen stewards take temperature, salinity, acidity, oxygen, water clarity and other measurements of the bay on a regular basis.
But he says he has it easy compared with others who have been scorned, harassed and even shot at, he said. One rule for waterkeepers is that they must have a boat, but the Waterkeeper Alliance made an exception for a riverkeeper in China.
“It’s illegal to have a boat on his river, and that’s not a bad idea because the fumes will kill you,” Payne said. “So he has a little tougher job than I do.”
Payne has motivated others worldwide, said Andy Willner, the New Jersey-New York baykeeper from 1989 to 2008.
“Waterkeepers and the people who are drawn to the idea are people who have grown up in a place and want to protect that place,” he said. “So whether that person is in India or England or Colombia, South America or China or the United States, they all have the same impulse, which is to protect their home.”
Payne half-jokingly says he’d like to see waterkeepers on all seven continents — which would mean recruiting one for Antarctica.
“We’re going to make him an icekeeper,” he said.