PORTLAND — The Casco Bay Estuary Partnership awarded nearly $10,000 in grants to organizations in greater Portland and Harpswell to support creative and innovative ways of increasing community awareness about the bay’s marine resources.

The Casco Bay Community Grant Awards are in their third year, according to Victoria Boundy, community engagement coordinator with the Casco Bay Estuary Partnership, or CBEP.

The mission of the CBEP is to “help conserve the ecological integrity of Casco Bay and its watershed through science, public stewardship and effective management,” according to the organization’s website.

Boundy said CBEP received nine proposals from area schools, nonprofit organizations and community groups. Four applicants were chosen, based mostly on their “strong community engagement component,” she said.

Boundy said CBEP also likes to see “a clear connection to the themes and priorities of our 2016 Casco Bay Plan and strong demonstration of community support for the project.” 

The grants are funded through the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the hope is that each project will “generate broad impact.”

The Maine Island Trail Association, based in Portland, received $3,500 to help it better manage the impact of pets on the islands.

Many visitors like to bring their dogs along, but pet waste “has resulted in disturbance to wildlife and habitat, threatened water quality, and a diminished nature experience for many island visitors,” the association said in its application.

The grant will be used to train volunteers and create education and outreach strategies to remind visitors to the islands that the “leave no trace” ethic extends to pets as well as humans.

Brian Marcaurelle, program director of the Maine Island Trail Association, said the effort would be targeted to three of the most heavily impacted islands on the trail: Jewell Island in Portland, Little Chebeague Island and Little Snow Island in Harpswell.

Rowe Elementary School in Portland received a grant for $1,200 to build a special Story Walk along one of the public trails in the city. The Story Walk will be created by first- and second-grade students, who are already working with the Cumberland County Soil and Water Conservation District on an education unit that focuses on protecting water resources.

Through the Story Walk, “students will be sharing knowledge with the wider community about how waterways connect, support, and enhance our communities,” the Rowe School application said.

The Harpswell Heritage Land Trust received $2,800 to create a pop-up learning station that can be transferred to its various properties, and the Holbrook Community Foundation got $2,100 to educate the wider community about aquaculture initiatives in the New Meadows River.

Boundy said the Casco Bay Estuary, where several rivers flow into the bay, provides “vital habitat for over 850 marine species from microscopic plants and animals to migrating fish, birds, seals and pilot whales.”

“Humans also rely on estuaries for food, recreation, jobs, and protection from coastal storms,” she said, which is why “the health and resilience of Casco Bay’s estuaries” is so important and why it’s key for the wider community to take steps to “help protect and restore it.”

Overall, Boundy said, “Casco Bay is a treasured place.”

Pet pick up

Marcaurelle, of the Maine Island Trail Association, said pet waste has been an ongoing concern for several years, particularly on islands located near important shellfish habitat or aquaculture operations.

But, he said, the impact of pets on the island trail goes beyond just waste, which is why “the aim of this initiative is to inform pet owners about Leave No Trace best practices.”

“We love pets,” Marcaurelle said, noting that many of the trail association staff and board members are pet owners themselves.

But, he added, “our mission is to take proper care of the islands, and with that comes a responsibility to ensure that pets are not inadvertently impacting the (island ecology) or the enjoyment of the islands by others.”

Marcaurelle said that Maine Island Trail Association staff and volunteers are encountering pets with increasing frequency. In addition, he said that the guidelines for island usage, which can vary from one island to the next, “has meant that pet rules and best practices are rarely followed.”

While pets need places to run wild, “Maine’s coastal islands are not well suited for that kind of activity,” Marcaurelle said. “Island ecosystems are fragile. The soils are thin, the habitat is sensitive and the wildlife especially vulnerable.”

He said that staff and volunteers have also been hearing from island visitors that their “quest for a peaceful wilderness experience was ruined by exuberant, barking dogs. The islands are for everyone’s enjoyment. If free-ranging pets infringe on the enjoyment of others, then that is something that MITA should try to address.”

Marcaurelle said the Maine Island Trail Association would use its grant funding specifically to update its annual trail guide and mobile app, as well as to update island signage, including the installation of new signs. Volunteers and staff will also get training around ways to interact with pet owners “in a productive way,” he said.

“This is really just the start of what will be an ongoing campaign aimed at minimizing pet impacts,” Marcaurelle said.

Making conservation education fun

Julia McLeod, outreach coordinator at the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust, said that helping families enjoy spending time outdoors together while also learning about Harpswell’s coastal environment are the goals behind the new pop-up learning station.

The mobile station will include equipment and materials such as magnifying lenses, identification materials and nature-inspired art activities.

McLeod said while the land trust has been offering a variety of family programs for several years, “we have noticed is that turnout varies greatly. The idea for the pop-up learning station is to create something really engaging and fun that families can do on a beautiful day when they don’t have other plans.”

As a teacher, she said, “I believe that kids thrive when they have the opportunity to play, learn, create and explore in a minimally structured environment (and) by offering this opportunity for families, we are engaging both children and adults.”

The learning station will include scavenger hunt activities, as well as “fun facts about Harpswell’s natural habitats, plants, animals and geology, (along with) information to help families understand the environmental issues facing Harpswell,” McLeod said.

The grant will also be used to create a Story Walk and encourage kids to take part in nature-inspired art activities. In addition, the learning station will provide suggested photo opportunities to encourage families to post about their activities on social media.

McLeod said the pop-up learning station would spend a month or two at one of the land trust’s preserves, before being moved to another location. “The station will be entirely outdoors and accessible at all times (and) we’ll refresh the information and activities based on the habitat we are moving it to.”

She said the hope is to launch the learning station sometime in June and the idea is that “children will use their imaginations, get dirty, touch things and build a lifelong connection to the outdoors.”

Learning about aquaculture

Peter Griffi, treasurer of the Holbrook Community Foundation, said that “shellfish and seaweed aquaculture is a growing industry in Casco Bay and in the New Meadows River, in particular, (and the) proliferation of lease sites has been met with some community questions and concerns.”

That’s why the foundation plans to use its grant to organize three boat tours to the aquaculture areas “to engage, inform and educate the community about this growing segment of our local marine economy,” Griffin said.

Overall, the goal of the Holbrook Community Foundation is to support the local commercial fishing community and “provide opportunities for education about the marine environment and the changing marine economy,” according to its website.

Griffin said the hope is that the boat tours and accompanying panel discussions “will also provide opportunities to nurture relationships between landowners, community leaders and the aquaculture community.”

The boat tours will be offered in August and will provide an opportunity for participants to interact with experienced growers and to learn about the process of cultivating, harvesting and marketing oysters in particular, Griffin said.

Two of the boat tours will be offered by Peter Milholland, captain of the Pamela B, of Seacoast Tours in Freeport and the third will be a sea kayak tour offered by registered Maine Guide Alicia Heyburn.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 780-9097 or [email protected]. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Dogs are an increasing problem for the Maine Island Trail Association, which is why the group is using a new Casco Bay Estuary Partnership grant to increase awareness that the leave no trace ethic applies to pets, too. Here people and their dogs enjoy camping on Little Snow Island.

Engaging families with conservation education has proven somewhat difficult, so the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust is using a new grant from the Casco Bay Estuary Partnership to create a pop-up learning station that kids and families can access at will. Here families take part in an early spring birding trip at the Curtis Farm Preserve.