Every year, nature plays by its own schedule, and things look a little different than they did the year before. Sometimes those changes are noticeable and sometimes they aren’t. This is particularly true if you are new to the coast and haven’t gotten accustomed to the seasonal shifts. While I count myself as an avid observer of what’s happening along the shore and out on the water whenever I am able, and while I’m not sure if I can still count myself as a part of the young generation, I still often feel pretty naïve when it comes to the environmental history of Brunswick’s waters.

This coming weekend, while pondering our nation’s history and what we might learn from the past, perhaps it is also an opportunity to learn from previous generations. That doesn’t just go for political history but also for environmental history. I was recently talking with a neighbor — who grew up nearby and has seen changes over a significantly longer period of time than I have — about the lack of eelgrass in our bays this season. Eelgrass is that truly grassy-looking plant that grows in shallow salt water. It has too many benefits to the water and sea life around it to put them all in this column, as I’d like to focus on historical knowledge instead. But to name a few, it stabilizes the intertidal soft sediment, making the water clearer; produces oxygen critical to everything living in the water; and provides ample hiding spots for lots of baby fish and other critters.

Dislodged eelgrass floating near the shore in Maquoit Bay in September 2021. Heather Osterfeld photo

This year, there is not much eelgrass. In fact, this has been one of the biggest die-offs in recent history. According to a recent report by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, more than half of the federally protected seagrass meadows in Casco Bay have disappeared between 2018 and 2022. The full report can be found at maine.gov/dep/water/monitoring/coastal/MEDEP_CB_Seagrass_Report.pdf. The causes of the recent die-off are likely a combination of many factors, including warmer waters, green crabs that like to snip off the new fronds and changing ocean chemistry. However, unless you are someone studying eelgrass populations or have lived along the coast for awhile, you might not have noticed the recent decline. You might also not know that this has happened before with people like my neighbor observing massive tangles of dead eelgrass forming swampy mats on the surface of the water.

Knowledge of the past is not only useful for comparative purposes but also in finding solutions and understanding that everything to some degree is cyclical. There is a hopefulness that that provides when environmental messages can often be all doom and gloom. I heard the Rev. Mariama White-Hammand, a pastor and also the chief of environment, energy and open space for the City of Boston, give the keynote remarks at a recent conference I attended, and she spoke to this idea of the importance of intergenerational interdependence and its power to address not only issues of community but also those of environment — and that these are often surprisingly tied together. I can certainly see the first part of this first-hand when watching the interactions between my kids and their grandparents — everyone shines. And everyone learns so much! I have shared some of her recorded addresses with friends and highly recommend looking her up.

While it is always important to look toward the future, this Fourth of July weekend could be an opportunity to look backwards and see what can be learned from prior generations about what we are seeing today and to perhaps find a better way forward because of it.

Susan Olcott is the director of operations at Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association.

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