Interview with Jillian Carr – The Science Behind Mapping Seagrass
What better way to spend the winter months than to think about why we love Seagrass. As you all know, I love seagrass, and am very fond of all the scientists like Jill Carr who work in protecting our seagrass habitats and oceans. Today, I will be sharing some of the inspiration for my abstract paintings and also highlighting the fascinating work Jill does in mapping and tracking seagrass. The painting above called “Mapping Seagrass” is a direct result of my volunteer work in 2019 with North South Rivers Watershed Association where we explored 18 different seagrass sites during several days and only found one site with seagrass. I was interested in depicting the experience of boating to all these different locations in the Three Bays and trying to record what we found. It wasn’t until now that I had this awesome interview with Jill Carr, that I gained a broader context of whats happening here in our local shores in Massachusetts. Please enjoy this thought provoking conversation with Jill on how seagrass is really mapped scientifically speaking- so cool!
I first met Jill Carr back in 2018 while filming For the Love of Seagrass in her lab up in MA Fisheries Department in Gloucester. For over a decade, Jill Carr has focused on mapping and monitoring seagrass habitats with state fisheries and coastal management agencies. As the Coastal Data Scientist at the Massachusetts Bays National Estuary Partnership (MassBays), she builds partnerships with community-based groups interested in environmental monitoring, and helps build their capacity to collect high quality data. She has an especially keen space in her heart for seagrass mapping and conservation.
Q: Jill, why seagrass?
Seagrasses are one of the most productive ecosystems in the world, yet receive little attention because they are hidden from sight underwater, and are often confused with seaweeds (which they are not) by the general public. These unique rainforests-of-the-sea provide critical habitat to a diverse community of fish, shellfish, marine mammals and invertebrates like lobsters. And in light of climate change, seagrass meadows protect the shoreline from storms, clean the water column, and store carbon in their roots. What’s NOT to love?
Q: Love and seagrass how do they intersect in your world? Wait are you allowed to say you love your work ???
I really do! It’s so fulfilling to make a difference and improve the quality and quantity of data that exist for our local waters. For eelgrass (our local species of seagrass), I love experimenting with novel mapping techniques likes drones, and finding ways to improve long-standing methods like using imagery from airplanes, satellites, and side scan sonar. And while the technical stuff is really exciting, it’s equally important to build interest and capacity at the community-scale, too. I enjoy working with nonprofits and others on planning eelgrass and water quality monitoring projects to answer the environmental questions that matter most to them.
Q: What made you decide that you wanted to be a marine scientist?
I am an observer and nature lover at heart. From a young age I was fascinated by living things and the natural world. I would study bugs, the weather, house plants, my pet’s behavior (sorry to my childhood hamsters and cat) – you name it. Growing up in New Jersey, I frequently visited the sea and was inspired by its vastness and mystery. I guess you could say my inclination to study nature turned into a passion to better understand and protect marine environments. I do still sit and stare at bugs, though!
Q: Yes, bugs are fascinating, some are ancient like insects have been around before dinosaurs. From bugs to seagrass- how did you get involved with seagrass?
Each step in my career helped me to find and focus my interests. After getting my bachelor’s degree, I did wetland delineations and permitting for a civil engineering firm in NJ. Wanting to participate in more robust science, I left my paying job for a measly-stipend internship in the Virgin Islands, learning to become a scientific SCUBA diver studying corals and spiny lobsters for six wonderful months. This experience changed the trajectory of my career – I next got a job sampling aboard at-sea lobster boats in Massachusetts, which evolved for over a decade to also include SCUBA diving to work on eelgrass habitat restoration and other exciting projects. It is during this evolution that I found my interest in mapping, along with using remote sensing and GIS, to better understand our marine environment.
Q: Sounds so cool, seagrass changed my artistic trajectory too- since meeting Fred Short(expert seagrass guru) in 2016, I have only been focused on painting seagrass abstractions. I have made over 250 small and large seagrass paintings. Back to seagrass monitoring and mapping, could you explain what this entails?
Monitoring is the repeated measurement of something. When we monitor eelgrass, we often monitor its extent (how big of an area it covers), it’s health (are plants diseased? Covered in algae? Getting enough light?) and the environmental variables that might affect it (is the water to warm or murky for eelgrass to grow?) Mapping is only part of the monitoring puzzle – it tells us where the eelgrass exists. Collecting information about water quality, the sediment, weather, and other environmental factors can help us make sense of changes to eelgrass extent or health, and to respond to those changes with regulatory action, restoration, or outreach.
Remote sensing, the observation of something from a distance, is the primary tool used to map eelgrass. Cameras and sensors aboard satellites, airplanes, drones and boat-based sonars can be used to collect imagery that can be viewed in GIS, and digital boundaries can be traced around areas that appear to be eelgrass. It can be tricky process – variables like the quality and resolution of the camera, the camera’s elevation above the sea, weather conditions, and water clarity can all greatly affect the visibility of underwater features in the imagery. Often, remote sensing is paired with ground-truthing surveys that confirm conditions in a handful of spots. For eelgrass, this is best done by dropping an underwater camera off the side of a boat, or using divers when very detailed information is needed.
Q: Airplanes, Drones and acoustics – can you briefly explain the project
At MassBays, I’m currently leading a study that will map eelgrass using fourremote sensing methods and will then compare the results to diver surveys to better understand the limitations of each remote method. After all, we rely heavily on these remote methods for resource management and permitting decisions, yet we don’t fully understand how accurately they map the meadow’s edge and areas that are low-density (few shoots here and there). Our study will help us understand if imagery from side scan sonar, drones, airplanes, and satellites underestimate the meadow size, and if so, will propose “buffers” that could be applied to the maps from each method for better resource protection. Want to learn more? Visit us here: https://www.mass.gov/info-details/increasing-confidence-in-eelgrass-maps-for-project-review-and-ocean-planning
Q: What does all this data do? Why is it important to map seagrass?
Seagrasses are an indicator of coastal health. If the eelgrass in your harbor is declining over time, it’s a sign that something is wrong – perhaps a new water quality problem has emerged (is there is leak in a sewer pipe? Are there recurring algal blooms? Is there a turbidity problem?); perhaps other human-related impacts have taken place (did a construction project, dredging, or boating activity displace eelgrass?), or can indicate signs of climate change (did an increase in severe coastal storms or warming water temperatures affect our eelgrass?) Having accurate maps can help resource managers plan for eelgrass protection, respond to losses, and contribute to improvements through restoration or water quality improvements.
Q: I love being a Citizen Scientists and volunteer for seagrass monitoring in Kingston, Plymouth and Duxbury Bay(Three Bays), we usually are in boats taking photos and samples. How does what I do help with what the big picture is in The Three Bays?
There is an existing state-wide mapping program coordinated by MassDEP that maps eelgrass by airplane every 5 years. The program provides invaluable information over a long time series (since 1995), but isn’t perfect – no single method is! The best approach to mapping is a combination of methods that operate at different scales. The MassDEP program can show us coarse changes over a long time period. If we want more detailed information, we can add in other methods that collect higher resolution aerial images (such as from a drone), or boat-based methods that create detailed images from side-scan sonar. These methods can be expensive to deploy and are not taking place on a regular schedule. For even more detail, on a more frequent survey timeline, underwater photography and eelgrass samples can be collected from a boat-based volunteer program like the one you participate in! The citizen science program helps to “fill in” the gaps between other mapping efforts, both in terms of time and detail. From the survey, we get information about eelgrass presence, health, size, and patchiness, allowing us to track changes at specific monitoring stations from year to year.
Q: Yes, the images above correlates to what we found in the water with both my 2019 trip ( 1 out 18 sites), and my 2021 trip( 7 out of 21 sites) having seagrass. What exactly is happening in the Three Bays?
It’s undeniable: we’re rapidly losing eelgrass in the Three Bays, as much as 60% of it has disappeared in about 30 years time. We did an in-depth study of all the possible causes for loss and did not land on a single cause, rather, determined there are likely a variety of stressors at play. First it’s important to note that across Massachusetts, coastal land use and development have increased dramatically in the last 30-50 years, and so has pollution and nutrient loading into our estuaries. With more nutrients comes more algae, and more turbid waters, which allow less light to penetrate to the seafloor and the eelgrass. In the Three Bays nutrients are likely playing a part, however there are several other stressors that may be equally important. Duxbury Bay is particularly sandy, with shifting sands that move around with storms, tides and currents. There also may be terrestrial sources of sediment entering the system from the rivers and smothering eelgrass – some of the local fishermen felt this might be a significant issue to consider. We also know that certain human activities – oyster aquaculture activities, boat anchoring, boat moorings, and dredging continue to take place adjacent to (and in some cases, within) the eelgrass meadows. There may also be a weather component – water temperature data from the region indicate a warming trend, with several exceedances each year beyond the optimal range for eelgrass. Often, stressors have a compounding effect where any one stressor might not cause eelgrass loss by itself, but in combination with others, unsuitable conditions are created.
Q: What can coastal communities like Plymouth, Duxbury and Kingston do to ensure a return of seagrass? Do we need more funding for Water quality tests? Refocusing on waste management ? What are some solutions?
Seagrasses are considered “ecosystem engineers”, in that a seagrass meadow alters the flow of water through and around it, the movement of sediments, and presence of other flora and fauna. On the flip side, when the meadow disappears the landscape it created is completely changed. An area that once supported a luscious meadow might become unsuitable once eelgrass is gone if flow becomes too energetic for seeds to land and sprout, or sediment erodes away in the absence of a network of seagrass roots. For that reason, a return of seagrass is never guaranteed even if the stressor that caused the loss is eliminated. Often, a combination of stressor mitigation and seagrass restoration is needed for a return of seagrass to occur. Still, that’s not to say it’s hopeless – other solutions are to stop the stressors that we have control over: regulators can enforce the Wetlands Protection Act to the fullest extent in coastal construction projects to ensure they avoid seagrass; harbor managers can promote seagrass-friendly boating practices, and collaboration can take place with the aquaculture industry to ensure awareness of the habitat. And yes, we always need more data! Having high-quality, frequent seagrass mapping data and water quality data can help detect changing conditions, and allow regulators to take action swiftly.
Q: Like you Jill, I love all the slugs, worms, fish,manatees, turtles and thousands of marine life seagrass meadows shelter and feed. Most of my paintings focus on the beautiful life seagrass’ support. However I am taking on numbers for my next show in October at Beacon Gallery. Each painting will have a specific number related to seagrass. From a very young age I found colors and paint a lot easier to understand and work with than numbers. Now I have decided to take them on for both a challenge for my self personally and for the content of my work. Currently in the studio I’m working on a large painting called 29% – it relates to this huge number of global seagrass loss, I am trying to express the loss in visual terms. How do you see numbers like this? 29 % Global Loss of seagrass?
The numbers are so important when it comes to natural resources…the number of acres lost or gained, the economic value of the habitat, the cost to protect or restore it. When I see a figure like 29% global loss, I’m both motivated and overwhelmed by it – the habitat and human value associated with that loss is enormous. There’s a loss in fisheries revenue, carbon storage, endangered species habitat, and coastline protection. The effects of seagrass losses and gains ripple far beyond the meadows themselves. Your piece sounds like a powerful one – it’s important that these numbers mean something to the general public and spark a reaction. After all, change starts with awareness. Thanks for all you’re doing, Nedret!
Q: You are welcome Jill, I plan to do more; my dream is to open “seagrass schools” project based learning centers that anyone can participate in. I need to find investors and ecologists to draw up plans ( email me if anyone is interested;). On a more down to earth level, seagrass is also very good for my brain, look at all the biology I am learning, and I am even reading a bunch of papers with numbers😊 If any of my younger seagrass enthusiasts are reading this and are interested in becoming a marine biologist, what does an average day look like at work?
While I do miss being in the field and doing scientific SCUBA diving, my job is much more desk-based than before but very rewarding all the same! I spend a lot of time building capacity among other groups doing water quality and habitat monitoring work – helping to fine-tune their project ideas, sampling design and data analysis process. I provide training and advice on all-things data quality. When I’m working on a new grant like for the remote sensing study I described earlier, there’s a whole lot of grant writing, map making, data crunching and reporting.
Q: I love it ! You are putting your number crunching expertise while helping our Oceans- Just perfect! How can folks get involved in helping with seagrass restoration/ monitoring?
Whether you are near the coast or not, find your local watershed organization or environmental non-profit. Even if far from the coast, the rivers and streams in your community can significantly contribute to conditions on the coast. By getting in touch with your local group, you can find out what they’re doing to monitor, improve, and advocate for your natural resources. Some are already involved in eelgrass work – others just need engaged volunteers to spark the idea!
Q: How else can we help our oceans and seagrass habitats?
To do your part in eelgrass protection, you can do the following:
- Reduce your carbon and pollution footprint
- Advocate for habitat conservation and restoration
- Get involved with your local watershed organization
- Use green landscaping & building design techniques
- If boating, stay in channels
Q: I appreciate all the amazing work you are doing Jillian, its very inspiring. I am sure there will be more artwork inspired just from this conversation. Thank you for your time and effort for sharing your valuable knowledge!
For more information on the different organizations mentioned here please see following links:
Images courtesy of MassBays and MassDMF