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The Gulf of Maine's phytoplankton growth is slowing. That could have effects up the food chain

A mixed phytoplankton community.
University of Rhode Island/Stephanie Anderson
A mixed phytoplankton community.

Recent research shows that plankton growth rates in the Gulf of Maine are slowing down, posing challenges for the rest of the ecosystem.

Plankton — phytoplankton in particular — are at the foundation of the Gulf of Maine's highly productive ecosystems, turning the sun's energy into food consumed by other creatures higher up the food chain. For 23 years, scientists at East Boothbay's Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences have been measuring plankton productivity across the Gulf.

"Over the 20 years that we're describing," says Barney Balch, a senior scientist at Bigelow, "the productivity of the Gulf of Maine has dropped to about a third of what it used to be in the late 90s."

Balch says changes in the circulation of ocean currents are bringing warmer, saltier water into the Gulf of Maine, and suppressing overall plankton growth.

"When you start warming the water mass, lots of things can start changing," he says, "like the chemistry can change, the ocean acidification properties can change and the nutrients have been changing, which are critical for the growth of these phytoplankton. So it's a complex picture, but we've always known that the Gulf is a complicated pace."

Balch says that there has been some improvement in plankton productivity since a big drop in the early 2000s, though, when a series of extreme rain events sent colored material into the water, filtering sunlight available for photosynthesis.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.