I spent Memorial Day at my grandmother's home on Buzzards Bay in Wareham, Massachusetts. This is the place where my roots are deepest, where childhood memory informs adult understanding of the patterns of wind and tide, and the many changes -subtle and profound - that have taken place here over the last three decades. Some of these, such as the return of the Osprey for which the bay is named, are glorious reaffirmations of nature's resilience and the power of well-placed regulations to safeguard the environment. Others, no less dramatic, have profound implications for the future of this property and the bay it overlooks.
The beach is glacial cobble, and as the northwest winds turn to southwest in summer, they sweep away our winter accumulation of sand and a new crop of pink and Grey stones emerges underfoot. Littoral drift accounts for some of this shift of sediments, but the gradual collapse of a piled stone jetty and the breakwater offshore have allowed the sand to move more freely along the beach. Better shoreline protection regulations make it difficult to repair or replace these jetties, but although it may be better ecologically our family bemoans the loss of sand.
There used to be a sand bar just offshore, but now it stays submerged at mean low water and there is eel grass once again close to shore. Back when I was a child, the beach was strewn with drifts of dead eelgrass, the result of a massive die-off of this keystone aquatic plant that sustains a web of diversity from larval blue crabs to the blue-eyed bay scallops that find shelter among the waving grasses. Eel grass decline was first observed in the 1930s, the result of a slime mold infestation, and in the 1980's thousands of acres of eel-grass died off in Buzzard's Bay and up and down the Northeast coast as a result of an algae bloom known as "brown tide." Rising water temperatures, nutrient loading, water pollution, coastal dredging and alteration are all contributing factors, but taken together they continue to threaten the recovery of this vital part of the marine environment. Last year in the highly saline lower Chesapeake Bay, thousands of acres of eel-grass died off, threatening the recovery of the region's blue crabs and many other species.
Today, the drifting seaweed that accumulates at the high water mark is a thick, green species Codium fragile spp. tomentosoides, the most widespread invasive seaweed in the western Atlantic. First reported in Long Island Sound in the late 1950s, it now ranges from the Canadian Maritimes to Virginia. The impacts of this introduced species on native sea grass communities are being investigated by researchers at Northeastern University and elsewhere, but I would suspect that, as with freshwater aquatic invasions, salt water invaders are altering native habitats and the complex species interactions they sustain.
One possible effect can be observed alongside the drifts of Codium at the high tide line, where massive accumulations of common Atlantic Slipper Shell (Crepidula fornicata) give a pink tinge to the shoreline. Codium often anchors to clumps of these slipper shells, bringing them on shore as it drifts. The biomass represented by the Crepidula shells is staggering, and whether evidence of a massive decline of of superabundance of this species is not altogether clear to me. They are vulnerable to fuel oil spills, and Buzzard's Bay endured a big one in 2003. Where it has been unintentionally introduced on the shores of the the Eastern Atlantic, Crepidula fornicata is now an invasive species.
There are quahogs closer inshore than I remember in my youth, but very few bay scallops. One still finds the green tubes from the old offshore oyster racks that littered the beach when I was a child. There is less beach glass, a result of better environmental regulation, but the beach still has its accumulation of jetsam. Fishing line and six pack holders still kill birds and fish. There are invasive European green crabs all over the intertidal zone, now our most abundant crustacean. Not all is invasive however. The largest Rosette tern colony in the Northeast lies on Bird island, 4 miles distant, and there are now Piping Plover nesting on Stony Point Dike alongside the Cape Cod Canal just down the beach.
Up the bluff from the beach, the raw scars from Hurricane Bob are now covered by oriental bittersweet and fast growing Jack Pine. The woodlands along the shore are growing older, and denser. When I was a child, the view of the water was largely unimpeded, and neighbors' houses could be seen on either side. There are still many ceders near the shore, but pitch pine is now but a minor component of the shoreline forest and virtually gone now from the interior where it has been replaced by the more salt-sensitive white pine. Pitch pine needs periodic fire to germinate and keep competing species at bay, and there has not been a fire on Great Neck in at least a century. One would not be welcome, now, with all the accumulated duff and available fuel, including hemlocks blighted by woolly adelgid. Lyme ticks are pervasive throughout the woods and grasslands. Box turtles, listed as species of special concern in Massachusetts, are still common on our land.
Some things seem frozen in time. My children and their 2nd cousins run wild through the yard, climbing trees and paddling boats as I did with their parents as a child. The old house is falling down in places and lovingly restored in others, a patchwork of family labor and half-finished projects that manage to keep it going year after year. There is nothing so thrilling as a gaff-rigged schooner tacking across the bay, unless it is two of them like we saw over the weekend. I ascended the flagpole out on the bluff as I used to of old, astonished that I still had the upper body strength for the task, to re-thread the line and run Old Glory up for another Memorial Day. I stopped by my Grandfather's stone on the way home yesterday, noting his fresh new flag among the hundreds of others in the Cemetery.
The more I learn about the changes in the bay, the more I believe it is incumbent on us to observe with new eyes, to note the shifting patterns and discern their implications. The sky may be blue, and the whitecaps frisk on the water, but nothing below or ashore remains unaltered.