Supporting Local Science


Partnerships with community groups, tribal organizations, and local government partners bring in-depth knowledge, data, and long-term engagement that Bigelow Laboratory can both enhance and benefit from. Those groups are also able to start conversations around solutions and policy that extend the impact of the institute’s expertise.

This July, authorities began dismantling the Milltown Dam, situated on the Skutik River (also known as the St. Croix) between St. Stephen, New Brunswick, and Calais, Maine. The dam is one of the oldest hydroelectric facilities in the world, located on an ancient village site known as Salmon Falls. For over a century, it has blocked fish like alewives and shad coming up from the ocean, species that the Passamaquoddy people have subsisted on for thousands of years.

Bigelow Laboratory is working with the Sipayik Environmental Department of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point to monitor fish populations and water quality as the dam removal progresses, supporting their ongoing efforts to protect the health of the river.

“There’s been an ongoing effort on both sides of the border to remove the dam and restore fish passage,” said Senior Research Scientist Rachel Sipler, director of the institute’s Water Health and Humans Initiative. “We saw this as a great opportunity to contribute to that science.”

Scientists collecting specimens from the rocks in a rivers

Since coming to Bigelow Laboratory in 2021, Sipler has been connecting with potential community partners across the state to find opportunities where the institute could bring its scientific expertise and specialized research tools to bear. One of those groups was the Skutik River Restoration Trust, an international collaboration between Canadian and U.S. tribal and government entities, including the Passamaquoddy.

Scientists collecting samples next to a river

One of the trust's primary goals has been to understand the state of sea-run fish and what impact the dam removal might have on their movement up river.

In May and July of this year, several Bigelow Laboratory researchers went north to participate in water quality sampling alongside Sipayik Environmental Department scientists. The team collected numerous samples before and after dam removal began to test for excess nutrients, metals, PFAS chemicals, and environmental DNA — the floating fragments of DNA organisms leave behind that can be used to track their movements. Together, these data can will illuminate if fish are making it up the river and what contaminants they’re being exposed to.

In September, three Sipayik Environmental Department scientists visited East Boothbay to work with Bigelow Laboratory scientists to process those samples and think through ways that tools like environmental DNA, or eDNA, can support their broader scientific goals.

“Where this could really help us is to see how fish are interacting with other barriers to passage and start thinking about how to prioritize those features,” said Chris Johnson, the organization’s ecology manager. “It could also help us more easily figure out how far up the system these fish are going.”

Johnson said they’re exploring ways to correlate the eDNA results with their existing methods for tracking fish, which includes traps, seine nets, and video counts. The goal is to understand how the system responds to the decommissioning of Milltown and better monitor fish passage over the other dams that are still on the river. And with eDNA, they’ll be able to use the same samples to analyze for countless other species of interest as their work expands and evolves. That includes identifying endangered species in the watershed like Atlantic salmon.

During the visit to Bigelow Laboratory in September, the group continued the collaboration by making plans for future work. They also brainstormed opportunities to broaden the partnership, including possible student exchanges and trainings.

Pete Countway pointing at data displayed on a monitor

“We went up and did it this summer basically with no money knowing that it needed to be done, and it was time dependent,” Sipler said. “Now is the time to find funds to process the samples that were collected and continue this meaningful work.”

Scientists in a lab

Sipler stressed that while Bigelow Laboratory is helping train the scientists on how to take and process samples, especially around new techniques like eDNA, the Sipayik Environmental Department is leading this project — guided by their questions and deep knowledge of the watershed.

“At Bigelow Laboratory, we have the equipment and specialized knowledge to help with the things they know they need to do,” Sipler said. “We’re supporting their research team, which is established, knowledgeable, and self-determined.”

Lessons Learned Across Bigelow

The ongoing collaboration with the Sipayik Environmental Department is just one of several partnerships that Bigelow Laboratory scientists are pursuing, each bringing the institute’s technical expertise and analytical capacity to bear on the needs and existing efforts of community groups, resource managers, and local scientists.

For example, Senior Research Scientist Pete Countway, who has helped train the Passamaquoddy scientists on eDNA techniques, is sharing that knowledge with other community groups in the region to monitor a range of water quality threats. As the required technology has become more portable and user-friendly, it’s created opportunities to empower people to take control of their own monitoring efforts and meet the unique needs of different communities.

People watching a scientist

“I got one of these devices, and suddenly I could take my science to where there was real-world need,” Countway said. “That really opened up a lot of possibilities for the type of collaborations we could do that were meaningful.”

Scientists in surgical masks on the stern of a boat

Countway is now working closely with the Midcoast Conservancy in Maine to help monitor the Damariscotta Lake watershed for bacteria and harmful algal species. He’s also working with Wolfeboro Waters in New Hampshire, a community group established to protect water resources that approached Countway with concerns about excessive plant growth in their local lakes. In addition to training those groups on how to use the equipment and interpret data, Countway has brought their teams to Bigelow Laboratory to learn more about the possibilities and limitations of current analysis techniques.

“We don’t want to be gatekeepers of technology,” Countway said. “We want to turn the technology loose, and help people see what they can do with it.”

The results are often surprising and can multiply the effectiveness and impact of science.

Senior Research Scientist Maya Groner and Postdoctoral Scientist Reyn Yoshioka also work with resource managers to study the impact of infectious diseases on economically important species. For the last several years, they have engaged with numerous academic and agency partners, such as the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, on research related to snow crabs, one of Alaska’s most lucrative fisheries, which catastrophically collapsed in 2022.

They are using experiments and models to understand the nature of an emerging condition called black eye syndrome, which may potentially affect hormonal regulation and impact the fishery. They’re also modeling bitter crab syndrome, a fatal blood disease caused by a parasitic species of plankton, to determine whether a recent epidemic could have contributed to the snow crab collapse. They plan to present their research directly to affected fishermen through the Bering Sea Fisheries Research Foundation, a collective of regional stakeholders working to improve fishery management through collaborative research.

“It’s been awesome to work with people who are on the ground, making the decisions, and have very different insights into the questions we’re asking,” Yoshioka said.

Scientist disecting a crab

Yoshioka and Groner, with Senior Research Scientist Nick Record, were also recently funded by the Sea Grant American Lobster Initiative to study epizootic shell disease, a potentially fatal infection that has devastated the lobster fishery in southern New England. Working with state managers in Maine and Massachusetts, the team is exploring the impact of warming waters on the prevalence of the disease in the Gulf of Maine. They’ll also present those findings to fishermen and other stakeholders as the project progresses.

These partnerships have provided an important avenue for data sharing and collaboration. The agencies help with data collection and experiments, guiding the research based on local needs. Bigelow Laboratory scientists bring the expertise needed to design complex research projects and perform analyses that can inform fishery management.

“These collaborations with partners that are straddling research and policy are really satisfying, and there’s no way this work could happen without them,” Groner said. “There’s just a lot of relationships and logistics that they have worked out over many years that enable us to do this work.”

Co-creating science with on-the-ground partners can be harder than the “ivory tower” approach to science. It requires adapting equipment and protocols for new uses, sustaining relationships across funding cycles, and supporting a community that may have different priorities than a research scientist.

But those challenges are more than offset by the benefits of these collaborations for protecting ecosystems and human health.

“We have to acknowledge each other’s skill sets and learn from each other, which makes us stronger as researchers,” Sipler said. “It’s about finding collaborations that fit, not forcing ourselves into anything, which makes Bigelow Laboratory stronger.”

Photo 1: New Brunswick Power recently began dismantling Milltown Dam on the Skutik River. Despite a fish ladder, visible under the yellow walkway, Milltown has been a barrier to fish passage for over a century. International Joint Commission

Photos 2-3: Bigelow Laboratory researchers and scientists from the Sipayik Environmental Department collect environmental DNA and other data from the Skutik River to understand how the dam removal is affecting water quality and fish passage. Rachel Sipler

Photos 4-5: Sipayik Environmental Department scientists work with Bigelow Laboratory researchers to learn new laboratory techniques, process water quality samples, and brainstorm how to expand the collaboration in the future. Leah Campbell

Photos 6-7: Senior Research Scientist Pete Countway shares his expertise and collaborates with partners like Wolfeboro Waters and Midcoast Conservancy to expand access to cutting-edge technology and support community groups in protecting their aquatic resources. Pete Countway

Photo 8: Postdoctoral Scientist Reyn Yoshioka works with resource managers to study the impact of infectious diseases on marine species, like snow crabs, to help inform fisheries management. Nicole Charriere