Research with an Impact: Four Fall ’19 Students Share their Williams-Mystic Marine Policy Research Projects

At Williams-Mystic, students tackle real-world issues — and get out into the world as part of their research.

Independent research is at the core of the Williams-Mystic experience. There’s nothing quite like venturing into the field to help you understand how science is made — nothing like delving into the archives to understand how history is written. And with upwards of 13 different majors in a typical class of 18 students, independent research projects give students the opportunity to draw on their pre-existing interests and expertise.

In the Marine Policy course, each student chooses to study a current unresolved question impacting America’s coastlines and oceans. They then interview a myriad of stakeholders with a vested interest in the outcome of the issue; examine relevant federal and state laws, regulations; and conduct cross-disciplinary research in order to develop credible policy strategies and solutions to their real-world problem. A student researching a lobster fishery, for instance, might talk to lobster fishermen as well as NOAA fishery scientists. Someone studying the Asian carp invasion in the Great Lakes might interview activists as well as state government officials. Indeed, students often share their resulting policy briefs with the stakeholders they interviewed — many of whom include Williams-Mystic alumni. 

This problem-based approach empowers students to gain the knowledge, confidence, and skills to address major questions and issues in all fields. Communicating directly with coastal and ocean-based stakeholders to seek solutions to real-world issues instills a passion for learning that drives excellence, fosters a sense of purpose, and enables creative problem-solving. It also provides the coastal stakeholder community with an opportunity to benefit from capable research, objective investigations, and collaboration with the only undergraduate college program that examines the ocean from an interdisciplinary lens, while seeking opportunities to empower global problem-solving.

Below, four students from the Class of Fall 2019 share their policy briefs and discuss what they learned from the experience. Click any of the links below to read the full brief.

The Future of the Liquified Natural Gas Facility in Tacoma, WA

By Hazel Atwill

Image shows a student smiling in the middle of a grassy salt marsh. She is wearing a life jacket and a baseball hatOriginally from Tacoma, Washington, Hazel Atwill is a junior at Smith College studying conservation biology and coastal and marine science. Her favorite part of the Williams Mystic experience was sailing on tall ships.

Hazel on her research: 

“I gained a lot from doing this policy research, in that I was able to more meaningfully connect with my home community even though I was on the other side of the country. Because I completed this project, I feel more comfortable interviewing people and expressing how I think change should be happening.”

Excerpt from the brief:

Puget Sound Energy and Port of Tacoma are proposing Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) as a transitory solution to bunker fuel for large ships. With the climate changing more and more rapidly, there is the constant hope of new solutions to mitigate some of the damage caused by fossil fuels. However, LNG is primarily methane gas which is sourced from fracking.

One current approach to reduce dependence on fossil fuels is building the proposed LNG facility at the Port of Tacoma. LNG is a fossil fuel but considered cleaner than diesel. However, if the facility, or any of the equipment to get the LNG to the facility were to leak or break it would cause serious environmental issues. There are also treaty rights that have not been considered. The Puyallup Tribe of Indians has the right to meaningful consultation, and the City of Tacoma has not met this requirement yet. Port of Tacoma should not build this facility, but if they go ahead with the plans, there should be more meaningful consultation and more investment in truly clean fuels.

Read the full brief here. 

Protecting New Jersey’s Meadowlands and Local Communities from Floods and Greenhouse Gas Emissions

By Jeff Erazo

Image shows a student in a bright yellow rain jacket, looking off into the distance. He is standing in a small cove, with an evergreen-lined shore and other rain-gear-wearing students in the background.Jeff Erazo is a comparative literature major with a concentration in Spanish at Williams College. 

Jeff on his research: 

My policy research at Williams-Mystic allowed me to better understand sea-level rise in the greater NY-NJ metropolitan area — a place I call home. Being able to talk to stakeholders helped me understand how I can be more proactive in my community; I learned about many environmental groups in my area that I hope to join soon! This policy project also taught me the importance of listening — which is key to helping bridge competing interests between various stakeholders. 

Excerpt from the brief: 

Located in one of the nation’s most densely populated metropolitan areas, the New Jersey Meadowlands are one of the largest brackish estuarine systems in the northeastern United States. For decades, these wetlands were used as landfills, contaminated with toxic waste, and drained for urban development—the latter which has significantly reduced the size of the Meadowlands. … 

The Meadowlands will likely experience high-tide flooding in low-lying areas, even in the absence of storm surge due to sea level rise. Coupled with the projected six feet of SLR early in the next century, over 308,000 homes, 362,000 jobs, and 619 residents could potentially be inundated. The loss of life, homes, and businesses would be astronomical. The North Bergen Liberty Generating plant’s proposed site is located in a flood plain, right on the edge of the Hackensack; the Meadowlands, however, are unable to absorb storm surge from the Hackensack River. This is not solely a New Jersey problem, however. Rising sea levels threaten all coastal communities around the world.

Read the full brief here.

Towards Sustainable Native Hawaiian Access to Green Sea Turtle Take

By Colin Goodbred 

Image shows a grinning student sitting on the deck of a ship. He is holding up what appears to be a grill rack, and you can just barely see a large bucket in the foreground. Behind him, there is a series of coils of rope — lots of rope.Colin is a member of Dartmouth College class of 2021 and Williams-Mystic F’19. He is majoring in quantitative social science and minoring in philosophy, and he is interested in working at the intersection of science, government, and ethics, exploring how science can be used to inform ethical policymaking.

Colin on his research: 

Being able to do my own extensive policy research project at Williams-Mystic challenged me to interact directly with stakeholders – many with passionate beliefs on how to best protect their communities. Not only was I reading academic articles online, I was actually talking to people, hearing in their voices how much they cared about the environment, their culture, their livelihoods, and all of our futures. It was humbling to realize how many people have dedicated their lives to this issue, and while I cannot bring the expertise and lived experience to the issue that they can, I can offer my ability to listen and do my best to share their voices with others. 

An excerpt from the brief:

In May 2018, Native Hawaiian Bronson Nakaahiki was arrested for killing a green sea turtle and harvesting its meat, violating the Endangered Species Act as well as Hawaii state law. This arrest, one of several cases of harassing and killing sea turtles in 2018, intensified Native Hawaiian efforts to enact policy change and allow for the cultural practice of harvesting sea turtles, or honu as they are known in the Hawaiian language. Indeed, green sea turtle populations have recovered significantly recently, particularly in Hawaii, thanks to strict state and federal legal protections, but they have not yet reached the official benchmark set out by the National Marine Fisheries Service and the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1998 of 5,000 nesting green sea turtles per year. With the increasing abundance of sea turtles, more Native individuals are pushing for access to harvesting honu, which was considered a mythological guardian of children and was utilized in the form of meat, bones, and eggs for ceremonial events and subsistence until the listing of green sea turtles as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in 1978. I recommend the amendment of the Endangered Species Act to permit Native Hawaiians the ability to take endangered and threatened species, modeled off of the exception granted for Alaskan Natives, as well as the passage of a bill amending Hawaii Revised Statutes, Chapter 195D-4-E and Hawaii Administrative Rules 13-124-9 to decriminalize such take.

Read the full brief here.

The Future of Maine Aquaculture: Growth and Sustainability in Fish Farming

By Zach Arfa 

Image shows a grinning student holding a baby alligator. The gator's body is about a foot long; it's mouth is slightly open to reveal minute, razor-sharp teeth.Zach Arfa grew up in Shelburne Falls, MA and is a fourth year at Oberlin College. He studies Psychology and Dance and, thanks to Williams-Mystic, will put these skills to use in solving the environmental crisis after college.

Zach on his research: 

The policy project isn’t just an academic assignment, it was a chance for me to immerse myself into a real issue, with real stakes. It embodies Williams-Mystic’s philosophy, that learning should be engaged and experienced, not just passively absorbed. The project also builds the confidence and skills to be able to actually talk and interview stakeholders, again making it an experience not just of learning an issue but engaging one.

An excerpt from the brief: 

Through the comparison of two large scale, Atlantic Salmon, RAS aquaculture projects in Maine, I will propose a framework for comparing such aquaculture facilities to each other, and to other, traditional, facilities. This system will weigh three factors: impact on the environment, the community, and the economy. I will also compile the ways that governments can regulate this industry through existing legislation. Through these methods, communities across the country can evaluate and regulate the growth of this industry over the coming years.

These two projects are similar, but even though they are planned to be located only twenty-five miles apart, they have had different receptions from the local communities. The community of Bucksport has welcomed the Whole Oceans facility. The company promises to bring many local jobs to the small town, and the operation is being advertised as having a strong mind to conservation, with the Conservation Fund as their partner. The Nordic Aquafarms project in Belfast has seen more opposition. Wastewater has been a point of contention, as Nordic Aquafarms will discharge about 7.7 million gallons of water per day, which would increase outflow into the Penobscot Bay by 90% (Hinckley, S.). With this outflow comes a concern for eutrophication, the increase of nutrients into the water that can cause harmful algal blooms.

Read the full brief here.

 

Williams-Mystic Director Emeritus Jim Carlton warns of devastating effects of budget cuts on invasive species management

image shows a verdant coastal marsh, with a channel leading out to the ocean

Recent actions by the Trump Administration imperil the ability of federal agencies to fight the devastation wrought by invasive species.

That’s according to a letter published in the February 7 edition of Science and written by Williams-Mystic Director Emeritus Jim Carlton, along with coauthors from around the country.

Jim and his coauthors point to the staggering scale and scope of effects that invasive species can have — an impact that can be just as devastating as climate change. They argue that, with such wide-ranging impacts, invasive species must be managed at the federal level. And a recent 50% budget cut to the National Invasive Species Council, they say, “crippl[es] the ability of federal agencies to work with each other and with nonfederal stakeholders to address invasive species.”

You can read the letter in Science or view the PDF at this link.

A day ashore in St. John, USVI

Ashore on the US Virgin Islands, we experience the intersection of past and present, history and ecology

Here aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer, we kicked off February with a full day of science and sail handling. The trade winds gave each watch the opportunity to practice gybing the ship as land once again emerged on the horizon. To prepare for a field trip ashore, we diligently struck the sails and dropped anchor in Francis Bay on the island of St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands.

Picture shows a group of students arranged in a line behind a furled sail. They bend forward to pull the furled sail into a tight bundle. In the background, the masts rise out of the frame and into bright blue skies.

In the afternoon, students had to opportunity to go “up and over”: climbing up the port side rigging of Cramer’s foremast and down on the starboard side. Many said it was a highlight of their time at sea so far!

Students are also busy working in pairs on their science presentations, preparing reports and posters that interpret the incredible amount of scientific data we have collected during our time aboard.  When they’re not working on their poster presentations, they are rotating through small group tutorials in which they interpret these data (along with their newfound life at sea) through the lens of the humanities for a truly interdisciplinary learning experience.

Students stood Anchor Watch overnight, taking twice-hourly anchor bearings (in addition to the usual weather and boat checks) to ensure that the ship held its position. Excitement was high as we thought about what might await us onshore the next morning!

On Sunday after breakfast, we loaded into Cramer’s small boats and headed ashore for a wet landing on a pristine white sand beach.  Unlike the busy cruise ship port of its neighbor St. Thomas, St. John is a smaller, quieter island (just twenty square miles), mostly covered by the U.S. Virgin Islands National Park.

We hiked through the park, observing and sketching the tropical flora and fauna, to the ruins of Annaberg Sugar Plantation.  Students learned about the Triangular Trade, Middle Passage, and environmental degradation caused by sugar plantations in the Caribbean.  It was especially moving to read aloud Alphaeus Osario Norman’s poem “Amina Negros,” which chronicles the 1733 uprising of the Africans enslaved at Annaberg, where the events of the poem took place.

After Annaberg, we made our way down and along the shore to Waterlemon Cay, where students were briefed on coral reef biology and safety.  Then it was time to snorkel!  Students who had never snorkeled before got the hang of it quickly and were soon cruising the reef like pros, spotting a variety of corals, urchins, baby barracuda, grey snapper, and lots of tiny colorful reef fish.

We returned to Cramer, weighed anchor and by dark we were sailing, this time westward on a broad reach as the sun went down on another incredible day of the Williams-Mystic Offshore Field Seminar.


You can follow the Cramer’s progress here:

https://www.marinetraffic.com/en/ais/details/ships/shipid:426493/mmsi:366724450/imo:8617445/vessel:CORWITH_CRAMER

Please note that vessel tracking information is NOT updated continuously and the Cramer isn’t always able to provide updated location information. (Good reception isn’t a guarantee at sea!) If you notice that the Cramer appears to be in the same location for an extended period of time, it simply means the website has not yet been updated.

You can also look back at blog posts from previous Offshore Field Seminars here: https://williamsmystic.wordpress.com/category/field-seminars/offshore-field-seminar/.

Science, sketching, and life at sea

From learning to sketch as a mode of scientific observation to learning how to steer a ship, our offshore voyage is full of hands-on learning experiences.

January 31, 2020 

Another exciting couple of days at sea here on the Corwith Cramer!

Yesterday we had a sketching workshop led by Sketch Biologist and Williams-Mystic alumna Abby McBride (F’04). Abby’s work as a science communicator combines her love of biology and sketching. Even students who were unsure at first were soon eagerly sketching sails, coils of rope, and each other. Following class, B watch gathered with Abby for a small group tutorial, where they continued sketching and discussing the uses of drawing and careful observation.

Image shows a group of students on the deck of a ship. They are focused on their journals or on a woman who stands in front of them gesturing as she lectures

Wednesday night was another starry one. Ever since we turned to head toward the Virgin Islands, the Southern Cross had come into view. The watch schedule here — each of the three watch groups spends 6 hours on watch followed by 12 hours off — means that students get to see different times of day and night throughout the voyage. Though we take turns sleeping, the ship never sleeps; at least one eight– to nine-person watch group is always awake to steer, look out, sail, and collect scientific data.

Today, we completed our third and final Science Super Station. At 700 meters, today’s station was shallow enough to get a sample of cold, tan mud from the ocean floor. We also collected water from 12 different depths in the ocean, which we are currently analyzing for pH and chlorophyll-a, among other properties.

Image shows a group of students and faculty gathered around a bin filled with pale, gloopy mud. Behind them, you can see the side of a ship and beyond that, the water.

During yesterday’s science station, we lowered Styrofoam cups and a wig head down more than a mile (1,682.3 m) while collecting temperature and salinity data. We had carefully decorated the cups with sunsets, zooplankton, and mythical creatures before sending them down. Afterward, the cups were the size of thimbles due to the pressure in the deep sea. Some of our cups may even be placed on display at Mystic Seaport Museum’s upcoming exhibit on sailor art, which will open in June 2020!

Today’s academic class was an interdisciplinary look at “Ways of Knowing” taught jointly by Lisa, Kelly, and Abby.  We examined what it means to “know” something: Who has knowledge? How is knowledge acquired and how we use it? Each instructor offered examples from her experiences within her discipline. (The opening discussion question: “Before underwater cameras, how did we know what a live whale looked like?”) The class was interactive, with a kinesthetic exercise, drawing, and several discussions.

During class, we were fortunate to observe an enormous bait ball bobbing off the port side of the ship, first spotted by the swarm of seabirds (brown boobies and shearwaters). As we approached, we could see fish flying and flopping and feasting on the tiny baitfish, and even a shark cruising by to eat the bigger fish. The food web in action!

In nautical science class, we practiced gybing several times. A gybing ship shifts its sails so as to trace a zig-zag pattern in the direction of the wind — a pattern that allows it to gradually chart its course in the desired direction using only wind power to move forward. Just a few days ago, all the terms and tasks that go into gybing felt so foreign. Now, these maneuvers are starting to feel natural. We are starting to feel at home.


You can follow the Cramer’s progress here:

https://www.marinetraffic.com/en/ais/details/ships/shipid:426493/mmsi:366724450/imo:8617445/vessel:CORWITH_CRAMER

Please note that vessel tracking information is NOT updated continuously and the Cramer isn’t always able to provide updated location information. (Good reception isn’t a guarantee at sea!) If you notice that the Cramer appears to be in the same location for an extended period of time, it simply means the website has not yet been updated.

You can also look back at blog posts from previous Offshore Field Seminars here: https://williamsmystic.wordpress.com/category/field-seminars/offshore-field-seminar/.

Williams-Mystic S’20 Over the Puerto Rico Trench

On our third full day aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer, we are heading toward the Puerto Rico trench on calm water under a sky full of bright stars. Students are quickly learning the onboard routines and becoming valuable members of the crew.

January 29, 2020

Greetings from Williams-Mystic S’20! On our third full day aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer, we are heading toward the Puerto Rico trench on calm water under a sky full of bright stars.

Tuesday afternoon, we held classes on deck. Professor Kelly Bushnell led a discussion on the “greenhand” (nautical terminology meaning a newbie on a ship) experience in literature, such as Herman Melville’s Redburn (1849). In the finest tradition of maritime literature, many of us are also keeping a journal of the voyage; when not on watch, you can find us relaxing on deck, pen in hand.

In our nautical science class, Captain Heather and the mates taught us to set, strike, and furl sails.  Some were so heavy it took many of us to haul the line. Throughout the days and nights, we are standing watch on deck and in the lab, to sail the ship and collect oceanographic data, respectively. Students are quickly learning the onboard routines and becoming valuable members of the crew.

In the onboard science lab, students are analyzing hourly surface samples for pH levels, microplastics, and more with the help of three assistant scientists.  We learned how use the ship’s hydrowinch to deploy scientific equipment, and each watch completed a Neuston tow yesterday to collect whatever is drifting at the very surface of the water. Sargassum is easiest to see from the ship, but tiny zooplankton also end up in our net for analysis on board.  In particular, we had some beautiful siphonophores, which Maggie from Carnegie Mellon and Casandra from Bryn Mawr reported on in class Wednesday.

Leaning over the raining of a ship, four students stare into the water at a small, cylindrical net dangling from a rope just at the water's surface
Maggie from Carnegie Mellon, Alex from SUNY Maritime, and Jade from Skidmore deploy a phytoplankton net with Assistant Scientist Grayson.

For much of Wednesday, we were accompanied by a curious minke whale. Because it was so calm, and because she was so close, we could hear her breathing and see her fin.  She showed us her underside and criss-crossed under the hull multiple times. We watched in awe.


You can follow the Cramer’s progress here:

https://www.marinetraffic.com/en/ais/details/ships/shipid:426493/mmsi:366724450/imo:8617445/vessel:CORWITH_CRAMER

Please note that vessel tracking information is NOT updated continuously and the Cramer isn’t always able to provide updated location information. (Good reception isn’t a guarantee at sea!) If you notice that the Cramer appears to be in the same location for an extended period of time, it simply means the website has not yet been updated.

You can also look back at blog posts from previous Offshore Field Seminars here: https://williamsmystic.wordpress.com/category/field-seminars/offshore-field-seminar/.

S’20 Goes to Sea: Day 2 of the Offshore Field Seminar

Aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer, the class of spring 2020 has begun their offshore adventure in the Caribbean.

January 27, 2020

Greetings from Williams-Mystic aboard the Corwith Cramer! S’20 traveled from Mystic, CT to San Juan, Puerto Rico yesterday. We spent our first evening aboard and most of today getting to know the professional crew, learning about the ship, and doing safety drills.

S20_1a (1)
A group of students work on dock lines while, in the background, others put away the fenders used as we left the dock.

Many of the students are currently tucked into their bunks for a short nap before dinner. Others -— those on watch — are up on deck helping to set sails, steering the ship, collecting water samples and watching the weather. We have a gentle, easterly breeze and three-foot swells making for a comfortable ride as we sail out into deep blue waters.

Stay tuned for more updates from the Williams-Mystic Offshore Field Seminar!


You can follow the Cramer’s progress here:

https://www.marinetraffic.com/en/ais/details/ships/shipid:426493/mmsi:366724450/imo:8617445/vessel:CORWITH_CRAMER

Please note that vessel tracking information is NOT updated continuously and the Cramer isn’t always able to provide updated location information. (Good reception isn’t a guarantee at sea!) If you notice that the Cramer appears to be in the same location for an extended period of time, it simply means the website has not yet been updated.

You can also look back at blog posts from previous Offshore Field Seminars here: https://williamsmystic.wordpress.com/category/field-seminars/offshore-field-seminar/.

Welcome aboard, S’20!

Picture shows the ocean at sunset, the sky illuminated and brilliant and the gentle waves reflecting its light
A beautiful sunset from F’19’s offshore voyage, taken by F’19 student Johann Heupel.

Just last Monday, we said hello to our newest class: 18 students from across the country — and the world. Our spring students come to us from 13 different colleges and universities and represent 17 total majors.

On Sunday, S’20 kicked off their semester with a ten-day adventure aboard the SSV Corwith Cramer. Guided by our capable hosts at the Sea Education Association, Williams-Mystic faculty members Lisa Gilbert (S’96) and Kelly Bushnell, and Williams-Mystic Lab Manager Laurie Warren (S’89), S’20 will spend 10 days at sea learning the best way possible: through experience.

Want to follow along? Check this space for periodic updates from aboard the ship! You can also follow the Cramer’s progress here:

https://www.marinetraffic.com/en/ais/details/ships/shipid:426493/mmsi:366724450/imo:8617445/vessel:CORWITH_CRAMER

Please note that vessel tracking information is NOT updated continuously and the Cramer isn’t always able to provide updated location information. (Good reception isn’t a guarantee at sea!) If you notice that the Cramer appears to be in the same location for an extended period of time, it simply means the website has not yet been updated.

You can also look back at blog posts from previous Offshore Field Seminars here: https://williamsmystic.wordpress.com/category/field-seminars/offshore-field-seminar/.