“We had 164 active volunteers involved in Baywatchers this year, which is just below our all-time record for volunteer support. That’s pretty amazing given the fact that this was the year of the coronavirus,” said Tony Williams, the Coalition’s director of monitoring programs. “The dedication of our volunteers made this an excellent season, and I’m truly grateful.”
[Watch the Baywatchers at work and hear their perspectives on the annual monitoring effort in this video by Molly Antone—Ed.]
The program’s 29th consecutive year began with the entire state on lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, and it was not clear that it would be possible to run the program.
Public health restrictions on gatherings of 10 or more people ruled out the group training sessions that typically ensure new volunteers and returning Baywatchers are prepared to go out and measure water temperature, salinity, water clarity, and dissolved oxygen, and record general weather conditions.
In addition, during the shutdown that extended through the spring, it was not clear that the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), where water samples are analyzed to determine the levels of nitrogen and chlorophyll in the Bay, would be able to accept and test the samples.
“In March and early April, we were gathering the supplies and preparing our equipment while trying to figure out whether we would be able to go forward,” Williams said.
They adapted. The in-person training program became a training video, supplemented by one-on-one sessions at the Coalition’s new Science and Field Operations Center in Marion. All equipment pick-ups and most sample drop-offs took place at the Center, too—with masks and appropriate distances maintained. And critically, the MBL committed to conducting the analysis, with a “contact-less” drop-off and sanitation system that was worked out for the 200 samples delivered for each nutrient monitoring session.
“The first few days, it took us longer to get every step of the process done as we got the new system figured out and then it became a lot more efficient,” Williams said. The proof lies in the more than 3,000 measurements that were collected from the end of May through late September.
Baywatcher volunteers collect measurements and samples at 140 locations. The remaining 60 test sites around the Bay and Vineyard Sound are collected by Coalition staff and by the staff for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.
The ability to complete this year’s monitoring—without dropping locations or collection dates—sustains this critical resource for information on the Bay’s health that local, state and federal government decision-makers rely upon. The data collected through the program produces the Bay Health Index, which scores the health of harbors and coves, from 0 to 100. In this case, more is better.
“The more data that you collect, the more accurate you can be in interpreting the conditions of the water. It improves the reliability of the analysis that results,” he said. “It’s important that we are able to be reasonably consistent from year to year with the amount of data that we collect. It provides information that scientists use for their work and that communities need to make decisions and solve problems.”
“The fact that we were able to get it done this year, despite all the challenges, is a real testament to all our volunteers. At times, it might have felt a little less personal, since we haven’t been able to get together as a group, but everyone’s interest and commitment has been great,” Williams said. “We’re very grateful for their efforts, which really do make a difference.”