In his unassuming way, Sandy Sage doesn’t look like the Bigelow Labs boss. But the quiet, friendly manner of this executive scientist mirrors the spirit of this 30-year old research center, where you can wear shorts and flip-flops so long as you rigorously pursue excellence in all things oceanographic.
The work includes studies on climate change, lobsters and other fisheries, and “the heart of what we’ve done, looking at these invisible armies of organisms that recycle material, that clean up the wastes that are in the ocean, that turn out to be incredibly important for the future, for their benefit to mankind,” Sage said.
If you’re wondering about this, consider that oceans cover 71 per cent of the world’s surface, and that’s 94 per cent of all water on earth. “When you talk about the living space on earth, and the whole ocean down to the bottom, in the air above the land and oceans – when you put it altogether, 97 per cent of all the living space on earth is in the oceans. And if we start to think of what our future should be, in terms of new opportunities for creation of food and all sorts of things, it’s got to be places where things live. The oceans are going to be more and more important to us.”
A relaxed sense of teamwork combines with progress on projects that could preserve the fishery, protect marine habitat, and make life better for all species – including us. On a planet mostly covered by salt water, Bigelow’s work could provide ways to fight global pollution, feed the global population and prevent disease.
Bigelow uses several buildings leased from the Maine Department of Marine Resources on McKown Point in West Boothbay Harbor, but for some years has envisioned a home of its own. In June, the nonprofit lab bought 67 deepwater acres across in East Boothbay. It spent $2.5 million for the land, and plans to raise $15 million to build a new lab.
The new site and facility should go a long way toward establishing Bigelow’s identity, often mistakenly considered part of the Department of Marine Resources next door. A national symposium voted Bigelow one of three organizations that have, in the past 50 years, contributed most to important discoveries in oceanography. Bigelow provided the technology, insight and knowledge to convert ocean color to a measure of chlorophyll. Satellite images allow measurement of chlorophyll concentrations (phytoplankton) around the world. The other two organizations named as influential were Columbia University and Scripps Oceanographic Institute. “In 50 years of conducting oceanography, it came out at this meeting that we have only looked at five percent of the world’s oceans,” he said. “If we’re going to be responsible for the health of these oceans, we need a better way to look at it. This is really the first measure of biological productivity in the ocean, and that all happened here, so it’s an exciting step.”
Using Bigelow technology, Sage displayed a world map. “We’re not known in Maine as well, but on an international level, we’re incredibly well known,” he said. Where most of Bigelow’s funding comes from taxpayers, he believes it’s important to get the word out locally.
“We’re hoping to double the size of the lab. We’ll be able to create a whole lot of new jobs,” said Sage, who won some financial help from a statewide bond issue passed by voters in June.
Bigelow already employs 50 people. Sage hopes to see students of all ages involved with the lab, as visitors and research assistants. The lab will be designed to allow the same comfortable atmosphere Bigelow already has among its staff, and through open houses and an open-door policy, with the public.
Sage believes that conviviality and openness is key to a successful lab, and the new building will contain spaces for informal conversation or a cup of coffee with a colleague.
Locals see Bigelow – if they notice it at all – as a quiet neighbor, but it’s not always welcomed with open arms. The lab was thwarted in efforts to develop property on nearby Southport Island when island residents feared too much bridge traffic and loss of residential character. The lab has owned the donated Southport property for 27 years, but now plans to sell it.
Sage talks about the ocean providing a host of benefits to mankind. Scientists predict “up to 50 per cent of cancer-fighting drugs will come from (marine) organisms … in the next 25 years,” Sage said. He believes Bigelow will play a dominant role in this work.
Bigelow also works on greenhouse gases. “We know that 50 per cent of the carbon dioxide released to the environment goes into the surface of the ocean and is then captured by some of these forms that create some of the red tides, the big blooms that occur in the Gulf of Maine.”
Bigelow has developed a mobile unit – it fits on a truck – that can be put aboard the 550-foot ferry SCOTIA PRINCE. It’s filled with computers and other high-tech instruments. As the ferry crosses the Gulf of Maine, the unit samples the sea, gathering useful data and identifying organisms. The lab has created a spinoff business producing the patented units and selling them to customers such as water companies and pharmaceutical corporations. The units can detect toxins in the water, even cancer cells. No one else is producing the units, Sage said.
Sage joined Bigelow eight years ago. Before that, he had spent years mounting a massive, well-funded and successful effort to save a dying Chesapeake Bay that was already driving hordes of crabs ashore, starved for oxygen. He moved to Philadelphia where he worked to develop eco-tourism (environmentally sensitive tourism) for Mongolia in the area around Lake Baikal, which contains 22 per cent of the world’s freshwater supply (all of the Great Lakes together comprise 18 per cent). “You can’t just look at the science. You have to look at the cost to people. You have to understand the economic consequences of whatever we do to conserve. On the Chesapeake, in those early days, they were just like armed camps. We really put the issues out there. Unless you have hard scientific data, it’s very difficult to get people to accept a hypothesis if you can’t really prove it.”
On the Chesapeake, Sage developed a nutrient control strategy, without which algae was killing the oyster industry. He was involved in getting Maryland to ban netting egg-laden striped bass heading upriver to spawn, and within a year of the ban, the bass made a startling comeback.
An optimist, Sage said “we are learning new things all the time, and people are becoming more aware. Here, we’re starting to understand more about the ecological linkages that we are going to have to incorporate into our fisheries management strategies. Right now, my interpretation of ecological fisheries management is different from another scientists, even. We’ve got to come to a common ground, and we’re learning more about that. Everyone believes that we should be doing that. We just don’t know what it really entails.”