Two new publications, appearing first online, detail every aspect of the coastal, marine areas of Muscongus Bay. Besides the specific information about one bay area, the two guides offer an outline for people in other estuaries, communities and organizations to do the same.

Both guides were produced under the auspices of the Quebec-Labrador Foundation/Atlantic Center for the Environment (QLF), based in Ipswich, Mass., with a marine program in Maine directed by Jennifer Atkinson of Friendship.

Each publication is beautifully designed and easy to read and both were just put up online in mid-June. While it’s an explanation for why an atlas was produced for Muscongus Bay, a quote from the introduction to the atlas could serve for both books:

“Although located at the midpoint of Maine’s long coastline, Muscongus Bay is not all that well known to many in New England or even Maine. It is often overshadowed by the much larger Penobscot Bay to the east and the much better studied Damariscotta River Estuary to the west. Those who live here (close to 23,000 year round), however, are passionate about its beauty, its ‘out of the way’ location, and its traditional, rural character.”

Seascapes not only offers detailed information about all natural aspects of Muscongus Bay, including everything from currents and algae blooms to humans and their livelihoods, but also gives readers an outline of how to seek and find the same levels of information about their own marine area.

“Before this guide, groups couldn’t make much progress in characterizing a marine area unless they hooked up with a larger institutional partner who could guide and direct the study, provide resources and help secure funding,” writes Atkinson in the preface.

Conducting a marine area characterization involves “finding, compiling and synthesizing and presenting information about an area of the ocean” with the intended purpose of telling “the natural and human story of a place by describing its historical and present-day character, including biology, ecology, geology, oceanography, chemistry, economy and human uses.”

She points out that not all the areas of the coastal sea command the same level of attention and interest from large funding organizations, even if they are “of tremendous interest and concern to those living in them.” Without a big funder, “even finding authoritative information about what a marine area characterization is can pose a formidable obstacle”

Some of the human impacts covered in Seascapes include tidal restrictions and barriers to fish passage, fisheries and fishing industries, marine research monitoring sites and facilities, logging, residential development, point source pollution and significant cultures sites including prehistoric, historical and current.

“We had no model for Seascapes,” said Atkinson. “We want to see how useful and used it will be. All our Maine resources could as easily be adapted to any of the states and provinces of the Gulf of Maine. It took a long time to find a lot of the data, but now, anyone can do it.”

Examples of uses for similar sets of information include the Friends of Taunton Bay assessing potential impacts of a new bridge that would allow larger fishing vessels into the bay. The ecological concerns raised by the group’s data prompted the state to close temporarily fishing by vessels dragging mobile gear.

The book covers everything from identifying the reasons to do a marine area characterization, deciding on the types of information to gather, setting up a storage system, considering whether to seek funding, finding and compiling existing information, identifying the gaps in available knowledge, determining how to fill the gaps, marshaling resources, analyzing the data through producing and sharing the findings. The book also contains an extensive bibliography to assist those who want to do further research.

A downloadable version of the  82-page book was made available online by mid-June from the QLF and Sea Grant websites, and possibly others. Besides QLF, support for Seascapes came from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment (GOMC), SeaGrant, the Davis Foundation, Maine Coastal Program, Surdna Andrus Foundation and the Wallis Foundation.

Atkinson and Stephen T. Engle, GIS director for QLF, produced the Muscongus Bay Atlas 2008, but the acknowledgments include a long list of fishermen, environmentalists, scientists, municipalities, academic and historical groups.

The atlas is “an experiment. In all our searches, we found nothing like it,” Atkinson said. “While a lot of GIS data changes, it’s the digital library that underlies the Atlas that is the true power behind it.”

Set up as one page of data describing the map that appears opposite it, the atlas covers commercial fisheries, with a special map for the lobster fishery; geology, the ocean floor and land terrain, kayaking areas, watersheds, sea level rise predictions, sailing areas, soils, population and housing growth, working waterfronts and more.

“For the Muscongus Bay region, this collection of maps gets us over the threshold and into new possibilities for using maps and digital data in local decision-making,” wrote Atkinson in the conclusion of the atlas. “It is a launching point from which we can begin to visualize and discuss our common issues and resources.”

Because the 50-page atlas with all its mapping information is a huge file, QLF will make it available in several formats. By mid-June it will available for viewing or downloading online, in its entirety, sections or images. It will also be printed and available as a book for $15, plus $5 shipping and handling.

Besides QLF, the atlas was funded by NOAA, the Birch Cove Fund of the Maine Community Foundation, Davis Conservation Foundation, Jessie B. Cox Charitable Trust, Knox County Fund of the Maine Community Foundation, Maine State Planning Office, Marshall Dodge Memorial Fund of the Maine Community Foundation, The French Foundation and University of Maine Cooperative Extension for Knox & Lincoln Counties.

As the introduction states, “The atlas is for anyone who has an interest in learning more about Muscongus Bay. It is also for people who like maps.”