Northeastern’s award-winning coastal research campus in Massachusetts faces public vote

NAHANT, Mass. Northeastern students Jaxon Derow and Sahana Simonetti gather mussels for a research project at Northeastern’s Marine Science Center.
NAHANT, Mass. Northeastern students Jaxon Derow and Sahana Simonetti gather mussels for a research project at Northeastern’s Marine Science Center. For ecological forecasters at the center, mussels act as a barometer of climate change, and help researchers understand changing biodiversity in the Gulf of Maine. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The residents of Nahant, Mass. will vote this weekend on whether to seize part of the property where Northeastern’s Marine Science Center conducts vital, cutting-edge research to improve the sustainability of coastal communities facing the effects of climate change. 

As coastal communities face increasingly complex threats, such as flooding due to storm surge and rising sea levels, deteriorating water quality, and over-fishing, the center has been an active partner in developing sustainable solutions.

Northeastern plans to expand the center, located at the tip of a small peninsula that juts into Massachusetts Bay, to provide researchers with state-of-the-art tools and facilities to enhance the impact of this critically important work.

But some residents oppose the expansion on the property, a former military base that Northeastern has owned since 1967, and a public vote is scheduled to decide whether to acquire roughly eight acres of Northeastern-owned space though eminent domain.

“There’s a reason why humans have made their living on the coast for millenia, and we’re now reaching a tipping point where our adverse impacts on coastal ecosystems is really jeopardizing our ability to do so,” says Geoffrey Trussell, vice president of the Nahant campus and chair of the Department of Marine and Environmental Sciences.

Researchers in Nahant have studied the flood risks from human-made alterations to rivers, developed robotic mussels to understand the effects of rising ocean temperatures, and found innovative ways to monitor ocean plastics. The facility is also home to the Ocean Genome Legacy, a repository of more than 25,000 marine DNA and tissue samples built to preserve species that may one day go extinct.

Expanding the university’s Coastal Sustainability Institute will add more trans-disciplinary researchers to address the threats facing coastal communities. “Multiple, interacting threats are manifesting on the world’s coastlines,” says Trussell. “And that makes it difficult to solve any one problem in isolation.”

Northeastern plans to hire 20 faculty members who have extensive knowledge in biogeochemistry, shoreline protection, and ecological and evolutionary genomics, to respond to a variety of environmental challenges.

The Marine Science Center distinguishes itself with stakeholder-driven research, an issue that has become more urgent over the years as scientists often fail to adequately engage with stakeholders to understand what their needs are. The issue is key for marginalized or impoverished communities that are often on the front lines of environmental disasters.

“Without that level of partnership, you can create all the knowledge you want, but if you don’t have buy-in from the stakeholders, you’re not going to be able to implement solutions,” Trussell says. 

The center has been working with the office of U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton to engage fishermen frustrated by regulatory quotas on harvesting cod, key to the fishermen’s livelihoods. The center is using science to inform the regulatory agencies how to improve quota development for the benefit of fishers and fish stocks.

The town of Nahant, as a coastal community perched on land exposed to the full force of the powerful storms that are frequent in Massachusetts, is a beneficiary of the center’s work, especially as the effects of climate change are hitting closer to home.

A 2015 study found that the Gulf of Maine, the waters that extend from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia, has been the fastest-warming body of water on earth, which has had negative consequences for lobsters that prefer colder water. Black Sea bass that were once limited to the south of Cape Cod now have well-established populations north of Cape Cod, resulting in a shifting of underwater species.

“The warming of the Gulf of Maine is facilitating a wholesale transition in the ecosystem in terms of where species are distributed and possibly the capacity of certain species to maintain populations,” Trussell says.

In April, Nahant’s three-member Board of Selectmen unanimously approved a motion to bring the property-taking up for a public vote. It would allow Nahant to use Community Preservation Act taxes to enact eminent domain and declare the Northeastern property a wildlife preserve, protecting it from future development.

Two-thirds approval at Nahant’s annual Town Meeting on Saturday is required for the eminent domain authorization to pass. The selectmen still have to decide to go through with taking the property. Some Nahant residents aren’t sold on the idea.

In an April letter to the Lynn Item, a local newspaper, 10 residents say eminent domain is risky and could cost taxpayers.

“The town of Nahant will owe Northeastern for ‘damage or loss or expense’ under the law even if a purchase never happens,” the residents wrote. “In the meantime, the town’s infrastructure is collapsing, sea levels are rising around this island community, and taxes keep going up.”

In response to residents’ concerns, Northeastern has committed to a series of enhancements to Nahant’s unique coastal and marine resources. It pledged to restore the habitat to the east of Murphy Bunker, currently dominated by invasive species, to promote greater biodiversity. And it has also offered to place a conservation restriction to permanently prevent future development of space east of the bunkers.

The restriction would take effect following the completed expansion of the Marine Science Center.

“Our work on coastal ecosystems is on the front lines of where this collision between humanity and nature is taking place,” says Trussell. “Our ultimate goal is to create solutions that promote clean, safe, smart, and equitable communities.”

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