A fence blocks off access to an aging pier at University of Maine's Darling Marine Center on the Damariscotta River. The center is getting $3 million to rebuild the pier and an adjacent boat ramp, and to upgrade the research facility's flowing seawater lab. Credit: Bill Trotter

SOUTH BRISTOL, Maine — Marine researchers face enough logistical challenges when it comes to collecting and interpreting data from the sea. Getting to and from shore shouldn’t be one of them.

At University of Maine’s Darling Marine Center, however, loading people and gear onto research vessels in the Damariscotta River has become more of a challenge over the past few years since they had to severely restrict the use of their main pier, which was built in 1969.

One glance at the underside of the pier and it is easy to see why land access to the pier has been fenced off. There are gaping holes, big enough to stick your hand through, in the support I-beams underneath the pier’s decking.

“They are highly corroded,” Heather Leslie, Darling’s director, said last week.

Credit: Bill Trotter

The center is in the planning phase of a $3 million upgrade, which will include rebuilding the boat ramp next to the water, renovating the center’s flowing seawater laboratory, and upgrading the pump system that provides water from the tidal river to the lab. Darling officials hope to complete all portions of the project by late 2019 or early 2020.

Darling staff and students have been using another pier built a few yards away just last year, but that pier cannot accommodate vehicles and does not reach deep water at low tide. As a result, all gear has to be carried onto this pier by hand and, if the tide is out, then ferried out to a research vessel on its mooring, Leslie said. When students are at the center, and when they are headed out to research projects on the water, the process of getting everyone and everything back and forth to shore can be quite cumbersome.

“They are out on the water five days a year,” Leslie said.

The Darling center property, a former farm that was donated to UMaine in the mid-1960s by Ira C. Darling, attracts not only researchers and students but also members of the public who are free to use more than 3½ miles of wooded walking trails that spread throughout the 170-acre property, Leslie said.

But the primary focus of the property has been and will continue to be for use as a marine research facility, she added. Among its many projects is the collection of data with research buoys moored in the tidal Damariscotta River, where center-initiated research has blossomed into a vibrant oyster aquaculture industry. More recently, the center has been providing technical assistance and information to startups hoping to establish viable scallop and baby eel aquaculture companies.

The startup entities, through the center’s Aquaculture Business Incubator, use the center’s flowing seawater lab to try to develop growing techniques that, if they initially seem viable, can then be tested elsewhere at a greater scale, Leslie said.

But the space is dated and still has several exposed steel components that are susceptible to corrosion in the lab’s humid, salty air. The renovation will remove all exposed steel, expand upon the availability of seawater piping in the lab, and produce more options to control variables for incoming seawater such as temperature, acidity levels and filtration.

“This is the bread and butter of the operation,” Leslie said, adding that the seawater lab is key to the center’s collaborative marine research with communities and private companies. “This place is open 365 days a week. The seawater never stops flowing.”

The rebuilt pier, which will include some of the original structure, and a new boat ramp together are projected to cost $1.7 million. The renovation of the flowing seawater lab will cost another $1 million, while upgrading the pump system between the new pier and the lab is expected to cost $250,000.

Half of the expected overall $3 million price tag for the improvements will be paid through a federal matching grant. The other half will be covered with $650,000 approved in 2014 in a statewide marine bond, and with $850,000 from campus reserve funds.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....