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From Sea Soup to Casco Bay

For Mary Cerullo, writer and community advocate, every effort counts

By Laura Ferguson

Mary Moore Cerullo, J71, was passionate about the ocean long before she arrived in Maine. Growing up in landlocked Andover, Massachusetts, she was awestruck by Jacques Cousteau. "I had determined when I was 13 that I would be an 'oceanologist,' " says Cerullo. "It took me a year to realize that was not the word . . . it was oceanographer! But by then I was hooked."

Cerullo is still hooked on her first love. She is the author of eight children's books on marine biology including award-winners on the coral reef, the octopus, lobsters and sharks. The books combine text with stunning photos by leading underwater photographers. Her most recent collaboration, Sea Soup (Tilbury House), with extraordinary photographs by Bill Curtsinger, looks at the world of phytoplankton and engages students with Cerullo-style chapter titles such as: "How many phytoplankton does it take to fill a humpback whale?"

Cerullo's creative advocacy for the ocean also has a wide public reach in her role as associate director of Friends of Casco Bay (FOCB). Founded in 1989, the South Portland, Maine, nonprofit is built on the principle behind the community-based BayKeeper Program, that citizen action augments and encourages government regulatory agencies.

Cerullo sees a natural connection between her two careers. "I always try to include in the books some positive action that kids can take; I leave it upbeat so that they know there is a future. In my public outreach work, it's the same kind of education. It's a message we included in our annual report this year when we featured a quote from Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can make a difference. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has."

Tufts gave Cerullo a strong start in marine advocacy. A double major in geology and biology, she also worked on a University of Rhode Island research vessel, carried out fieldwork in the Bahamas, ran her own geology lab during senior year, and volunteered at the New England Aquarium, where she also got her first job, and later at Thompson Island Education Center.

In 1981, Cerullo and her husband, Arthur Cerullo, E69, G71, a lawyer, moved to South Portland, where they raised a son and a daughter. In 1993, Cerullo wrote her first book, Sharks: Challengers of the Deep, with photographs by Jeff Rotman. "Jeff and I had written articles for magazines, and we decided to write a children's book about sharks because it was a way to demystify them and bring in current research," she says. They also wrote The Truth About Great White Sharks, which addressed negative shark stereotypes. Cerullo took her own shark research seriously, scuba diving in the Bahamas among Caribbean reef sharks "to make sure for myself that they were not these horrible creatures, that they are cool. And they are!"

Cerullo has gone on to write other children's science books. "I enjoy taking complex topics and translating them into a middle-school level," she says. "You take a topic and break it into bite-size pieces and still convey large amounts of information." The same principle holds true in shaping healthy attitudes toward the environment, she adds. "Kids can feel that issues are way too big for them, but small incremental actions can have a cumulative impact that can be staggering."

Cerullo joined FOCB in 1990. Known as "The Voice of Casco Bay," FOCB is one of 40 BayKeeper programs around the nation. Yet while many other organizations, such as those in California, New York and New Jersey, are confronted by massive challenges that often provoke legal action, the Maine FOCB has not had to rely on lawsuits and fines to bring polluters into compliance. Rather, it has evolved into a model for developing and implementing marine resource stewardship through collaboration.

Cerullo credits the organization's success in part to BayKeeper Joe Payne, the seventh keeper in the nation, whom she describes as a "friendly watchdog, gracious but tenacious, who will not let waterfront businesses, government agencies and their stakeholders gloss over problems that threaten water quality."

At the same time, the organization's message is delivered through a "work with" approach that is sensitive to the culture of the region. "We're 'practical Yankees,' " she says with a laugh. "If you think you can come to Maine and presume you know everything, you aren't going to get anywhere at all! Mainers are independent people, but they are willing to work on the right thing."

Indeed, Maine takes pride in its coastline and benefits greatly from tourism. Many who admire its beauty choose to stay, people, not unlike the Cerullos, who seek its slower pace while still close to the cultural variety of Portland. They are attracted, in no small measure, by Casco Bay's sheltered coves, tree-covered islands, rocky ledges and beaches that include some 229 square miles of water, hundreds of islands, and 578 miles of shoreline.

As a consequence, population pressures on these resources have soared in recent years. The Bay's watershed is home to more than 25 percent of Maine's population living on just 3 percent of the state's land. This kind of development has led FOCB to develop a major public education campaign that promotes homeowner responsibility regarding the use of lawn pesticides and fertilizers.

"Development issues are enormous, particularly around fertilizers, because they run off into the Bay and create nutrient-rich waters that essentially deplete oxygen and suffocate the marine life," explains Cerullo. "In fact, 60 percent of water pollution is from polluted runoff, and a good deal of that is from residences. So what we are trying to do is change behaviors. We don't say we are anti-development, but we do what we can to make sure growth is not impacting the Bay. We recently held a workshop at L.L. Bean in Freeport where we had four speakers and 15 exhibitors related to environmentally safe landscaping and 200 people showed up. That's pretty good for a Wednesday night! Now they may be the choir, but they were armed with information to preach to their neighbors."

FOCB has raised environmental consciousness in other ways as well. Staff and volunteers sample water quality at 106 stations and have sampled shellfish beds for fecal coliform for the Department of Marine Resources. When dredging of Portland Harbor was being planned, FOCB, working with stakeholders representing industrial, environmental and regulatory interests and lobster harvesters, developed a plan to relocate threatened lobsters prior to dredging. After scientists and harvesters trapped 34,000 crustaceans, volunteers donated nearly 400 hours to measure and tag them and record data.

Another effort is a pumpout program. The first year, FOCB pumped out 15 boats; this year the count was 650. Pumping the holding tanks of recreational vessels diverted more than 13,000 gallons of raw sewage from Casco Bay.

As FOCB completes its tenth year, Cerullo is optimistic. Its $400,000 annual operating budget supports a staff of seven. A volunteer force of 125 and an active board of 20 directors provide critical support and guidance.

And, citing the big picture of environmental stewardship, she sees reason for hope. "When I first got into marine conservation back in the 1970s, the end of the world was predicted. We have come a long way since then. We have witnessed success stories, such as Boston Harbor.

"There are creative solutions. People just have to believe that the problems are serious, and here in Maine, many people do. We believe that the character of our region is shaped by Casco Bay and take responsibility for our blessings and our challenges. As a result, we've seen the return of clam flats and swimming beaches. Those are signs that we're doing something right."

   

 

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