Dr. Kristina Cammen is incredibly knowledgeable about the functions of the Gulf of Maine’s marine life — but isn’t afraid to work with others and acknowledge when she feels out of her depth.
In a free public discussion on Sept. 26, as part of the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions Talk Series, Cammen delivered a talk titled “Out of Our Depth: Interdisciplinary science for marine mammal conservation.” Her presentation detailed her journey from exploring Boothbay Harbor as a child to becoming an assistant professor of marine mammal science at the University of Maine. She also discussed the journey of both gray seals and harbor seals over the last five centuries.
“My goal for the talk today is to share with you a bit of my own story,” Cammen said. “[I will focus on] that moment in my career when I found myself out of my depth and needing other things beyond what I had been trained to do, and the importance of this moment in time for my research career and hopefully my contributions to marine mammal conservation.”
She juxtaposed her own personal journey and career story with that of seal populations in the Gulf of Maine.
As a child in Boothbay Harbor, Cammen observed idyllic scenes of seals thriving in Maine waters until moving to Maryland when she was five. She then went on to attend the University of Maryland for her undergraduate studies, but the landlocked institution without a marine sciences program led her to take every opportunity off campus that she could.
This resulted in Cammen’s internship at the Baltimore National Aquarium, helping to rehabilitate harbor seals who were stranded on the Maryland coast. She then obtained her master’s in zoology from the University of Cambridge in Cambridge, United Kingdom before getting a Ph.D. from the Duke University Marine Lab.
Moving back to Maine in 2014 not only helped Cammen build connections here at UMaine but also allowed her to further her research on seal populations and marine mammal health as a whole. She invited her audience to interact during the talk, instructing them to imagine their favorite place on the Maine coastline – some said Bar Harbor, Mount Desert Island or Port Clyde. Others shared that they could observe seeing seals, right whales, boats and lobster traps.
“Imagine that you are standing on that exact same spot 500 years ago,” Cammen said.
This led to the first big question of her presentation: how have seal populations in the Gulf of Maine changed over time?
To answer this question, Cammen searched the stacks of Fogler Library for historical archives and joined students in labs for scientific perspectives. A molecular ecologist herself, Cammen works closely with students to uncover the answers to pertinent questions like this one.
“[Students are a] huge part of the research that I do now,” Cammen explained.
She specifically referenced work by Julia Sunnarborg, Christina McCosker and Amanda Cruz. These students ethically gathered DNA samples from seal populations and examined seal immune systems to keep those populations stable.
The presentation was both informative on UMaine student opportunities and seal population history.
Cammen shared details about how Indigenous Maine tribes hunted seals for food and kept the population plentiful. Seals were a vital food source for these tribes 500 years ago, included in Wabanaki dishes and in their oral histories. European colonization led to the overhunting of seals.
In the modern day, the balancing act between preservation and overpopulation has been tenuous at best. Between 1888 and 1962, it’s estimated that over 100,000 seals were killed in Maine and Massachusetts. The Marine Mammal Protection Act was instrumental in allowing the harbor seal population to regrow. Gray seals experienced similar exponential growth in Canada. This leads to bioethical post-recovery concerns, including how to manage a recently recovered species to avoid overpopulation but maintain equilibrium. It’s here where Cammen says she feels out of her depth – hence the importance of teamwork and research to find the best answers.
Cammen credits the Marine Mammals of Maine organization for being the first responders for stranded and suffering marine life. The UMaine archaeology program worked closely with the Passamaquoddy tribe to access seal fossils for genetic testing. The organization created seal scientific teams from across multiple institutions and joined forces with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to help protect current seal populations and collect data, ensuring we have an accurate history of population cycles.
More of Cammen’s work can be observed at CammenLab.org. Two of her current graduate students, Julia Sunnarborg and Christina McCosker, are hosting a sustainability talk themselves, scheduled for Oct. 28.