Water Quality Research Suffers
said. He knew he could create an unparalleled
data set of water samples, one the state could use
to determine how well it was managing the
sound’s water quality.
Paerl and his colleague Joe Ramus at Duke
wrote a white paper for the N.C. Sea Grant pro-
gram in 1997, but no one paid much attention to
it until hurricanes Dennis, Floyd and Irene swept
through North Carolina waters in 1999. “We all
woke up to satellite images of the flooding down
east and a muddy Pamlico Sound on the front
page of The News & Observer,” Paerl said. “Then
people started calling me.”
In the aid package after Floyd, the N.C. Gen-
eral Assembly included funds for Paerl’s project,
which he called FerryMon — short for Ferry
Monitoring System. From early 2000 through
June 2011, three ferries that carried passengers
across the Pamlico Sound also carried water sam-
pling instruments below deck. Paerl provided
public access to all his findings and helped the state
manage the water quality of this large system.
Over the past decade, FerryMon has become
the model for monitoring systems across the
nation, including on the Delaware Bay, Long
Island Sound, Puget Sound and Nantucket Sound.
When Ernesto pounded the Neuse Estuary,
Paerl showed how fragile the ecosystem was and
how rapidly it could change due to nutrient
overloading. Fish and other sea life are sensitive
creatures. A little too much nitrogen — no matter where it comes from — can stimulate algae to
bloom and cause major damage.
But in June 2011, the General Assembly did
not include FerryMon in the state budget. So
Paerl can’t pay graduate students and technicians
to replace sensors or calibrate the instruments.
There’s no money to pay technicians to analyze
the samples or manage the mountains of data the
“The timing couldn’t have been worse,” he
said. A day after Hurricane Irene hit, the ferries
were on the water as usual, and though FerryMon’s instruments were still on board, Paerl
could collect only a few samples from one ferry
that crossed the Neuse Estuary, thanks to a small
National Science Foundation grant. The data
have proved inconclusive. The state has lost its
best method for measuring the health of an
ecosystem that’s home to the largest fish nursery
on the Eastern Seaboard.
According to a state mandate, there can be no
more than 40 micrograms of chlorophyll A per
liter of water in estuaries. The FerryMon data set
was the best way to determine whether that criterion was being met.
“We have very little idea what Hurricane
Irene did to the Pamlico Sound last summer,”
Paerl said. “And that’s really a shame because if
you want to look at water quality trends you need
a continuous set of data over the course of years.”
Paerl hopes to regain funding. At 64, he’s now
part of the old guard at UNC’s Institute of
Marine Sciences, though he’s lost little passion.
He’d rather be on the water, but he spends a fair
amount of time trying to get FerryMon back on
line for 2012.
“You should know I’m a pit bull when it
comes to this stuff.”
— Mark Derewicz
now is online only.
Along with this feature
are these current
Carol Cheatham studies
the impact of nutrients
babies get in the womb:
Social scientist Neal
Caren is keeping tabs
on Facebook and the
To study pain sensitivity,
researchers have to
recruit volunteers and
inflict pain upon them:
CHILD WITH ELECTRODES: USED
WITH PERMISSION, SALISBURY
POST ©2012; OCCUPY: MARK
DEREWICZ; MANDIBLE: GRAY’S
Paerl, a Distinguished Professor at the Institute of
Marine Sciences, was honored with the Odum
Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Coastal
and Estuarine Research Federation in August 2011.