Monday, August 22, 2016

With Friends Like These: An Old Friend in Central Falls High School

By Bridget Kubis Prescott, Director of Education

Save The Bay long ago recognized that if we are to fulfill our mission to protect and improve Narragansett Bay, we’d have to reach deep into a new community of supporters—the hearts and minds of young people, school children, who would one day become keepers of our beautiful Bay. Our education program has since evolved from isolated classroom presentations into rich integrated experiences with entire grades, schools and school districts. The success of these programs is rooted in strong partnerships that begin with relationships with individual teachers and grow over time. 

An Old Friend in Central Falls High School 
Our nearly 15-year partnership with Central Falls High School paints the perfect picture of the evolution of our school-based education programs. In 2002, Central Falls High School AP biology teacher Joanne Greenleaf knew her students needed the kind of education experience that would generate excitement in learning, get them out of the classroom, and give them opportunities to learn with their hands rather than textbooks. She pounded the pavement to raise money on her own, through friends and family, and even a stranger at the grocery store, to bring her classes out on a marine science cruise aboard our education vessel M/V Alletta Morris

This single experience was life changing for Greenleaf’s students, and it inspired the way we approached partnering and working with teachers. It was the seed that has evolved into one of our signature education programs—Narragansett Bay Field Studies. Greenleaf has since left Central Falls High School but the legacy of the program and partnership she began with us has continued in the work of other teachers and school administrators. 

“The field studies program with Save The Bay gave us such strong evidence of the positive impacts of environmental education that it became the foundation we used to develop the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) Academy at Central Falls High School,” said Joshua Laplante, past principal of Central Falls’ STEM Academy. “The Save The Bay partnership was prioritized not only at the school level, but also at the district level, because of the great influence it had on student development,” he said. 

The Narragansett Bay Field Studies program has become a formally adopted and integrated part of the Central Falls School District curriculum, complete with an internship and summer camp for high school students. AP biology classes meet with Save The Bay educators at Lonsdale Marsh as many as 18 times each school year to evaluate four big indicators of ecosystem health. They collect water samples and test for dissolved oxygen, salinity, nitrogen and phosphorus levels and more. They put on waders and boots and head into the river with kicknets to see what crustaceans, worms and aquatic insects are present at different times of the year. They record the different types of vegetation, aquatic animals, birds and land mammals they see. And they assess human impacts by measuring sound pollution and trash found in the area. 

“It’s one thing to teach environmental science with case studies, simulations and videos, but to have students knee-deep in water in their own community, testing it for nutrients and pollutants, and analyzing the data they collect makes the level of awareness and impact so much greater,” said science teacher Laura Stanish. 

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Sights and Sounds of Swim Day

By Matt Vieira, Social Media and Marketing Manager

I wipe the sleep out of my eyes; it's 3 a.m. on August 13, 2016. Far too early for even Rhode Island's favorite morning companion, Dunkin, to be open. I pack the car and head down to Newport. Today is the best day of the year for a Save The Bayer. It's the day of the #Big40Swim!

As a non-swimmer this year, I had a multitude of land duties. My first task, when arriving on the Newport side of the swim, was to help with the unloading of kayaks. A task that went exceedingly smooth, if I do say so myself...ok, I won't take all the credit, we had some incredible volunteers doing the heavy lifting to make sure kayak unloading and inspection was a success. After all 200-something kayaks were unloaded and inspected, I spun my hat around and got into social media mode. I took to my iPhone to see what was happening on the #Big40Swim hashtag across Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. To my surprise, we had dozens of posts from anxious swimmers ready to get started! In my joyous mood, I generously gave out retweets and continued on to document the start of the Swim.

I grabbed my camera bag from my car, assembled my DSLR and headed out to grab candids from swimmers climbing into the water. The start of the swim, whether freezing my toes off in the water as a swimmer or in my capacity this year as a photo taker, has a joyus feeling in the air. Swimmers are so ready to tackle the Swim that many are seen in the waters of Narragansett Bay an hour before the start.

After the cannon sounds, and the first wave of swimmers takes off for their Jamestown destination, I quickly stop Save The Bay's Periscope feed, pack up my camera, hop in my car and drive over to the finish line in Jamestown. The drive over the bridge is bittersweet. Usually my journey to Jamestown is a little more... well, wet. Hundreds of swimmers charging across the vast East Passage from atop the Pell Bridge is a sight to behold, one I don't usually get to see. It gives me motivation to rejoin the swimmers next year.

Once I reach the finish, I only have minutes before the first swimmers start crossing the finish line. I park my car, jump out with my drone and DSLR and begin my sprint down to the water. Once in the water, I am able to do a little more live streaming as well as congratulate swimmers as they pass me. What an accomplishment for these dedicated athletes!

I have been participating in Swims, either as a swimmer or as a staffer and sometimes a little of both, since 2012. That makes the #Big40Swim my fifth since joining the Save The Bay team. For those not familiar, the Swim consists of 40+ Staff, 500 swimmers, 200 kayakers and around 200 volunteers. With that many moving parts spread across the Bay, at two land locations, and in an auxiliary parking lot, to see it all come together first-hand is amazing. Everyone has a job, and everyone performs their job beyond expectations to create a day that is a celebration of the Narragansett Bay! Everyone from the kayak inspectors to the swimmers getting out of the water in Jamestown are buzzing with excitement the day of the Swim. Everyone rallies around a clean and healthy Bay, but it wasn't always that way.

Yes, the Swim is Save The Bay's largest fundraiser, but at the end of that day, it's much more than that. It's a showcase for a healthy bay. It shows how far the Bay has come since the inception of the Save The Bay Swim 40 years ago. In the early years, swimmers came out of the water covered in oil and tar balls. Now they report seeing fish swimming right below them! Swimmers and kayakers don't just celebrate finishing the 1.7-nautical-mile journey, they celebrate a clean Bay. And over these 40 years, their dedication and determination have made a huge difference. 

For photos from the #Big40Swim visit our Facebook or Flickr page.

Monday, August 15, 2016

New Tropical Traveler at The Exploration Center and Aquarium

By Adam Kovarsky, Aquarium Manager and Educator

A new tropical traveler has found its way to our aquarium! Brycen Vallancourt, Save The Bay camper and Exploration Center visitor, caught a small webbed burrfish while exploring the waters near Ocean Drive in Newport, Rhode Island on Wednesday, August 3rd. Brycen is no stranger to tropical strays. In fact, last summer he caught a short bigeye at Third Beach which has been living in the aquarium ever since. Our new fish is about the size of a quarter, and has been a great addition to our exhibits at the Exploration Center. Tropical strays such as these usually travel up to the Narragansett Bay through the warmer waters of the Gulf Stream current, and sometimes get stuck in the Bay as the water temperature cools down during the winter months. We try to catch as many of these tropical fish as we can so they are not left struggling to survive the harsh conditions of the winter Bay.

Sightings of tropical fish such as these are just another sign that the waters in the area are warming up due to climate change. With increased levels of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere, a “heat trapping blanket” surrounds the Earth and keeps sunlight and warmer air at the surface of the planet. This, in turn, creates warmer waters and leads to more tropical stray sightings further north. Our new "Bay of the Future" exhibit has become home to many of the strays we have here in the aquarium.

Come check out the Webbed Burrfish at our Exploration Center and Aquarium. He shares a tank with a band-tailed pufferfish, another tropical stray we have not seen for about 5 years!

Brycen participated in Save The Bay's after school program with Pell Elementary School this past year and will be attending BayCamp in Newport at Ft. Adams.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

RiverKeeper Blog: Getting out Ahead of Invasive Species

By Rachel Calabro, Save The Bay RiverKeeper

If you've ever driven by a pond that's covered with thousands of little triangular leaves so thick you think you could walk across them, you've seen the Water Chestnut - an invasive species that's wreaking havoc for our native plants and fish.

This summer, Save The Bay has been working with local residents in Rehoboth, Massachusetts to remove invasive water chestnut from Shad Factory Pond. Water Chestnut is an annual plant that is rooted in the pond bottom and has floating leaves and small white flowers. Large black nuts form under the surface and have very sharp barbs that can stick to animals and can float downstream. The nuts stay viable in the sediment for up to 12 years, and each nut can produce 10-15 plants, so you can see how hard it is to eliminate this plant once it gets established in a waterbody.

Thick mats of floating water chestnut leaves can take over in ponds and slow moving rivers by shading out other plants and reducing oxygen in the water. It spreads rapidly and displaces native species. The most common method for removal is to hand-pull the plants in mid-summer before the nuts fall. This hand-pulling is hard work, but over several years can effectively limit the spread of the plant. When the problem gets too big for volunteers, mechanical harvesters are often used to pull plants on a large scale.

Water Chestnut is of particular concern on Shad Factory Pond because the Palmer River is an important fish run for herring and shad. Save The Bay is beginning a study this summer in partnership with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries to study spawning habitat in the pond. We are looking at dissolved oxygen, water clarity, pH, nutrients and spawning substrate to see if there is enough suitable habitat for fish. In addition to the water chestnut, other invasive plants including milfoil and fanwort along with native pond lilies and other submerged plants are limiting the available oxygen and harming spawning substrate.

Central Pond in East Providence, part of the Ten Mile River, also has a large infestation of water chestnut. This is of concern because fish passage was recently restored to this system as well. Harmful algae blooms have also been an issue on this pond, and invasive species can make the problem worse. As we try to re-introduce fish to river systems around the Bay, we also need to be concerned with what they will find when they arrive.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

So you want to fill the Bay? Think again. Our Quick Response and Victory

By Topher Hamblett, Director of Advocacy

When Save The Bay learned of ProvPort's plans to expand its operations by filling 31 acres of the Providence River, our team sprung into action quickly and decisively. We sent out a press release alerting the media - and Rhode Islanders - about the eleventh-hour move in the State House to set the plan in motion with a $20M bond referendum. The bond referendum asked voters to pay for Phase I of that ProvPort's expansion plan: the purchase of land along the Providence River. Within a week’s time of our alert, ProvPort clearly and unequivocally declared it was abandoning Phases 2 and 3 of their plan, which called for filling 31 acres of the River.

I’ve been working for Save The Bay and defending Narragansett Bay for more than 20 years. Our quick response and victory on this “jack-in-the-box” proposal reminded me of why Save The Bay exists and of the never-ending urgency of our work to protect and improve the Bay. Our role in the reclamation of Narragansett Bay has been, and always will be, to be the citizen’s voice for the Bay. Or, as our former executive director Trudy Coxe once said, the “raspberry seed under the pallet.”

Every day, the Save The Bay team hears about “how much cleaner the Bay is than before.” And it's true, the reclamation of the Bay is a great success story, one that the people of Rhode Island and Massachusetts are rightfully proud of. However, success can also lead to complacency, and that is my major worry these days. For nearly 50 years, we’ve built the political will to fix glaring pollution problems – the raw sewage overflows and industrial pollution that used to foul the Bay on a daily basis. While the water is cleaner and clearer than it has been in decades, we are facing two major threats that are, in some ways, more challenging than our past battles: 1) pollution from the stormwater that hits our streets and runs directly our waters, and 2) climate change impacts.

Stormwater pollution is complex. We all own it. Wet weather still causes local beach closures throughout the Bay. Climate change is even more complex, and we are struggling every day to deal with its impacts. Our salt marshes are drowning under the weight of sea level rise. Our team has moved from salt marsh restoration to helping salt marshes adapt to rapidly changing conditions. The wastewater treatment plants that are essential to the Bay’s health are vulnerable to flooding, storm surge, sea level rise – look no further than the City of Warwick’s plant that was ten feet under water during the 2010 floods. Our shorelines are moving and eroding, challenging us us to protect public access to the shore. Warming waters are altering the ecology of the Bay.

This is tough stuff. These current and future threats make our mission more urgent than ever. I love the passion of the staff, board and volunteers of Save The Bay. We’ve been the voice for Narragansett Bay for nearly 50 years. And now these more complex threats demand that we all step up our game to protect our beloved Bay for the next 50 years.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

How to Join The Swim, Even If You Don't Swim

By Cindy Sabato, Director of Communications 

Be a Virtual Swimmer: Maybe you want to swim, but you can’t get to Rhode Island in August. Or you don’t think you could make it all the way across the Bay. Or maybe you just don’t swim at all. Become a Save The Bay Virtual Swimmer, and either swim where you are (see Rick Fleeter profile, pg 10) or earn your Save The Bay Swim medal from the comforts of your couch. 

Sponsor the Swim: Put your corporate name in front of more than 2,000 spectators, vendors and supporters, swimmers and kayakers as a generous sponsor of the Save The Bay Swim. Save The Bay is the largest and most influential environmental group in Rhode Island, and the Swim serves as critical support to our efforts to protect and improve Narragansett Bay. 

Support a Swimmer: The Swim is Save The Bay’s largest fundraising event, providing nearly $350,000 toward our mission’s critical work in advocacy, education and habitat restoration. You can make a donation to support a specific swimmer, a team or the swim in general. 

Volunteer: The Swim couldn’t happen without the hundreds of volunteers who help with parking, kayak inspection, kayak unloading, swimmer numbering, handing out towels, food, and T-shirts, time sheets, party tent, barrier monitoring, safety squad, and much more! 

Monday, August 1, 2016

Hitchhiking Fish & One Million Pounds of Trash - STB Podcast 7

By Matthew Vieira, Social Media and Marketing Manager

This month, Intern Abbey and I meet up with July Lewis and Adam Kovarsky to chat about the International Coastal Cleanup and the August theme at the Exploration Center and Aquarium. Want to listen to our Podcast during your commute? This Podcast is also available on SoundCloud and iTunes

Tropical Travelers with Adam: 0:00
International Coastal Cleanup with July: 10:30

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Critter Tales: Sharks and Skates of the Bay

By Abbey Greene, Communications Intern

“Maybe if I just get up here.”

Bruce shimmied the best he could, and wiggled his smooth body up to the surface of the water.
“I just need to see, I’m so close!”

His strong tail swished hard under the water, propelling him higher. Finally, his face and eyes successfully poked out.

“Yes! I did it!” Bruce the smooth dogfish shark thought happily, bouncing up and down. He could see everything. He looked around his blue tank and saw it was rimmed with all kinds of people laughing at his super cool trick he worked so hard to perfect, reaching out to pet him. Bruce sank back beneath the water and swam up to his audience, hoping to be pet.

What Bruce was doing is called ‘spy hopping.’ Spy hopping is a common behavior for all dogfish and even other species of whales and sharks. “They look like they are dancing,” explains Adam Kovarsky, Save The Bay’s Exploration Center Manager. “They can stick their heads out of the water to get a better look at their surroundings.”

Bruce is one of the three smooth dogfish sharks currently at Save The Bay’s Exploration Center and Aquarium. These small sharks were donated to the aquarium by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services. They were found in the Rhode Island sound during regular survey trawls the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services conduct in the bay to track fish populations.

Dogfish can grow to be almost four feet long and live 15-17 years. Generally, the aquarium only keeps them for a short period of time. “The longest stay they ever have is about nine months. We let them grow, give them a bunch of good meals so they can put on some weight, and release them back into the bay better than we found them. That’s the goal,” Adam said.

Dogfish sharks are a top predator in the bay, keeping the food chain running smoothly. However, swimming with them in the Bay isn’t a problem.  “They’re not a danger to humans in any way. The smooth dogfish have no sharp tearing teeth at all… they want nothing to do with people in the wild so they just swim away, Adam said.”

Not only are dogfish a member of the shark family, they are also a part of a marine group called elasmobranchs, which means they have skeletons made entirely of cartilage, rather than bone.
Another elasmobranch in the aquarium is the Little Skate, and visitors can see and touch plenty of these in the Exploration Center as well.

“There are these little egg cases, called mermaids’ purses, because they’re a little funny,” Adam laughs. “The babies spend anywhere between 6-12 months developing and then they can hatch out. They can actually hold off hatching out of the egg if the conditions aren’t right. If it’s too cold, too turbulent, they can actually wait until the conditions are nice.”

The adult skates, baby skates and mermaids’ purses are on display in the aquarium, and if a member of the public is lucky, one might see a baby skate hatch out of the egg and begin it’s life.

Like dogfish sharks, little skates can live long lives. Males tend to live about 15 years, and females average around 17 years. They are common in Narragansett Bay, spending their time scavenging along the sand, cleaning up debris and old leftover food, and playing a vital role in keeping our Bay clean.

Want to know a fun fact about Skates? They are actually among the oldest surviving group of jawed vertebrates, first appearing 150 million years ago!

To visit and even pet the Smooth Dogfish and the Little Skates, the public is welcome to visit the Save The Bay Exploration Center and Aquarium in Newport daily from 10 a.m. - 4 p.m.

Friday, July 22, 2016

BayKeeper Blog: Signs of a Cleaner Bay

By Tom Kutcher, Narragansett BayKeeper

Narragansett Bay is cleaner than it’s been in 150 years. That’s according to a recent decade-long study by scientists from the University of Rhode Island’s (URI) Graduate School of Oceanography and partnering organizations.

To measure this reported cleanliness, the study focuses on levels of nitrogen, which is released into the water from wastewater treatment facilities, individual septic systems, storm drains and other mostly human-caused sources. Nitrogen acts a fertilizer in marine environments, but too much of it causes declines in Bay health from things like too much phytoplankton (microscopic floating plants) shading underwater plants, overabundant seaweeds smothering life on the bottom, and lack of oxygen in the water as these overabundant plants decompose. These problems can then lead to chain reaction-type effects that diminish habitat value, change the ways in which plants and animals interact, cause declines or other shifts in important species, make the water too acidic, and even cause some species to disappear altogether from affected areas.

Some guys I don’t know with a nice keeper striped bass they caught by the
Broken Bridge* during the middle of the day in
mid-July of this year. Incredible!

*what we called it when I was a kid
The main finding of the URI study is that recent efforts to reduce nitrogen inputs to Narragansett Bay have not only been successfully carried out, but have had positive effects on water clarity and quality.

But hey, let’s not just take a bunch of scientists’ word for it. After all, what does a group of really smart people with four to eight years of graduate-level education plus professional experience, who have dedicated their entire lives to revealing truths of the natural world through rigorous and unbiased scientific study of our Bay got that the rest of us don’t got (yup that’s a joke—these scientists are awesome)?  Let me really convince you with some purely anecdotal signals of improving Bay health from some other qualified sources.

1) Recreational fishermen have reported that striped bass fishing in Narragansett Bay has been off the hook! And I’m not just referring to the waters off bucolic Jamestown and other pastoral lower-Bay postcard-inspiring spots. I’m talking about the grungy old Providence, Seekonk, and Warren rivers, and other unassuming, formerly left-for-dead open sewers of the past. In particular, the Providence River has been on fire (with fish) in the springtime these past several years. This year, the bass came up early and left late (see below photo I took of guys catching a nice fish in JULY this year). In fact, many fishermen agree that fishing in the upper reaches of the Bay was better than it was in any other section of the Bay or the South Shore all spring and early summer this year.

2) Commercial fishermen and shell fishermen who have spent most days of most years of their lives on the Bay have been reporting unusually clear water. The fishermen I’ve spoken with show great enthusiasm, figuring that clear water can lead to the recovery of sea grasses and the various species they support, and can indicate better oxygen and pH conditions in the water column for better survival of sea life. I’ve heard that some fishermen are worried that such an increase in clarity might mean something is wrong. However, most information I’ve seen is indicating that something is actually going very right, and that thing is increasingly cleaner water.

3) Beach closures are down significantly since the construction of a huge tunnel under the city of Providence that acts as a storage tank for sewage and city runoff after rainstorms. The decline in closures is directly related to a reduction of bacteria found at local beaches, which can be attributed to the big tunnel and other recent improvements in sewage and stormwater infrastructure. Less bacterial pollution means more people can swim and enjoy all this clear water. In fact, Save The Bay has been working with the Department of Health and the City of East Providence to prepare Sabin Point Park to be the first state-certified swimming beach north of Conimicut Point in generations.

4) Take a fresh look at our urban rivers sometime. You’ll see flotillas of kayakers, sailing dinghies and rowing sculls. You’ll see people picnicking on the shores of Bold Point and India Point Parks. Fishermen are casting from the shores, folks are eating on the decks of waterfront restaurants and thousands of people are flocking to summertime events at Waterplace Park. All these people must be noticing something appealing about our urban waterways that wasn’t apparent 50 years ago.

5) Finally (and perhaps most anecdotally) are the humpback whale, the belugas, the basking shark, the dolphins, and the occasional manatee, not to mention perhaps more reliable signals like the numerous seals, wading birds, oystercatchers, sea ducks, osprey, hawks, and even a few bald eagles we’ve been seeing in and along our waterways. No one really knows exactly what to make of some of this (the whales for example), but these freak or rare or formerly unusual occurrences seem to be happening more and more often in the upper parts of the Bay these days. I’m going to go with my hopeful Rhode Islander gut and call it all progress.  

I’ll admit that Narragansett Bay has a way to go before it can be called pristine. But in spite of considerable wear and tear on our beautiful Bay from hundreds of years of development and abuse, it sure seems like we’ve recently made some considerable, tangible progress toward the completely swimmable, fishable, and healthy Bay that we have been working so hard to bring back.

Maybe those scientists are onto something!    

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Fish Passage is More Than Just Dams

By Rachel Calabro, Narragansett Bay Riverkeeper

We all drive across streams and rivers every day without much thought. Sometimes we look over the edge of a bridge to see the river running underneath. Sometimes, we don’t even know that a stream is running by underneath the road. Smaller streams tend to run through culverts, either round pipes or square cement boxes under the road. Unlike bridges, these culverts often constrict the stream and cause it to flow through a very narrow opening.

Narrow culverts and pipes do not make good passage for the fish and other wildlife that need to use streams and rivers as corridors. Fish need to move up and down stream to mate, eat and find refuge. Turtles, frogs and salamanders do too, as do mammals like river otters and raccoons. When they are forced to go up and over the road, small wildlife can be killed by traffic.

When the openings under roads are too narrow, flooding can happen and roads can wash out during storms. Many times road repairs are made and the culverts are replaced at the same size when they should in fact be bigger. Climate change is also causing larger storm events and more rain that swells streams and causes road flooding. Public works departments need to be aware of undersized culverts where they are causing harm to wildlife and public safety.

This summer, Save The Bay habitat interns are assisting staff with evaluating culverts and bridges in the Palmer and Kickemuit Rivers as part of our larger effort to study fish passage and habitat quality in these Upper Bay watersheds. We are on the lookout for areas where fish could get trapped or not be able to swim through a culvert. We are also helping to train new surveyors from the Rhode Island Department of Transportation and local conservation commissions.

So far, we have found a mix of different culverts from plastic pipes to cement boxes and stone bridges. None of these structures completely meet the standard of having dry passage or for the crossing to span both the stream and the river banks. In our car centered culture, it is sometimes a good learning experience to think of yourself as a fish or a turtle and to figure out how you would navigate your world with a human imprint.