Thursday, May 3, 2018

Restoring Sabin Point

by Elizabeth Droge-Young, communications intern

Tucked away in a charming East Providence neighborhood, Sabin Point Park has been a favorite spot on the Bay for generations. In the Facebook group “The Love for Sabin Point Park,” older residents reminisce about crisply-uniformed sailors walking the beach in the summer of 1945, while newcomers recount recent visits and hunts for horseshoe crabs. But despite the panoramic view of the Bay as it washes onto the park’s sandy beach, visitors are confined to the shoreline. The beach hasn’t been swimmable in generations—but Save The Bay is working with the City of East Providence to restore the water quality of the beach so that someday, Sabin Point can become the northernmost swimmable point in Narragansett Bay. 

Sabin Point beach-goers enjoy the beach,
but the water is off limits to swimming.
Although water quality at Sabin Point has steadily improved with decades of investment in wastewater treatment in the upper Bay, bacteria levels remain high at the beach. The culprit? A few improperly installed road drainage pipes that carry polluted runoff directly onto the beach. 

“I got the story from three separate neighborhood residents, this crazy story, that every time it would rain, the ground would rumble and then a huge plug of stinky water and material would pour out of those pipes,” recalls Tom Kutcher, former Save The Bay Baykeeper. 

After Save The Bay worked with East Providence city engineers to pull up blueprints for the pipes, roughly two feet in diameter, the cause of the beach bacteria levels and the post-storm rumbles became clear. Instead of being angled downhill toward the beach, the pipes had been pitched back toward the park. At every high tide, Bay water, along with seaweed and waste from geese, washed into the pipes. Making matters worse, the pipes collected polluted runoff from Sabin Point neighborhood streets. 

“They were big pipes, so they could hold a lot of seaweed. It was basically a bacteria breeding ground,” Kutcher said. During a big rain, the pipes would fill with enough polluted runoff to push the plug of decomposing material onto the beach. 

Pipes discharge polluted runoff from neighborhood
streets directly onto Sabin Point beach.
To assess the effects of the discharge, Save The Bay and the Rhode Island Department of Health partnered to sample the water quality at Sabin Point beach. “We learned that bacteria levels exceeded swimming standards in the vicinity of the pipes, while further away from the pipes, the water met swimming standards,” said Save The Bay Director of Habitat Restoration Wenley Ferguson. 

Once the bacterial source was identified, Save The Bay went to work with the City of East Providence to find funding to treat the polluted runoff and to rectify the decades-old engineering flaw. The overarching goal is to treat polluted runoff that drains to the beach and remove the drainage pipes. Save The Bay developed a conceptual stormwater management plan that was used to secure a $47,000 grant from the Bay and Watershed Restoration Fund for the development of a comprehensive stormwater management plan covering the entire watershed and the design and installation of a shallow basin, called a sand filter, within the park. The sand filter, to be installed in fall 2017, slows and filters runoff from the neighborhood streets and Sabin Point’s parking lot and redirects water away from one of the discharge pipes at the beach. 

The City of East Providence and Save The Bay sought and won an additional $100,000 grant in 2015 for the construction of additional stormwater infiltration areas in the Sabin Point Park neighborhood to reduce the amount of runoff that makes it to the beach. That grant, awarded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Southeast New England Program and administered by the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission, represents important federal funding crucial to the Sabin Point project and many other local environmental and infrastructure initiatives. 

Sea lettuce, a type of seaweed that grows abundantly in waters
with high nutrients, accumulates on the beach at Sabin Point.

The grant also included water quality monitoring, which has been taken on by the Department of Health and Brown University researcher David Murray, a Sabin Point Park neighbor. He contacted his neighbor Jeanne Boyle, then-director of planning for the City of East Providence, and what began as a neighborly chat while raking leaves, blossomed into a monitoring plan spearheaded by Murray. “I thought Sabin Point Park could be a nice place to spend time if we moved the storm drain pipes that empty onto the beach,” Murray recalls. “The projects now underway at Sabin Point have the potential to make a tremendous improvement,” he said. 

Although Boyle has left her position in East Providence, the partnership forged with the city continues. Ferguson and the city collaborated on a third grant in 2017 for design and construction to “daylight” the runoff in the large pipe that leads to the beach into a series of a infiltration basins further inland. The long term goal is for the pipes that discharge on the beach to be removed. “The city’s commitment runs deep, from dedicating both staff time and expertise and actual funds to match the state and federal grants” said Ferguson. 
“East Providence is committed to continuing the partnerships among state and federal agencies and Save The Bay towards the goal of returning Sabin Point Park to a swimmable beach,” said City of East Providence Acting Planning Director Diane Feather. 

The watershed plan is being used as a blueprint to treat and manage stormwater from this urban watershed, and local, state and federal funds are needed to achieve the goal of opening the beach for swimming. 

“The massive strides to make Sabin Point Park swimmable shows the commitment of everyone in the state: from voters and municipalities supporting wastewater treatment improvements, to years of stringent permitting efforts by the Department of Environmental Management,” Ferguson says. 

Kutcher echoes this sentiment, “It would be a huge victory for Narragansett Bay, and for all partners working really hard to clean up the Bay. This will be an important milestone.” 

Sabin Point Park is just one example of how Save The Bay partners with local government to improve Narragansett Bay quality and accessibility. A similar effort is underway at Stillhouse Cove in Cranston, and communities throughout the state are pursuing projects to improve local waters through stormwater management. Thirty years ago, residents described grease balls, mixed with human waste, washing ashore. “Now, the upper Bay is alive with activity from the community boating center at India Point Park, to kayakers paddling along the shoreline and people gathering at WaterFire, where historically the smell of the urban river would have driven people away,” Ferguson says. 

All of these successes rely on diverse players, including citizens supporting bond measures to fund water quality improvements, supportive local government agencies to execute plans and provide matching funds, and ongoing federal funding of the EPA and the EPA’s Southeast New England Program—both of which are currently under threat at the federal level, where commitment to environmental protections is waning. 

Monday, April 30, 2018

For the Love of Rhode Island

Rachael Lewin, Communications Intern

          I’ve always thought Rhode Island is a special place—the smallest state, nestled in the corner of Connecticut and Massachusetts. Although Rhode Island’s land area is only 1,045 square miles, the ocean, a resource that gives us our beautiful rivers and an expansive 400 miles of coastline, makes it feel much greater. Unfortunately, these waters are facing more threats than ever. Shorelines are shrinking, creatures and their habitats are dying, and water temperatures are rising. The idea of climate change may be overwhelming, but we still have time to help our Bay and its inhabitants. Since 1970, Save The Bay has been working toward its mission to protect and improve the waters of Rhode Island through multiple programs involving education, advocacy and habitat restoration. Located at Easton’s Beach in Newport, Save The Bay’s Aquarium and Exploration Center teaches community members just how special these habitats are, by giving visitors an up-close and personal experience with many of the creatures of Narragansett Bay.
          As a youngster, I visited Save The Bay’s Exploration Center and Aquarium for a field trip in elementary school. I remember encountering animals I had never seen before, as well as species I once believed to be plants. Now, as a college intern in the communications department, one of my very first projects was to spend the day at the Exploration Center and Aquarium, taking photos, helping visitors navigate the exhibits and teaching about the critters living in them. Because the last time I went to the aquarium was on a field trip over a decade ago, I was really excited to experience it again as an adult.
Save The Bay's Exploration Center and Aquarium is
located right on Easton's Beach in Newport
at 175 Memorial Boulevard.
          The friendly staff and volunteers at the aquarium are eager to share their knowledge and answer any questions—creating a positive and welcoming energy felt by all who step through the double-doored entrance. With over 40 different species all coming right from our Bay, this little space in the center of a uniquely-shaped round building, tucked in the corner of the parking lot of Easton’s beach in Newport, is a hidden gem within our tiny state.
The Exploration Center and Aquarium gives visitors a close up and intimate view of delicate critters and their habitats, a unique experience not found at many other places. Since all of the creatures at the Aquarium come straight from Narragansett Bay, holding some of them and learning how their habitats are being destroyed can help instill in both adults and the youth of Rhode Island a sense of how delicate the natural ecosystem of the Bay is and how we as humans are accountable for its health and the well being of the inhabitants, from the smallest mollusk to the largest seal.
Much like the ocean, the Exploration Center and Aquarium is always changing. The creatures living here are mostly just visiting, brought in at a young age and released back into the wild when they have a higher chance of survival. Also, a monthly theme features a different animal crucial to the Bay, and usually, on the third Thursday of each month, the Aquarium gives visitors a special, after-hours chance to help feed the critters during Feeding Frenzy. At this registration-only activity, visitors see how and what the creatures eat and get the unique opportunity to help! Private tours of the Aquarium are also available, a perfect option for classes or birthday parties. These one-hour tours give guests an even closer look at the exhibits and more focused interaction with the volunteers and staff.
Anyone can see Rhode Island is beautiful. The state’s expansive coastline, majestic lighthouses, and tiny towns are all very similar yet still unique in their own ways. Learning about how habitats are being destroyed and whole species are in danger of extinction has, for me, shined a new light on the impact humans are having. The time I’ve spent working with Save The Bay has not only taught me more about the various creatures inhabiting the Bay, but also about issues on a larger scale pertaining to both the wildlife and the ecosystem as a whole.
          Introducing these issues to young minds creates active adults who help Save The Bay in its mission to protect and improve Narragansett Bay, from its water condition to its marine life. Places like Save The Bay’s Exploration Center and Aquarium show exactly how special these little details within our state are and why it’s so crucial that we all work together to protect our Bay and its inhabitants. The passion from each individual working or volunteering at the Aquarium is central to its success, and this is what makes Save The Bay an integral part of the states overall conservation effort.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Earth Month Crafts for the Kids

by Julia Gentillo, communications intern

Earth Month activities are in full swing here at Save The Bay. If you missed the chance to visit our table at Roger Williams Zoo’s Party for the Planet on April 17, you can still join the fun! You can make these fun and easy Bay crafts at home with your kids!

Monday, April 23, 2018

Critter Tale: The Atlantic Horseshoe Crab—Not Really a Crab.

by Rachael Lewin, communications intern

Hello! I am one of the horseshoe crabs living at the Save The Bay Exploration Center and Aquarium. I don’t have an official name at the aquarium, but you can call me "Poly"—short for Limulus polyphemus, the scientific name for my species. Save The Bay’s education team found me in Narragansett Bay a few years ago. Right now, I live in a touch tank with other horseshoe crabs, little skates and moon snails. As with many other critters at the aquarium, the team brought me here at a young age with the intention of keeping me safe until I’m fully grown and able to scour for food on the ocean floor and defend myself from local predators and then releasing me back into the wild. Just about everyone has seen a horseshoe crab shell washed up on a beach somewhere. After all, we've existed on this planet for millions of years. But, we’re still really misunderstood and I'd love to clarify a few things for you.

At first glance, everyone thinks I am a baby, but I’m just smaller than all the other adult horseshoe crabs here. Usually, the way horseshoe crabs grow is by shedding our old small shells so a new, larger one can grow in its place, a process called "molting." While our new shells develop, we must be extra careful to avoid predators such as sharks, turtles and seagulls, because the new shell takes a few days to harden. Save The Bay’s aquarist, Adam Kovarsky, says they’re not sure why yet, but my shell seems to grow at a slower rate than the average horseshoe crab, which lowers my chance of surviving in the wild. So, as it turns out, I’ll stick around for a while. 

My size isn’t the only misperception people have about me and my horseshoe crab brothers and sisters. When I crawl out from my resting place under the cool sand to say hello, visitors often are afraid to touch me when they see my claws, squirmy legs and spiky tail moving all around. But, from our name to our spiny bodies, we are much gentler than we appear on the surface.

My tail, a long spike that drags behind when I move, is not used for stinging people and other critters, as many think. When we get flipped upside-down, we use our tails to turn us back over onto our feet. We also use our tails to help us steer as we move along the bottom of the ocean, much like a rudder on a boat.

Did you know that horseshoe crabs are not actual crabs? We’re more closely related to ticks, spiders and scorpions. We got our name because of the five sets of legs underneath our shell. Our legs have pincers on the ends that look a lot like crab claws, but are much too soft to do any damage to humans. We use our claws to tear apart food and place it into our mouth, in the middle of our underbelly. Also, our claws help humans identify our gender. Males have claws that are round and shaped sort of like boxing gloves, and females have longer thinner claws that, when open, look like two fingers making a peace sign. Look at the picture to the right: by looking at my first set of legs, can you tell if I am a girl or a boy?

Horseshoe crabs are often referred to as “living fossils” because we’ve been around for longer than any other animal in the world—over 300 million years—and our bodies have not changed! We have a vital presence in marine ecosystems; our eggs provide food for shorebirds, and sometimes our shell serves as a home for various creatures looking to hitch a ride. We also serve a very important purpose for humans. In the ’50s, a scientist discovered that our baby-blue blood contains a special cell that prevents bacteria from invading our bodies. Since then, our blood’s been harvested for use in the development of pharmaceutical drugs and vaccinations. Because we are so important to the medical community, scientists go to great lengths to minimize the fatality rate of horseshoe crabs being used in the process, yet about 10-30 percent of us still die during or after the process. When the reality being harvested by humans is combined with the threat of natural predators, life in the wild is even riskier for little guys like myself, making my current home at the Exploration Center and Aquarium so important to me and many other marine creatures.

I am so happy I was rescued and brought to Save The Bay’s Aquarium and Exploration Center because I’m safe and serve an important purpose as an educator. I love my current tank-mates, but I’m always excited to see what new critters will come in to hang with us! Come see me and all of my friends at Save The Bay’s Exploration Center and Aquarium located at Easton’s Beach in Newport! We're open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every Friday, Saturday and Sunday until Memorial Day. During summer, we're open every day! Hope to see you soon!

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Critter Tale: Fish or a porcupine?

by Erica Meier, communications intern

Hi there! I am a striped burrfish at Save The Bay’s Exploration Center and Aquarium. A middle school student rescued me from Narragansett Bay, and Save The Bay staff took me in and cared for me. Now I live in the tropical travelers tank with three other striped burrfish and a few other species of fish that have also traveled here from far away. Although my species can be found off the east coast of North America in waters from Nova Scotia to the Bahamas, we are much more concentrated in the warm southern waters. All of the fish in this tank are called “gulf stream orphans” because we drifted from our southern habitats in the warm waters of the gulf stream and ended up here in Narragansett Bay. Often, gulf stream orphans can’t survive New England's cold winter waters, so we are lucky to have found a home at the Exploration Center, where many visitors see and learn about us.

Visitors to the Exploration Center are always drawn to me because of my unique look and interesting features. My relatively small, light tan body is covered with black wavy lines, short thick spines and bright yellow underside that make me easy to spot. What really catches visitors' attention are the big spines that cover my body and are always visible, meant to scare away anything that might want to mess with me.

While I most likely won’t grow to more than 10 inches long, when I feel threatened, I can puff up to twice my body size by taking in water and enhancing my pointy spines. Many other species of puffer fish also take in water when they are threatened, but unlike me, their spines aren’t visible unless they puff up. In the wild, I typically live in seagrass beds or near shallow coral reefs and use my strong beak-like mouth to eat small fish, crabs, crustaceans, snails, barnacles and clams. Here at the Exploration Center, I live in an exhibit that’s just right for me and am fed lots of yummy food every day, including my favorite thing to eat, periwinkles.

People could be seeing more striped burrfish and other gulf stream orphans in Narragansett Bay in the future, because climate change is causing the oceans to warm. Once I arrived in the Bay from my warm gulf stream current, I was okay for a little while in the summer, but would not have survived very long at all in the cold winter water. As water temperatures gradually rise, however, striped burrfish and other gulf stream orphans are surviving here longer and longer. A rise in non-native species like me may change the balance of biodiversity in the Bay and affect other native species of fish and marine life, because new species may not have any natural predators here or have traits and defense mechanisms that are uncommon in this part of the ocean.

I have learned about all of this from the aquarists at Save The Bay who teach visitors about me and other fish in the tropical travelers tank, the effects of climate change and what they can do to help. The Exploration Center is a great place to learn and explore, and I hope you’ll come by and see me and the over 40 other species from Narragansett Bay that are here too!

Monday, April 16, 2018

Mystery on the Runnins River

by Rachel Calabro, former Riverkeeper

The nine-mile Runnins River, which flows south through Seekonk and East Providence before emptying into Hundred Acre Cove, has suffered from high levels of bacteria for decades. While Hundred Acre Cove remains a popular place for fishing, kayaking and rowing, it has been closed to shellfishing since the 1980s because of that bacteria. An extensive, coordinated effort by Rhode Island and Massachusetts environmental agencies to identify the specific source of contamination has yet to yield a clear answer. Monitoring has revealed that bacteria levels are high in both dry and wet weather, so the culprit is not just polluted stormwater. Pipes have been investigated, septic systems analyzed and potential human markers—chemicals that might be found in human sewage, such as caffeine, chlorine, ammonia and the surfactants that are prevalent in laundry soap -- have been tested. But no obvious answers have been found. 

The Runnins River flows through thick strands of phragmites
in the "triangle" area of Seekonk. Bacteria in this area has
been high for decades, without clear explanation.
For Save The Bay, giving up is not an option. This is why our Riverkeeper program recently revived the Runnins River Task Force, a team that includes scientists and federal, state and local agencies that will explore new avenues of investigation. 

What we know: The Runnins River is impacted by businesses on Route 6, industrial development and small septic systems. It flows into a low marshy area called the “triangle” just before it hits Route 114, emptying out into Hundred Acre Cove in Barrington. An as-yet unexplored possibility is that the bacteria may be incubating within the phragmites marsh itself, as stagnant water warms in the vegetation. A dam, owned by the Exxon/Mobil Corporation, contributes to the stagnation of water. In another twist, Mobil has been required for years to pump groundwater out of the system because of a history of contamination. The Task Force will explore the possibility that groundwater pumping may be drawing more bacteria into the river. We will also look at the effects of higher tides and the backwatering from the Mobil Dam. 

Funding for this kind of work comes from federal sources, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Southeastern New England Program. Massachusetts and Rhode Island both rely heavily on state and local agencies to enforce important federal environmental laws protecting our local waters. Many of these agencies receive significant federal funding to do so. What happens at the federal level could have significant impacts on our water quality locally. 

Water quality testing on the Runnins River, for instance, is made possible by funding that comes from our regional EPA office and goes directly to Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM). If the regional EPA office is eliminated, or if Clean Water Act funding is cut, our ability to retain experts and engineers to help solve some of our long-standing issues in the Bay—such as the mysterious bacteria pollution in the Runnins River—will be severely hampered. It is imperative that Congress push back against proposals to weaken the Clean Water Act and the programs that support local Bay cleanup efforts. At the same time, state political leaders must also step up and invest in environmental agencies that are charged with protecting and improving Narragansett Bay. 

Thursday, April 12, 2018

A Day at the Aquarium, with My Favorite Things

by Erica Meier, communications intern

When I was told on the first day of my communications internship at Save The Bay that I would participate in the different aspects of Save The Bay’s programs, including volunteering at the Exploration Center and Aquarium for a day, I was ecstatic. I had no idea what to expect, but as someone with a love for all things ocean related, I was excited about the chance to experience working at the aquarium. I had never been to the Exploration Center and was delighted to learn that it has three touch tanks where I would get to help guests learn about and safely interact with the many critters that inhabit the tanks.

I began my day at the Exploration Center before it opened by meeting all of the interns and volunteers who work there. I spent the time before opening walking around to the different exhibits to familiarize myself with all of the creatures in the aquarium. I was amazed at how many different species of marine life are in the aquarium and shocked to discover that creatures like sea horses, little skates and dogfish sharks reside right off the coast of our little ocean state in Narragansett Bay.

Chain catshark eggs resemble "mermaid's purses" often
seen washed up on beaches.
An aquarist intern showed me the little skate and horseshoe crab touch tank where I would be stationed for the first part of the day. I was fascinated to learn that baby skates come from “mermaid’s purses” and that the aquarium has eggs growing in a nearby tank along with recently hatched baby skates and chain dogfish. Seeing the life cycle of little skates and chain dogfish right there in the Exploration Center was so amazing!

The skate and horseshoe crab touch tank was one of the most popular exhibits, fascinating kids and parents alike. Children were always eager to reach in and touch one of the little skates resting on a ledge near the edge of the tank, and their eyes lit up when I lifted up a horseshoe crab so they could see all of its little legs on the underside of its hard outer shell.

Recently hatched "mermaid's purses" reveal these juvenile
little skates and chain catsharks.
The parents were just as interested as I had been when I told them that the mermaid’s purses carried little skate eggs and showed them the tank where they, and their chain dogfish cousins, are visible growing inside of their eggs. Visitors of every age were fascinated with some aspect of these creatures, and I realized that the Exploration Center is not just a place for children to come explore, but an experience for the whole family.

Next I was off to the shark touch tank, inhabited by chain dogfish and a smooth dogfish shark. The smooth dogfish shark was in constant motion, dancing around the tank, swimming in a circular motion and bobbing up and down with its head out of the water. One bright-eyed and energetic toddler in particular loved this station as much as I did and kept returning to stand with me and watch the dogfish swim around and around. After eagerly reaching forward in the sharks direction time and again only to jump back when it swam near, he eventually worked up the courage to reach in and gently touch its back as it danced past. The energetic boy’s eyes lit up with excitement, so proud that he’d finally done it! He even took to grabbing my hand and bringing me back and forth with him between the three touch tanks, eager to interact with all of the critters. Interacting with the guests, particularly the children who were having such a blast exploring everything in sight, was my favorite part of the experience. I had just as much fun as they did and felt like I was learning and exploring with them.

The touch tanks at the Exploration Center and Aquarium
captivate visitors of all ages.
Last I moved to the tide pool touch tank, where children were especially interested in the many different critters they could uncover. Some young children excitedly pointed to shells and starfish in the tank, exclaiming how they’d seen the same creatures at the beach before. Kids would stand peering down into the water inquisitively as I instructed them to touch the backs of the starfish stuck to the wall of the tank and hold the shells that rest on the bottom of the tank. A few young children were courageous enough to hold a hermit crab that I gently placed in their hands and carefully touched the back of a spider crab.

The wonder and excitement of the kids visiting the Exploration Center was contagious, and getting to show them all the different critters in the Aquarium was an incredible experience. As someone who has always loved marine life and has worked with children for many years, I felt this experience truly combined some of my favorite things, and I had such a great time that I’ve decided to continue volunteering at Save The Bay’s Exploration Center and Aquarium even after my internship is over.