Friday, May 29, 2015

It's happening again: Second fish kill in as many summers.

 By Tom Kutcher, BayKeeper

So, I hate to report that it’s happening again this year.  And it’s bigger and earlier this time.  It’s another fish kill of adult menhaden (locally known as pogies) in the Seekonk River. According to local fishermen hanging out at the new DEM boat ramp up near the Pawtucket Falls, dribs and drabs of dead and dying fish have been showing up there for about a week.  But today there were hundreds or even thousands of dead fish in the water and on shore, and many more were gulping for air and doing their sad, telltale “death spirals” at the surface, indicating severe stress from oxygen deprivation. 

When the water is warm, tides are weak, and weather is dry, the Seekonk River grows stagnant. These are the unfortunate conditions that allow algae to change from fish food to part of a harmful cycle of pollution. Excessive nutrients, stemming mostly from insufficiently-treated wastewater and untreated street runoff from towns and cities along the river (in both Rhode Island and Massachusetts), cause algae to grow rampant and clog the water column. As these algae blooms decompose, oxygen in the water column is consumed and, particularly under stagnant conditions, depleted. 

If pogies are chased by predator fish, such as striped bass (stripers) or bluefish, into water where the oxygen is depleted, they can die. That seems to be what has happened this week. The fishermen reported a great run of stripers in the Seekonk River last week, chasing abundant pogies. While stripers are accustomed to dealing with lower oxygen found in upper estuaries, where they breed and overwinter, open-water-loving pogies are not. So apparently, when the stripers chased the pogies up into the river, the pogies could not breathe.  

The ironic piece to this story is that abundant pogies and bass in the river is a great sign of recovery, in contrast to past decades of fishless water. But, as the Seekonk River recovers from centuries of abuse and becomes more habitable for fish and other critters, low oxygen events resulting from excess nutrient loads become more visible as those fish are killed. The take-home is that although the Seekonk River and the entire Upper Bay are recovering in grand fashion, there is still a lot of work to do. 

So, next time you see me and can’t help asking (as so many do), “Is the bay is saved yet?” please think back to this blog when I simply answer, “Well, it’s complicated.”

Read Tracee Herbaugh's ProJo Article on the subject as well.

Meet Edgar Mercado, the very first swimmer to register for the very first Save The Bay Swim, and he's still at it.

By Cindy Sabato, director of communications

Edgar Mercado, Save The Bay swimmer and North Kingstown resident
North Kingstown’s Edgar Mercado, 63, was the very first swimmer to sign up for Save The Bay’s very first swim back in 1977. “I saw a little bitty story on the front page of the Providence Journal that Save The Bay was looking for swimmers. When I went in and told them I wanted to sign up, [then-executive director] Trudy Coxe went crazy, gave a me a big hug and kiss, and I thought ‘boy, I’m going to like this,’” Mercado said. Thirty-nine years later, Mercado has missed just two Save The Bay Swims – one in the 1990s after an industrial accident that took him out of commission for about eight months, and the other in 2000, when “I had to take my wife to Europe for our 25th wedding anniversary,” he said.
Thinking back to that first 1.7-nautical-mile Swim, which was then from Jamestown to Newport, he remembers that he didn’t know what to expect, and being asked what he had for breakfast. “I’d had a doughnut. Things were different back then. People weren’t into health and fitness the way we are now,” he said. And he told his family to head into Newport and do some sight-seeing, “because I thought it was going to take that long. Thankfully they didn’t, and it didn’t,” he said. His recollection of looking up at the Pell Bridge from the water: “majestic,” he said.
Mercado doesn’t actually remember how long it took him that first year, but in his 37th Swim on July 11, which is Save The Bay's 39th annual Save The Bay Swim, he says his goal is to “meet the Jim Mullen challenge,” which is to swim a time that is under one’s age, a goal set by Ruth Mullen in tribute to her late husband, who was an avid swimmer. Last year, Mercado missed that goal by two minutes. This year, he figures, he only has to cut his time by one minute, since he’s gained a minute in age over the last 12 months. He thinks he’s on track. Three mornings a week since January, Mercado spends two hours at the pool, swimming two miles, doing drills, and “a little socializing.”
He wasn’t always this ready, though. Back in 2008 or 2009, he says, he was 100 pounds heavier than he is now, not to mention pins in an ankle, carbon fibers in a knee, arthritis, and a prosthesis in his ear that throws off his balance. Three times during the Swim that year, he wanted to quit. But his daughters’ recent intervention about his health and weight kept him going. “When I got out of the water, I thought I was going to die,” he said. Not long afterward, he was diagnosed with asthma. He doesn’t let that stop him. “I swim better than I walk, anyway,” he said.
What began as a personal challenge in his 20s turned into a great ice-breaker at parties, and a family affair in his 30s and beyond as his brother, wife, nieces, nephews and daughters all got involved as spotters in the accompanying rowboats (now kayaks), alternates, donors, cheerleaders and so on. Today, he says, “I do it for what Save The Bay is doing for Narragansett Bay, because no one else is doing what they do. I remember one year, I was holding my little girls, one on each hip, looking out over the water, and thought ‘If Save The Bay isn’t doing what they do, what is the Bay going to be like for my little ones?’ The water is remarkably better today,” Mercado said, recalling that in the early years of the Swim, swimmers had to be rowed out into the Bay about 300-400 yards because the water along the shoreline was deemed too polluted for human activity.
 “Save The Bay is a wonderful cause. I can’t contribute much, but I can do this, and this wouldn’t be there without Save The Bay’s advocacy. By drawing attention to the Bay in the small way that I do, I’m helping the environment and the community, and I’m helping myself, too.”

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Adapting to Sea Level Rise, One Marsh at a Time

By Wenley Ferguson, director of habitat restoration

Walkers and cyclists on the East Bay Bike path who braved the cold temperatures in late March observed first-hand Save The Bay’s latest efforts to adapt to sea level rise in a marsh known as Jacobs Point in Warren. Jacobs Point is one of the largest marshes in the East Bay, and since the late 1990s, in partnership with the Warren Land Conservation Trust, we’ve been working to restore its good health. One such project is the 2010 installation of new pipes under a dormant roadway that crosses the marsh to improve water flow through the marsh, allowing native marsh grasses to flourish and stunt the growth of an invasive plant that was jeopardizing the marsh ecosystem.

Still, in recent years, we have noticed new changes in the marsh, including ponded water and the spreading of dead zones in areas formerly covered by marsh grass. Similar conditions were documented statewide, in an assessment conducted by Save The Bay ecologists between 2012-2014. One of the causes of the degraded conditions of the Jacobs Point salt marsh, and other marshes around the state, is the increased rate of sea level rise over the last decade. Until recently, marshes throughout the region have been able to keep up with the rate of sea level by building elevation each year. But as the rate of sea level rise has increased, marshes are not able to keep pace, resulting in water becoming trapped on the marsh and the marsh literally drowning in place.

A low-ground-pressure excavator helps Save The Bay dig small creeks in the marshIn partnership with the Department of Environmental Management’s Mosquito Abatement Coordinator, we are using a specially designed low-ground-pressure excavator to dig small creeks to drain the impounded water off the marsh surface. This stagnant water not only can cause marsh plants to die off in just one growing season, it also creates ideal conditions for mosquitoes larvae. Draining the trapped water and connecting small creeks to larger creeks where fish live, has the added benefit of significantly reducing mosquito breeding habitat, which is good for humans, too. 
As those who pass by on the East Bay Bike Path know, our work at Jacobs Point is not done. Volunteers continue to dig by hand in areas of the marsh that are too wet and unstable for the excavator to access. We continue to extend the creeks into areas where standing water remains. As plants recolonize the areas that have drained, we monitor both the plant community and the water level throughout the growing season.

Helping our salt marshes and other coastal habitat adapt to changing climate conditions is going to be an ongoing process. These adaptation efforts at Jacobs Point, other marshes around Narragansett Bay and our salt ponds are a series of steps that Save The Bay is committed to continuing, to ensure that these highly productive marsh habitats, which play a critical role in the health of Narragansett Bay, can adapt to  the quickening pace of sea level rise.

Watch this video to learn more about why salt marsh restoration is so important to us.