Wednesday, March 30, 2016

From Streams to Marshes to Dunes

By Wenley Ferguson, Director of Habitat Restoration

Spring came early this year making late winter field feel more like May. The plants and animals followed the cue. Marsh grasses were turning green in March and herring returned to some spawning streams at the end of February! This month, we have been busy in streams, salt marshes and beaches, working to restore these habitats before the spawning and growing seasons are in full swing.

At Mussachuck Creek in Barrington, part of the stream had become impassable to river herring (also known as alewives and buckeyes) during their migration from Narragansett Bay up to Brickyard Pond where they spawn each spring. Over the last ten years or more many large trees had fallen into the stream, often breaking from the weight of the invasive vine, bittersweet.

The challenge we had, how can the trees be removed without damaging the steam channel and the bank? The answer, a piece of equipment called a forwarder with a grapple that resembles a truck with massive tires and a large arm that can pick up and cut huge trees without even touching the water below. Partnering with the Department of Environmental Management and the Rhode Island Country Club, Save The Bay wrote a grant and a permit on behalf of the partners and received funding from the Coastal Resources Management Council’s Habitat Restoration Trust Fund to hire a tree removal company. Northern Tree Service had such a piece of equipment and a skilled staff to operate it. In just one morning 15 trees that had fallen in the stream were removed and the water started flowing freely. The timing was ideal since the herring returned early. Now the adult herring will have a clear path to their spawning grounds this spring and even more importantly, the juveniles will be able to swim downstream in the fall to the Bay and ocean to begin the cycle again.

At Jacobs Point salt marsh bordering the East Bay Bike Path in Warren, we used not as large of piece of equipment to continue a 10-year effort to restore the marsh and help it adapt to accelerated sea level rise. The equipment was an excavator, specifically designed to be able to work in a marsh without getting stuck and retrofitted with wide, wooden tracks to displace its weight. Al Gettman, DEM’s Mosquito Abatement Coordinator, endearingly calls this excavator “Woody” after the Toy Story character. Woody with Al at the controls, dug shallow creeks to drain water trapped on the marsh surface. In areas too unstable for Woody, volunteers from Save The Bay and the Warren Land Conservation Trust dug by creeks by hand.

Many ask, it’s a marsh, isn’t it supposed to have water on it? Even though marshes can tolerate being flooded with salt water regularly, the marsh plants become stunted or die when water is trapped for long periods of time. These shallow pools also become breeding grounds for mosquitoes, since the pools are too shallow for fish that eat mosquito larvae. Between Woody and the shovel wielding volunteers, we dug around 900 feet of shallow creeks. Our goal is for the marsh to recolonize with plants and for the mosquitoes breeding areas to be reduced.

The month of March is coming to a close with the planting about 15,000 beach grass plants at 5 sites around the Bay in partnership with RISD, the towns of Barrington and Newport, and US Fish and Wildlife Refuge. The beach grass planting projects have a wide range of goals from restoring coastal dune habitat to reducing flooding of low lying roads and parking areas during storms and moon tides. Beach grass is planted in the early spring when there is more moisture in the dunes to help the grass become established. Even though 15,000 plants seems like a large undertaking, the plantings go quite quickly thanks to a diverse crew of planters from 3rd graders from Pell Elementary School in Newport, 5th graders from Rhodes ES in Cranston, high school students from Mt. Hope High in Bristol and Rogers High in Newport and Girl Scouts from Newport along with our dedicated network of local volunteers.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

For the Love of Fish

By Cindy Sabato, Director of Communications

Belying its name, the Ten Mile River is actually 22 miles of waterway snaking from Savage Pond in Plainville, Mass. south through the Attleboros and Seekonk before entering Rhode Island, where it meanders through Pawtucket and East Providence, over the Omega Dam and into the Seekonk River and Narragansett Bay. It once supported a robust fish run of river herring and American shad, anadromous fish that live as adults in salt water and return each spring to spawn in the fresh water where they were born. But dams built along the Ten Mile River during the Industrial Revolution—not to mention the calamitous pollution of the time—brought an end to what may have been one of the most prolific fish runs in Rhode Island history. That is, until lifelong career fisherman, Paul Bettencourt, got an idea. A great idea.

Great ideas often take perseverance, determination, a long view and a hero. And Paul’s idea was no exception. On the morning I talked to this story’s hero, the gritty, 75-years-young angler had already been up to Turner Reservoir on the Ten Mile, pulled on his hip boots, walked out on the wall and caught a few fish. I’d learn later that all three of his daughters had caught a striped bass by the time they were four years old and that he’s taught all but the youngest two of seven grandchildren how to fish. Wearing precisely the mischievous wide grin, silver beard and well-worn Greek fisherman’s cap one would expect of a beloved grandfather and sportsman, Paul told me the story of how, from the mid-1960s through 2015, he relentlessly pursued his idea to restore the connection between the Bay and the Ten Mile River for herring, shad and the many fishermen who enjoy these waters. And how a meeting with Save The Bay sparked a determined, community-wide effort to make his idea a reality. 

The Idea
“What happened was… my brother Joe [Bettencourt] and I had just started fishing over on the Barrington River when he got a call that his son had hurt himself, so we rushed back to his house and had to dump all our [bait] herring in the Ten Mile behind his house. That put a lightbulb in my head. There were no fish up on the Ten Mile River. I said to Joe, ‘Hey, why don’t we get some herring and stock this place?’” Paul said. 

A self-proclaimed “fisherman and environmentalist,” Paul long ago understood the importance of the herring to the ecosystem and to the survival of recreational fishing in and around Narragansett Bay.
“The river is a nursery for the herring, which are part of the food chain. Everything that swims out there feeds on herring; even the smallest fish will feed on them when they’re young,” he said. “Until the last ten years or so, people didn’t care about the herring, just the big fish. But the big fish wouldn’t be here if the herring weren’t.” 

His idea to “get some herring and stock this place,” however, wasn’t particularly legal. “We’d go out at night, so the game wardens wouldn’t come after us, scoop up 100 to 150 herring from other places, put them in 20-gallon galvanized buckets with water and ice, and then fly home to get them back in the river before they died,” Paul said. “Me and my brother started it, and others saw us and joined in, and over the years, it was all the recreational fisherman in the Rhode Island who kept the herring in the river,” Paul said. 

Over time, stocking turned to scooping as the herring that Paul and his friends initially relocated to these waters began to return to spawn. Trouble was, they couldn’t get up over the dam into the Ten Mile River. So for the next several decades, the determined fisherman and legions of others took on the labor-intensive work of hoisting thousands of returning herring over the ten-foot dam at Omega Pond in long-handled nets. And a new vision emerged. A series of fish ladders would allow herring to swim the three miles from Narragansett Bay to Turner Reservoir at the Rhode Island/Massachusetts border.

“I went to different companies about it. I went to DEM and talked to different directors. I talked to state representatives. But there was no funding. No one was going to put any money up for it. Nobody was interested enough in the herring to put money toward it,” he said. So each spring when the herring returned to spawn, the scooping continued, in the dark of night, for many more years. 
Things took a turn in the mid-1990s when Paul met Wenley Ferguson, Save The Bay’s director of habitat restoration. He might call her the second hero of this story.

“When I first met Wenley—and remember, I’d met many different groups and people before, but it did no good—there was an excitement about her,” he said. Gesturing with his hands, he added, “You can hear her voice go from ‘down here’ to way up in the high pitch, you know? It was a pleasure! She’s a cuckoo clock, because you’d have to be cuckoo to care about what we were doing.”
“When I first met Paul, I remember four-wheeling along the banks of the Seekonk River, and Paul literally telling the story of the area, how he gathered herring as a kid and sold them to markets on the East Side of Providence,” Wenley said. He showed her areas that were at one time herring runs that have been filled in along this industrial waterfront, some, he said, to make a junkyard, others by neglect. “Paul was clearly a do-er. He had seen his childhood fishing spots destroyed, yet never gave up, and was able to mobilize and energize a bunch of fishermen to move herring over the dam by hand. That is no easy task,” she said.

Their meeting just happened to occur at a time when Save The Bay was starting a new initiative to assess habitat restoration needs in the watershed. “We’d always had a vision to restore the Bay’s water quality, and now we were expanding that vision to include restoring the Bay’s habitats. The time was right for bringing fish back; improvements in wastewater treatment in the upper Bay and the Ten Mile River had led to water quality that could now support the return of the anadromous population,” she said. 

Sometimes it’s not just what you know, but who you know, and Wenley knew people at other agencies and organizations who were interested in fish restoration. She knew, for example, that the City of East Providence owned the upper two dams, and that city manager, Paul Lemont, was a fisherman. “When I pitched the idea and said the word ‘shad,’ I could see the excitement in his eyes,” she said.

The city quickly embraced the vision and became a partner. Dick Quinn, an engineer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, had already completed a conceptual design for three fish ladders that became a blueprint for the project. Before long, Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), Save The Bay and the City of East Providence each secured matching funds that would allow the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a feasibility study.

More than a decade after the completion of the feasibility study and countless hours of work by DEM and the Army Corps of Engineers on the engineering and design of the ladders, three fish passages would be built at the first three dams on the river: Omega Pond Dam, Hunts Mill Dam and Turner Reservoir Dam. The ladders would provide for upstream migration of adult blueback herring, alewife and American Shad to historic spawning areas. Each stair-like ladder would be four feet wide with a floor slope of one vertical rise to eight horizontal runs so that the herring and shad could literally swim through the ladder to reach their spawning grounds. The project would open up some three river miles and 340 acres of spawning habitat that could support more than 200,000 herring. 
By this point, Paul was feeling good. “I thought ‘this is really gonna happen,’” he said.

“This was Paul’s vision. My role was to learn his vision, share it with others, pull together partners, secure some early funding, and push the process in the early stages. Then, other organizations and leaders stepped up,” Wenley said. And, thanks to the Ten Mile River Watershed Council formed by Keith Gonsalves in the mid 2000s, more community support was built for the river restoration and even more people shared Paul’s vision.

An Idea is Realized
As the complexity and expense of the project grew—there were easements to be secured, an overhead power line to circumnavigate, a railroad bridge in the way, a gas line to be moved, and more—so did the list of partners and funders. Among them were the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, Natural Resources Conservation Service, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with state and local partners including the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association and the Ten Mile River Watershed Council.

While the project progressed, the annual spring “human fish ladder” event that Paul began in the 1960s—by this time being done legally under the auspices of DEM and coordinated by the Ten Mile River Watershed Council—became the community-wide “Scoop The Herring” celebration that served to reconnect people to the river in their backyards. 

Spring 2015 was the first season in more than a half-century that Paul didn’t throw herring over the Omega Pond Dam. He didn’t have to. On a warm day in April, Paul and Wenley both received calls from Keith Gonsalves, his ecstatic voice proclaiming, “the herring are using the ladder!” The ladders allowed for the first unassisted spawning run of herring on the Ten Mile River in more than a century. On June 19, 2015, during a ceremonial ribbon cutting, federal, state and local leaders and community partners celebrated the $9.5 million project. “It was a great example of a community-based project conceived by a local fisherman that has led to a partnership of community organizations and government agencies,” Wenley said.

“There was nothing more pleasing to my eyes than to look down at that fish ladder and see the herring swimming by. They climbed up the whole ladder and kept going. I went up to Hunts Mill to see how many were there, too. I counted there and jotted down when I saw them and how many, and other people were doing the same thing. And boy it was a pleasure to see,” Paul said.

The Long View
For Paul and for Save The Bay, the opening of the fish run was a vision realized. “Bringing a forage fish back to an historic habitat is bringing life and vitality back to the river. The return of these migratory fish enhances the freshwater and saltwater fish populations, which improves recreational and commercial fishing, brings back osprey and great blue herons that feed on these fish and increases the biodiversity of the river,” Wenley said.

Opening up the fish passage is only part of the story. True habitat restoration will take work on many fronts. The upper Turner Reservoir and Central Ponds often experience blooms of toxic blue-green algae and the flow in the Ten Mile River is dominated by wastewater effluent and impacted by polluted runoff. Save The Bay is steadfast in our commitment to continued river restoration. Our work is inspired by the determination of local environmental stewards like Paul Bettencourt, who support us as volunteers, donors, visionaries and voices for the Bay.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Issue with Eels

By RJ Turcotte, Save The Bay intern

The American eel (Anguilla rostrata) is an integral part of the aquatic ecosystem here in Rhode Island. Eels are catadromous fish, meaning they migrate from freshwater into the sea to spawn. They live in rivers and lakes and then travel south across the Atlantic ocean to the Sargasso Sea to reproduce. After laying up to 4 million eggs, the female eel dies. The eggs hatch, and the larva drift northward in the Gulf Stream to reach the rivers and lakes that will become their freshwater homes.

American eel in a touch tankLong, slender, and covered in what seems like an impossible amount of slime (a special mucus designed to make them difficult to catch and swallow, as well as to protect them from disease), they are often mistaken for sea snakes. However, eels are easily distinguished from snakes by their fins. These fish are nocturnal, feeding on whatever they can find, such as detritus, smaller fish, and invertebrates. This spring, watch for "elvers", (also known as young eels), as they swim upriver and finish up their extraordinary journey from the Sargasso Sea.

For humans, eels serve as an important resource. Considered a delicacy in other parts of the world, here in Rhode Island, they are the most popular live bait used by striped bass fisherman. Known as "striper candy," eels are eagerly inhaled by any striper in the immediate area. During the summer months, a live eel cast into the surf on a moonless night is your best shot at the fish of a lifetime.

"Unfortunately, all is not well in the world of eels."
Juvenile eels (called glass eels because they are nearly transparent) are harvested commercially, and due to their complex life cycle, regulation of the fishery has been very difficult. Although in 2007 and 2015, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department found American Eels not be an endangered species, eel populations are down from historic levels due to various human impacts.

Here in Rhode Island, two of the biggest issues facing eels are their use in recreational fishing and the damming of historic eel rivers and streams. Since glass eels are harvested for later use as bait (as adults), lower numbers translate to higher prices at the tackle shop. Last year, fishermen could expect to pay almost $3 per eel; we typically buy six to 12 eels at a time, so using them is becoming a significant investment. If U.S. Fish & Wildlife deems it necessary to place eels on the endangered species list, they will no longer be available as bait at any price.

Damming of rivers also can have a detrimental effect on the long-term survival of American eels. Dams restrict access for eels to upstream freshwater habitats where the creatures mature. Horseshoe Falls, an historic dam located along the Pawcatuck River in Shannock Village, was recently restored with a fish ladder and a unique eel passageway that allows migrating eels to get back upstream.

"Protecting the American eel population is essential for the long-term survival of this species."
Fishermen can use a whole host of alternatives to fishing for stripers with eels. Tackle shop walls are adorned with lures designed especially to mimic eels, and most of them have proven to be effective at catching fish. Lead and steel jig heads dressed with slender rubber tails or long pork rinds can be dynamite in the surf. And the more ambitious among us have taken to finding pieces of old furniture (and taking the legs), as well as household things like broom handles, and fashioning our own eel imitations, with impressive results.

Lastly, if you prefer to trap your own eels, be sure to follow regulations. The R.I. Department of Environmental Management’s 2016 rules state that a recreational fisherman may only keep 25 eels, and that all of them must be 9 or more inches in length. For more information on the current federal status of eels and how you can help protect the population, head to

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Better than textbooks and mundane homework assignments: celebrating 20 years with Save The Bay

By Michael Jedrey, Middle School Director and Middle School Science Teacher at Rocky Hill School

Rocky Hill School has embraced the environmental experiential education model that Save The Bay brings to hundreds of school children each year. We are fortunate enough to have a waterfront campus where this type of learning is typical throughout the year, and we praise Save The Bay for bringing it to the inner city and suburban schools that are far from the water’s edge. By replacing textbooks and mundane homework assignments with experiences with a seine net, collecting tank, and field guide, children’s imaginations and interest in science flourish as they discover the bounty that is their surroundings. They learn about the historical aspects of Bay islands, observe human impacts on the environment, and identify species along the wrack line of the shore.

Our School’s earliest collaboration with Save The Bay was 20 years ago this past January, when the School answered the call for volunteers to assist with the assessment of the impact of the January 19, 1996 oil spill off Moonstone Beach. Volunteers with Save The Bay, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service coordinated efforts to search for injured wildfowl along miles of coastline. Upper School volunteers from Rocky Hill joined Save The Bay staff and volunteers a few days later to comb the shorelines of Narragansett Beach and Beavertail State Park in Jamestown. Our eight students and two faculty members searched the rocks and coves for affected birds. Although the birds in the area appeared normal, the student volunteers reported a very strong smell of oil all along the coast.

Over the past two decades, Rocky Hill students have worked with Save The Bay on beach cleanups along the Greene River and along the shores of Greenwich Bay. The important task of keeping the shoreline clean has been extended across all three divisions (Lower, Middle, and Upper School), and students participate in cleanups in the fall and the spring. It’s not uncommon to see Lower School students, returning from a science class on the shore, carrying trash found during their experiences back to the classroom buildings for proper disposal. They have embraced their role as protectors of the Bay and its inhabitants.

Since September 2008, Save The Bay educators have joined our 6th grade students along the waterfront during our Enviroweek when we swap our inside classrooms for outside experiences. Students and faculty spend five days learning about the flora and fauna of the salt marsh and the importance of ecosystems to the health of the Bay, and seining for creatures so they can understand what lives in the salt marsh. Through the Save The Bay education program, Rocky Hill students are exposed to protecting and preserving the Bay and they learn to make better choices for the Bay in the future.

A few years ago, Middle School students worked with Save The Bay eelgrass restoration specialists to transplant healthy eelgrass from the lower Bay to Greenwich Bay. The students and Save The Bay staff collected eelgrass clumps from Fort Getty in Jamestown, separated them into groups of five individual plants, and replanted them at the end of Sandy Point Beach in Potowomut section of Warwick. Although the transplanted eelgrass did not flourish and multiply, the students were able to see firsthand the importance of a healthy Bay on the ecosystem.

In early 2013, we worked with Save The Bay in proposing a project to DEM and the Coastal Resources Management Council to dredge the marsh at Rocky Hill School to allow water to drain freely. The marsh had been degraded from the excessive amounts of standing water on the surface. Reducing a mosquito breeding ground was the short term goal while the long term goal was for the currently flooded areas to colonize with marsh vegetation. The physical work began about 18 months later when Save The Bay habitat restoration specialists returned to the marsh to dig creeks using hand shovels while a DEM official operated a low ground pressure excavator to widen and deepen the channels.
Thanks to Save The Bay’s work draining the marsh, the School’s Land of Fires Nature Trail, cleared by student and parent volunteers in September 2014, is now fully accessible at low tide. Visitors to the trail will be able to witness the marsh’s health improve over time as water is drained from it each time the tide recedes. We have witnessed a return of shorebirds and vegetation from the areas that were free of the standing water.
The benefits to Rocky Hill students don’t end with the marsh dredging. Students study the marsh in all aspects as part of their environmental education and marine ecology curriculum. AP Environmental Science students use preliminary data collected by Save The Bay on where vegetation was found and what the density of the salt marsh was before dredging, then started data collecting on their own. Year after year, students will be able to see real data from a marsh that acts as their classroom, and will determine if the dredging has succeeded in bringing that marsh back to its full potential.

Working with and hearing the message of people committed to protecting the environment has profoundly impacted our students. There is power to the words of Save The Bay and we enjoy working them. Our own work on campus is validated when we hear from professionals who work on the health of the Bay, and we are delighted to continue to work with Save The Bay for another 20 years.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Guest Blog - Learning about the natural world all around us

 By Megan Stoessell, Lincoln School Guest Blogger

In a brand new partnership with Save The Bay, Lincoln School’s lower school students are spending time with Save The Bay educators this year on a hands-on natural science curriculum. From a live fish tank installed at the school for animal collections, to shoreline and habitat exploration, to benthic trawls and much more, Lincoln students are enjoying a year of real-world experiences that connect classroom learning to the natural world around them. Megan Stoessell took a few minutes to share a little of last week’s visit with us:

It truly is the little things. Like riding the white-and-green bus to a field trip in Providence. And, on this sun-dappled day, learning about plankton, or "tiny sea creatures," as Victory Barnard ventured a guess.

Turns out, plankton are animals and plants. Which is "really cool," enthused Jen Kelly, an education specialist at Save The Bay, whose partnership with Lincoln School brought the first graders to the organization’s waterside center.

The seven students agreed. "They're really important in the ocean and in the Narragansett Bay, right out there, because they're food for lots of things," Kelly explained.
"I was surprised a jellyfish was plankton!" Victory added, while breaking for a healthy snack because, after all, girls need nourishment, too.

And if that wasn't exciting enough, Kelly showed a photo of a jellyfish bigger than a scuba diver. But pictures have nothing on the real deal.

"Sometime we get to hold the creatures," Mia Quattromani offered as the best part. Today that would be plankton, naturally, "caught off the dock this morning," Kelly shared.

Because you can't catch plankton back on campus, hence the beauty of this partnership. "They've gotten a different education than they would at school," teacher Alyssa Anderson observed. It's "the hands-on thing."