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!