Thursday, August 23, 2018

Critter Tale: Are Diamonds Forever?

by Chris Joseph, communications intern

They say that what is beautiful does not last. Such a statement may certainly be true of the diamondback terrapin, the endangered turtle whose Rhode Island populations are now dangerously low. The geometry of the terrapin’s trademark shell is unmistakable; it is one of the most striking patterns in nature. Its stands a fair chance of soon joining dozens of others in the catalog of discontinued designs. Alphabetically, you’d look for it between toad (Toad, Golden: Extinct 15 May, 1989) and tiger (Tiger, Tasmanian: Extinct 7 September, 1936). Beside "Terrapin, Diamondback," there might be a caption: “Its majesty was unmatched. Its noble pattern continues to inspire.”

We might take a lesson from the terrapin; in Rhode Island, anyway, it's a lot like us.

Of all the turtles in the world, the terrapin is the only species that lives exclusively in coastal marshes. Some turtles are equipped to come and go from brackish waters, but the terrapin thrives in tidal marshes, where fresh and salt water mix. Its special salt gland is the only adaptation of its kind. It must live its whole life right where the ocean meets the land.

Rhode Islanders, does this sound familiar?

We are also bound to the coast. Some of us would leave no more easily than the terrapin, whose biology compels it to stay. Our compulsion runs as deep as a good genetic design. That much we have in common with the terrapin: we are both coastal creatures.

Yet life on the coast is precarious. The terrapin inhabits the thinnest sliver: the tidal marshes that hang between the rivers and the Bay. These delicate environments are trapped between waterfront developments and rising seas. As storms strengthen, they are drowned and destroyed, and the terrapins are cast out where only roads and crowded waterways greet them. The loss of their coastal habitat is their downfall. Without a home in Rhode Island, our terrapins cannot last long. Humans might take a lesson from the terrapin.

Luckily, Save The Bay has acquired two diamondback terrapins, and is keeping them at the Exploration Center and Aquarium in Newport, Rhode Island. The first of the turtles, Jerry, was found without an upper jaw, rendering him unable to feed himself and survive in the wild. Consequently, the state Department of Environmental Management issued a permit allowing Save The Bay to keep the turtle.

The second turtle, Phyllis, was donated to the aquarium by a family that had mistakenly taken the terrapin as a pet. Phyllis’s time spent out of the wild similarly reduced her chances of survival, and so DEM issued a second permit allowing Phil to join Jerry at the aquarium. The two recently got a new addition to their tank—a giant sandbox that aquarist Adam Kovarsky hopes will set the stage for a few new additions to Rhode Island's diamondback terrapin population. Both are still getting used to it, but the conditions in the enclosure are perfect for Phyllis to lay eggs when she’s ready.

Today, the turtles are happy and healthy. With any luck, they will mate and bring healthy offspring. But the truth is that they are two among the last of their kind in Rhode Island. Individuals like Phil and Jerry will lead long lives in captivity, but wild terrapins face sinking ground if they continue to call the Rhode Island coast their home.

The loss of a coastal habitat is a warning shot to all coastal creatures. The diamondback terrapin have been among the first to face local extinction because it is a sensitive species, but the destruction of its wetland habitat signals the beginning of widespread coastline erosion. High seas and strong storms may threaten us, too, if we do not restore our coastal ecosystems and adapt our towns to changing conditions.

These corrections will not be quick or easy, but the story of the terrapin proves they are worthwhile like the turtle, our home is beautiful, but fragile.

Community members can visit Phil and Jerry, at Save The Bay's Exploration Center and Aquarium, located at 175 Memorial Blvd. in Newport, from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. daily through Labor Day and on weekends during the rest of the year.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Make a World of Difference

by July Lewis, internship and volunteer manager

Can you imagine 800,000 people picking up 20 million pieces of trash in one giant global beach cleanup? You don’t have to imagine it—you can be a part of it! This year's International Coastal Cleanup is Saturday, September 15, and you can sign up to join it right here.

The Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup is a simple but powerful concept: volunteers all over the world clean up the shore and record what they find. The resulting report is a key weapon in the global fight against the trash that is filling up our oceans. We use the report to raise awareness of the problem, to argue for better products and policies, and to find solutions.

Save The Bay is proud to coordinate the Rhode Island’s participation in the International Coastal Cleanup. Anyone can become a citizen scientist researching this issue. Here’s how to get involved!


As always, we have a list of cleanups to choose from on September 15, and anyone can sign up. Alternate dates are available throughout September and October if you can’t make it on the “big day.” This is a great activity for groups and families, so feel free to recruit others to come with you. No prep is needed—just bring yourself, some sturdy shoes and a reusable bottle of water to stay hydrated. We’ll provide the rest!


It’s easy to lead a cleanup! Your cleanup can be a big event or even small group of friends and family. It’s up to you! Step 1) Coordinate a date and location with me. Step 2) Pick up a Save The Bay cleanup kit. Step 3) On the day of your cleanup, give some easy instructions to your group and do the cleanup, gathering the trash together in a pile for pickup (I will arrange permission and disposal with the town or park). Step 4) Return the kit, and you’re done!

Sign up for cleanup leader training on Thursday, August 30, 6-7:30 PM at 100 Save The Bay Drive, Providence. If you need more details or information, contact me at


Download The Ocean Conservancy’s CleanSwell app, and you can do mini-cleanups wherever you go! Take a bag with you the next time you go to the shore and spend a few minutes cleaning up and recording what you find. Just tap the icons for straws, cigarette butts, food wrappers, etc. to keep track as you pick up. The app will automatically record your location, the distance you walked, the time you spent cleaning up, and the weight of your items. Hit submit and all the data goes to the Ocean Conservancy to be included in their database. You can even take a photo and post it to social media with your results!

JUST REMEMBER: Any cleanups of more than a few people, or where a large volume of trash is being picked up, must be arranged ahead of time with the park or the town. Don’t fill up the park’s trash barrel (if they have one) or leave bags on the curb – be prepared to take your trash home with you!


So please come out and join us for the International Coastal Cleanup, whether it’s joining a cleanup, leading a cleanup, or using the Clean Swell app. And please spread the word—every bit of trash we keep out of the Bay makes a difference!

Friday, August 17, 2018

50 WAYS WE'VE SAVED THE BAY: Before we could save the Bay, we had to save a community

by Katy Dorchies, Marketing and Graphics Specialist

In January 1970, at the end of a five-hour town council meeting, a sole voice of opposition stood against an otherwise unanimous vote to renew a permit. The renewal, requested by the Northeast Petroleum Refinery, Inc. was the company’s first step toward building an oil refinery in Tiverton, R.I. The voice of opposition belonged to a new councilwoman, Louise Durfee.

By August of that same year, Northeast Petroleum Refining Inc. presented its proposal for an oil refinery along the northwestern coast of Tiverton and immediately launched a persuasive public relations campaign. The company hosted parties throughout the Sakonnet River area, distributing—what the opposition began calling—“those glossy brochures” that boasted a long list of benefits that would accompany the refinery’s construction: an increase in employment opportunities, a decrease in taxes, explosions in the housing and banking markets.

This early model depicted Northeastern petroleum's proposed refinery plans.
(Image credit: Herald Times, August 12, 1970)

However, the brochures neglected to address what Durfee and her acquaintances knew to be larger concerns: threats to air quality, the infamous crude oil stench, and, above all, a compromised local ecosystem.

Long before a simple Google search could retrieve these facts and statistics for curious residents, and without regulatory bodies like the Department of Environmental Management or Coastal Resources Management Council to monitor the proposal, Durfee and the rest of the opposition had to take extraordinary measures to inform Tiverton’s residents about the risks associated with Northeast Petroleum’s proposed project.

The day after the proposal went public, Durfee, who had once worked with an oil company in New York, John Canulla, a retired IRS officer who had traveled the country collecting and writing reports on oil refineries, John Scanlon, a public relations consultant, and others met in Durfee’s home to strategize.Their efforts resulted in the creation of Save Our Community, an organization with two simple goals. First, they endeavored to circulate a petition of the project. Second, they set about collecting donations to fund an objective investigation into the economic and environmental impacts of the Northeast Petroleum refinery. They wanted the community to know the information that wasn’t on “those glossy brochures.”

From September to November of the same year, Save Our Community held a series of public hearings and put their hired attorney, Jim Edwards, at the helm. Edwards worked tirelessly on the case for months and treated the hearings like a courtroom. He brought in biologists, ecologists and economists to address the lack of refinery safety precautions, the ability of the town to respond to a fire or spill, the inflation of Northeast Petroleum’s production and employment projections, and, of course, the irreversible impacts of the refinery on the local environment.

Support for the refinery began to plummet. In papers across the region, letters-to-the-editor and reader-submitted cartoons opposing the project flooded the weeklies’ pages. Canulla’s reports from spills around the nation ran alongside them, serving as cautionary tales, and United States Senators Claiborne Pell and John O. Pastore made statements against the project.

Finally, in a frighteningly close 4-3 vote, the Tiverton Town Council defeated the project by rejecting the zoning request presented by Northeast Petroleum in November 1970.

But this was just the beginning, and while members of Save Our Community celebrated a victory in their initial challenge to defeat the Tiverton refinery, they could not ignore the feeling that similar battles were on the horizon, not only in Tiverton, but across Rhode Island. The grassroots organization resituated itself to serve all of Narragansett Bay, changed its name to Save The Bay, appointed Scanlon as its first Executive Director. In later years, Durfee would serve as the organization’s fifth Board President.

While the locations of the battles, the nature of the threats, and the individuals involved may have changed over the years, many things remain the same. Those involved with Save The Bay remain tireless. They seek to inform and be informed. They recognize that the responsibility of protecting and improving a resource as great as Narragansett Bay is not one to be taken lightly. And they continue, though perhaps now in a more metaphorical sense, to track down the information missing from the “glossy brochure” and share it with all who will listen.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Scenes along the Mattatuxet: A dam goes out; wildlife come in

by Kate McPherson, Riverkeeper

An American eel rests on the edge of the rock, covered in muck. I carefully climb down the rocks to the pool where it is resting, trying to remember if eels bite. I’m fairly certain they don’t, but I’m pretty sure they are slippery. What I know is that this eel needs my help getting out of the construction zone that is being actively dewatered so this dam can come down.

I rest one hand on what is left of the old spillway of the Shady Lea dam and reach for the eel, right behind the gills. I am not quick enough, and it swims under a large boulder, into deeper liquid muck. On my hands and knees reaching under the rock, with dark water swirling up my arm past my elbow as I feel around for the eel, I beam up at Ashlee Tyce and tell her without any irony at all that I love my job.

I recall my first visit to this stretch of the Mattatuxet River in North Kingstown, located about a mile and a half upstream of Gilbert Stuart’s birthplace on Carr Pond. It was my first week as Save The Bay's Riverkeeper, and on that particular day, I was meeting with the owner of Shady Lea Mill, neighbors, and engineers to facilitate the start of the second phase of dam removal.

The habitat behind Shady Lea mill is a secluded stretch of wide shallow river, with white oak and red maple trees shading the water on the southern bank and highbush blueberry, sweet pepperbush, and green briars tucked between the trunks. Cinnamon ferns nod at the riverbank edge and an occasional skunk cabbage crops up along the wooded bank. That warm spring afternoon was a chorus of birdsong. As we discussed backhoe access to the river, a blue-gray gnatcatcher flitted from branch to branch looking for small arthropods, a great crested flycatcher flamboyantly announced its presence from a nearby low branch, and warbling vireos sang at the pond edge. Deeper in the forest to the south, ovenbird, eastern towhee and black and white warbler sang. A pine warbler stopped to consider if the deciduous canopy would meet his nesting requirements as we considered the logistics of taking down this historic, but high-hazard, dam.

I suppose that warbler must have found a nice patch of white pines this summer, since it’s now mid-July and I haven't heard him sing since. The dam is now halfway out at Shady Lea, and will be replaced by four granite rock weirs over which the river will cascade down and fish will swim up. For the first time in 200 years, wildlife, including species that are not terribly mobile, will be free to move up and downstream.

This will mean changes to the wetland habitat upstream of the old dam, but change is constant in a river system, and already the Mattatuxet River is adapting. Seeds trapped in what was the mucky pond bottom have a chance at life and new plants have emerged. Deep areas previously hidden by the pond have been revealed and may provide new breeding habitat for wood frogs and spotted salamanders.

After my eel adventure, I walk upriver to what’s left of the old impoundment, where the water collected above the dam.The painted turtles and green frogs I’ve seen here won’t mind the changes to the river, for they are equally at home in permanent ponds and small rivers. I hike through some fragrant sweet pepperbush at the wetland edge, and the gray catbirds, irritated, glare and scold. I startle a musk turtle on the move! A rare treat, musk turtles are shy aquatic species that prefer slow moving muddy bottomed waters. This turtle is moving north into the deep marsh upstream.

Now that the dam is on its way out, this turtle’s offspring will be able to find their own habitat downriver to slow-moving muddy habitat in Carr’s pond. Opening up the river will hopefully mean anadromous fish—fish such as alewife and blueback herring, which spawn in freshwater rivers and return to the ocean—will be able to bring a new generation of fish in the waters behind Shady Lea mill. Observing the changes, I can’t help but feel optimistic.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

The Delight of the First Visit to the Aquarium

by Mia Chiappone, communications intern

Tuesday morning was bright, beautiful and warm, and I was going to spend it volunteering at the Save The Bay Exploration Center & Aquarium. Driving down Memorial Boulevard in Newport, R.I., looking out over the blue ocean and white sand at Easton’s Beach, I knew it was going to be a good day away from my busy work life. I knew this, because I had no idea what to expect—and I’ve learned the best things happen when you don’t expect them.
The location of the aquarium on Easton’s Beach is unreal. In between beautiful cliffs and positioned on the beach facing the ocean, I had no idea what this circular building was holding on the inside.
Octopuses? Sharks? Nemo?
No, this aquarium doesn’t contain tropical, bright fish (except a few that are swept up with the Gulf stream and cannot survive Rhode Island’s cold winters) or dolphins or penguins that are kept in tanks their whole lives. Instead, the Save The Bay Exploration Center and Aquarium exclusively features species native to Narragansett Bay. The critters are given to the aquarium by fishermen and scientists and are released within a year if they are healthy.
Having grown up in Rhode Island and being a huge ocean person, I was surprised to see so many species I'd never seen before and didn't even know existed right here in my own backyard. Did you know, for example, that those little golden pouches you often see washed up on the beach are mermaid purses—the egg sacks of baby little skates that will grow to the size of a steering wheel?
When I walked into the aquarium, I felt very welcomed by the volunteers and the manager, Adam Kovarsky. I looked around the front area and saw beautiful artwork and was eager to go tank to tank.
I was not expecting to ask as many questions as I did. A huge difference between the Save The Bay's cozy Exploration Center and Aquarium and other aquariums I have visited is the level of individual attention from the staff. I learned more here than at any other aquarium I’ve visited.
The animals ranged from tortoises and crabs to all sizes of fish, sharks and eels. And the best part? You can touch many of the creatures.
Visitors can pet critters in three touch tanks, each stationed with a volunteer docent to answer questions. The children around me were far braver than I was at picking up the spider crabs and touching the skates, although I did stay at the dogfish shark tank for about two hours petting the little guy who kept poking his head out of the water. I was intrigued by the two-foot, gray shark and wondered why he never went below the surface. I came to learn he was “spy hopping,” a reaction to all the vibrations in the room caused by our voices, our footsteps, and everything inbetween. The dogfish shark could even feel our heartbeats when our hands were in the water. Strong sensory receptors along the shark's sides sense these vibrations and stir an innate curiosity to visualize its surroundings above the water.
I had the best time, and I felt like one of the little children running around going tank to tank and asking a million questions about every creature. I also realized I wasn’t the only one feeling that way. Many adults came in without kids to check out the creatures we all swim with in Narragansett Bay.

Monday, August 6, 2018

The State of Narragansett Bay and Its Watershed

Contributed by the staff of the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program

We’ve been asked: Isn’t the Bay saved already? The answer isn’t so cut-and-dry. In fact, the Bay is so much cleaner than it once was. And, it’s not as clean as it could, or should, be. What’s more, while many former threats, such as industrial factory waste, have been remedied, new and more complex threats are emerging. Skeptics may ask: how do we know?

Beginning in 2014, the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program brought together more than 50 environmental practi-tioners from universities, state and federal agencies, nonprofit and for-profit organizations in Massachusetts and Rhode Island to collaboratively produce the 2017 State of Narragansett Bay and Its Watershed report. This robust and well-rounded collective of experts gathered and analyzed the best available data and put together a comprehensive, 500-page technical report on the status and trends in 24 topic areas that describe the conditions of the Bay and watershed and the stressors that threaten them.

The findings in the 2017 State of Narragansett Bay and Its Watershed report offer a new and unique understanding of the changing conditions in this important region. The incredible value of the report is that agencies, organizations, and individuals can use this information in their decision-making to ensure that the benefits provided by the Bay and watershed are sustained and enhanced for future generations. 

The Good News 

The water in the Bay is getting cleaner. Over the past several decades, major investments in wastewater facilities and restrictions on harmful chemicals have paid off in a dramatic drop in pollution. Discharges of bacteria, often from human and animal waste, excessive nutrients that lead to insufficient oxygen for marine life, and such legacy toxic pollutants as metals, PCBs, and pesticides have declined.

Scientists are tracking changes in the ecosystem after recent reductions in pollution from wastewater treatment facilities. Scientists are looking at biology, chemistry, and physics to understand how nutrient reductions are impacting our ecosystem. Additionally, research is looking at the cause of lower dissolved oxygen concentrations and how the fish populations are changing. 

Conditions vary greatly among places in the Bay and watershed, generally improving with distance from urban areas. But, urbanized areas are expanding. This spreading of the human population has spurred changes in land use, including loss of forests, that negatively affect rivers and the Bay. Conditions in the Bay also improve with distance from the Providence, Fall River and other highly urbanized areas. 

Major Stressors Currently Threatening Progress 

Climate change shifts. Decades of scientific data show that local air and water temperatures have warmed, rainfall has increased in volume and intensity, and sea level has risen. These changes are already happening and will continue into the future. Rising temperatures and increased rainfall stresses local stormwater systems, negatively affects human health and may change the species that inhabit the Bay and freshwaters. By understanding these changes, we can make better decisions and implement better policies to help protect land, communities, and infrastructure.

Sea level rise is stressing low-lying areas— particularly developed areas where people live and work. Additionally, salt marshes are drowning in place and have little room to retreat to higher ground. Salt marshes play important roles in the ecosystem by providing shelter, nurseries, and feeding grounds for fish and shellfish and protection from storms and flooding for coastal communities. Sea level rise will bring more frequent flooding to low-lying coastal areas which could displace homes, roads and coastal habitats. 

Urbanization. Population has increased over the last 20 years. People are spreading out, moving to more rural areas. Urban areas are expanding at the expense of forested lands. Demands for infrastructure such as roads, waste management, and power lines have increased, and habitat has been fragmented. More urbanized areas mean more impervious surfaces such as roads and buildings which can lead to warmer temperatures, more polluted runoff into waterways, and less natural habitat for animals.

Degradation of water quality. Significant advances in stormwater management, wastewater infrastructure, and policies aimed at reducing pollution have improved water quality significantly. However, water quality is still under threat from emerging contaminants, polluted runoff and climate change. High nutrient levels lead to low dissolved oxygen, which threatens fish and shellfish and can cause significant loss of life. Additionally, emerging contaminants such as personal care products and medications have unknown impacts on the natural ecosystem. 

Looking Toward the Future 

The work does not stop here. We need continued monitoring to better understand the effects of nutrient and bacteria reductions on the Bay. Reducing nutrient pollution from Taunton River Estuary wastewater treatment facilities and from nonpoint sources will be crucial to the overall health of the Bay going forward. Finally, we need to enhance the watershed’s resiliency to climate change impacts.