Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Save The Bay works toward a sustainable Atlantic herring fishery

by Mike Jarbeau, Narragansett Baykeeper

You may remember that last fall, Save The Bay joined a coalition of like-minded partners to advocate for strong, ecosystem-based management measures in the Atlantic menhaden fishery (see Fall 2017 Tides article). The importance of menhaden and other forage fish to the health of Narragansett Bay cannot be denied. They perform the critical function of converting plankton and other tiny nutrients into food for larger fish to eat, and abundant menhaden support healthy levels of fish, birds and seals. While while our preferred measures were not adopted, we gained significant support and hope to see an ecosystem-based approach to managing this fishery in the next few years.

Altantic herring (Clupea harengus)
In the meantime, we have another opportunity to protect another key forage species—the Atlantic herring. Like Menhaden, Atlantic herring are a keystone species and the mainstay in the diets of striped bass, tuna, cod, and many of the birds and mammals that live in the Narragansett Bay watershed. Unfortunately, Atlantic herring aren’t doing very well. A new stock assessment this summer showed that the population is struggling, leading the New England Fisheries Management Council and National Marine Fisheries Service to take an emergency measure reducing the 2018 allowable catch catch by more than 50 percent, from 110,000 metric tons to 49,900 metric tons.

The New England Fisheries Management Council has been working on an amendment to the herring management plan for many years. Like last year’s menhaden proposal, the herring plan includes a measure that would set catch limits based upon the fish’s role as a forage fish, which Save The Bay supports. Under the current structure, Atlantic herring limits are largely based on past catch totals, which can lead to wide stock variations from year to year and extreme uncertainty regarding the future health of the fishery.

We also support the Council’s consideration of an inshore “buffer zone” that will protect Atlantic herring from the localized depletion and conflicts caused by large, industrial midwater trawlers, which can quickly harvest hundreds of thousands of pound of fish from a small area. Their harvest techniques affect other species that feed on herring, as well as the recreational fishermen, charter boats and others who make a living on the water. We believe a 25-mile buffer that includes the waters off of Narragansett Bay will help protect the Bay ecosystem, including river herring that gather offshore to make their way up our rivers and streams and are often caught by midwater trawl vessels as unwanted “bycatch.”

Opponents of these changes come mostly from the commercial fishing industry. Atlantic Herring are an important bait for the lobster fishery, and some in the industry are concerned about unintended side-effects on other fisheries. This is exactly why all fisheries need to take ecosystem considerations into account; in the end, all stocks will benefit from these science-based management techniques and reduce year-to-year uncertainty about the populations of fish.

We recently met with Gov. Raimondo’s staff and R.I. Department of Environmental Management Director Janet Coit to share our views on Atlantic herring. Rhode Island took a strong lead in advocating for menhaden protections last year, and we encourage the state’s delegation to the New England Fisheries Management Council to do the same when they meet at the end of the month to consider these new herring management measures. A healthy, vibrant Narragansett Bay depends on forage fish like Atlantic Herring and benefits each and every one of us.

Monday, September 10, 2018

A Blue Crab Rescue in Westerly: What a Way to Spend a Summer

by Mary Klimasewiski, Save The Bay educator

This summer, Save the Bay partnered with Tower Street School in Westerly and the Hasbro Summer Learning Initiative to offer a summer camp experience that combined marine science and summer fun. What could be better?

Over the course of six weeks, students visited six different publicly-accessible shoreline locations in Westerly, Watch Hill and Weekapaug, each one giving the students a different ecosystem to explore and learn about right in their backyards. In a directly hands-on experience with the plants and animals that live in their own hometown, the students learned what a watershed is, tested the water chemistry, completed plankton tows, learned about buoyancy and density, built aluminum foil boats, learned how to use a seine net and caught many native and invasive species of crabs, shrimp and fish. Some students even experienced their first boat ride when we pulled up lobster traps to see what kind of marine life lives beneath the water's surface and used binoculars to identify marine birds in the area. It was a busy summer!

The most memorable day of the summer though, was when a group of students using the seine net caught two blue crabs. The students were very excited with their catch, and at first glance, they thought the blue crabs were fighting. However, upon closer examination they soon realized that both of the blue crabs had tangled themselves up in fishing line and in fact were now attached to each other.

Immediately the students realized it was now their duty to help these two blue crabs. We grabbed a pair of scissors, cut the fishing line and untangled both of the blue crabs. Both blue crabs were happily released back into their water. Right away, the rescue of these two crustaceans brought to life for the students the concept of a watershed (a topic often difficult for students to fully grasp) and acted as an anecdote that helped these future Bay stewards understand that our actions on land do indeed have an impact on the life in the water.

At the end of our six week, the students were equally sad to know the BayCamp was coming to an end, excited to look back on all they had learned and accomplished, and hopeful to think about next year and the many more “blue crabs" out in the world needing their help. And since each location the students experienced during camp publicly accessible, they can go back to on their own time, any time, and of course bring along family and friends to share their newfound knowledge of the habitat that exists right in their own backyards.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Narragansett Bay: Always Changing, but Not Too Clean

by Mike Jarbeau, Baykeeper

The question of whether Narragansett Bay has become too clean to sustain a healthy fishery was the main topic of the annual Ronald C. Baird Sea Grant Symposium, held at the University of Rhode Island’s Bay Campus in December. While there was certainly no consensus among the communities present in the room, one theme was clear: the Bay has been changing since humans first settled in New England, and changes continue to occur today. But what are those changes? And is there a “Goldilocks” level of nitrogen or other nutrients to which the Bay should be managed?

In the science and research communities, Narragansett Bay is often touted as the most studied estuary in the world. State and federal agencies work closely with local colleges and universities to gather and interpret data in all reaches of the Bay. The University of Rhode Island’s Fish Trawl Survey, for example, began in 1959 and is one of the longest continuous records of marine species abundance in existence. And anyone who spends time on the water is also familiar with the many buoys, probes and gauges dotting the Bay that collect information to help us understand its complex dynamics. 

The Narragansett Bay Estuary Program’s recent State of Narragansett Bay and Its Watershed report does a great job summarizing what we know about the Bay, illustrating changing conditions and highlighting areas that need more investigation. 

Save The Bay staffers Joan Abrams and Topher
Hamblett pull up mats of Cladophora macroalgae
littering Little Narragansett Bay.
One major success has been a reduction of nutrients—nitrogen and phosphorus—entering the Bay from many sources, but particularly from the process of treating human wastewater. Just as nutrients in fertilizer cause our grass to grow, excessive amounts of nutrients in our water stimulate algae growth. Too much algae starves the water of oxygen as it dies and decomposes, harming marine life that needs that oxygen to survive. The good news is that the amount of nutrients going into the Bay has gone down by almost 60 percent over the last 15 years. But this success has led to questions about whether these nutrient reductions are negatively affecting fisheries by starving the Bay of its productivity. 

We must not be confused by the discussions. No, Narragansett Bay has not become some sort of dead zone incapable of supporting marine life. Yes, the Bay of several decades ago was different. And yes, we hear stories of the glory days gone by and the difficulty of making a living on inshore fisheries today. But we must take into account that many factors have caused the types and numbers of fish and shellfish in our waters to change. We can’t ignore decades of closed beaches and stories of ear infections or other health issues still felt by people who spend time in the water. And we must remember the extensive shellfish closures that are just now beginning to be lifted in parts of the Upper Bay, opening up new opportunities for fishermen. 

Reports from the 1800s tell us that Narragansett Bay was teeming with fish and natural resources readily available for harvest. Researchers point to many reasons why fisheries in the Bay have changed since then. But changed by what? 

Habitat quality is a critical component of a healthy ecosystem, and our Bay habitats have changed significantly over the past century. A Bay high in nutrients is not natural or conducive to the growth of critical habitats that support an abundant fishery. Much of the nuisance seaweed that washes up on our beaches in the summer is a result of excess nutrients. Eelgrass beds that were once plentiful all over the Bay floor, supporting a robust oyster population and providing habitat for fish and other shellfish, are scarce now, killed off by pollution, disease, and scallop trawls, despite significant efforts by Save The Bay and others to restore native beds.

A timeline and description of changes in the
Narragansett Bay fish community as water temperature have risen.
Water temperature also influences the types and abundance of fish in Narragansett Bay and surrounding waters. The water in Narragansett Bay has risen almost four degrees Fahrenheit since 1960. This temperature change is believed to have had a large effect on the types of fish that live in the Bay. In the 1960s, colder water temperatures supported a high abundance of bottom fish such as winter flounder. But in the next few decades, populations of these bottom fish declined as temperatures rose and allowed lobster and crab populations to grow. Finally, scientists say, in the last several decades, warmer-water species, such as black sea bass and scup, typically found in Mid-Atlantic waters (see illustration) have become more common.

The fact is: spawning conditions, habitat availability, pollution, and fishing pressure are among the many factors at play when we consider the current health and productivity of the Bay. As noted in the State of Narragansett Bay and Its Watershed report, more study is needed to fully understand the complexities of our marine ecosystem. We have many questions about how evolving Bay conditions affect the health and productivity of the microscopic phytoplankton that forms the basis of the entire marine food chain. More study is also needed to characterize the Bay’s response to improving conditions and how weather and water flow patterns influence offshore nutrient inputs, among many other topics. 

While we may not be able to pinpoint a “Goldilocks” scenario where conditions in the Bay are “just right” for every interest, there is no question that recent efforts are moving us closer to a Narragansett Bay that is fully fishable, swimmable and accessible. The Bay has been changing for centuries, requiring us to adapt to evolving conditions and new opportunities, just as we have always done. We should all be proud of the fact that beach closures are down, shellfish beds are reopening, and our investments in a cleaner Bay are paying off.

Algae blooms, caused by excessive nutrients in the water, can be seen along
the shores at Sabin Point.