Thursday, April 19, 2018

Critter Tale: Fish or a porcupine?

by Erica Meier, communications intern

Hi there! I am a striped burrfish at Save The Bay’s Exploration Center and Aquarium. A middle school student rescued me from Narragansett Bay, and Save The Bay staff took me in and cared for me. Now I live in the tropical travelers tank with three other striped burrfish and a few other species of fish that have also traveled here from far away. Although my species can be found off the east coast of North America in waters from Nova Scotia to the Bahamas, we are much more concentrated in the warm southern waters. All of the fish in this tank are called “gulf stream orphans” because we drifted from our southern habitats in the warm waters of the gulf stream and ended up here in Narragansett Bay. Often, gulf stream orphans can’t survive New England's cold winter waters, so we are lucky to have found a home at the Exploration Center, where many visitors see and learn about us.

Visitors to the Exploration Center are always drawn to me because of my unique look and interesting features. My relatively small, light tan body is covered with black wavy lines, short thick spines and bright yellow underside that make me easy to spot. What really catches visitors' attention are the big spines that cover my body and are always visible, meant to scare away anything that might want to mess with me.

While I most likely won’t grow to more than 10 inches long, when I feel threatened, I can puff up to twice my body size by taking in water and enhancing my pointy spines. Many other species of puffer fish also take in water when they are threatened, but unlike me, their spines aren’t visible unless they puff up. In the wild, I typically live in seagrass beds or near shallow coral reefs and use my strong beak-like mouth to eat small fish, crabs, crustaceans, snails, barnacles and clams. Here at the Exploration Center, I live in an exhibit that’s just right for me and am fed lots of yummy food every day, including my favorite thing to eat, periwinkles.

People could be seeing more striped burrfish and other gulf stream orphans in Narragansett Bay in the future, because climate change is causing the oceans to warm. Once I arrived in the Bay from my warm gulf stream current, I was okay for a little while in the summer, but would not have survived very long at all in the cold winter water. As water temperatures gradually rise, however, striped burrfish and other gulf stream orphans are surviving here longer and longer. A rise in non-native species like me may change the balance of biodiversity in the Bay and affect other native species of fish and marine life, because new species may not have any natural predators here or have traits and defense mechanisms that are uncommon in this part of the ocean.

I have learned about all of this from the aquarists at Save The Bay who teach visitors about me and other fish in the tropical travelers tank, the effects of climate change and what they can do to help. The Exploration Center is a great place to learn and explore, and I hope you’ll come by and see me and the over 40 other species from Narragansett Bay that are here too!

Monday, April 16, 2018

Mystery on the Runnins River

by Rachel Calabro, former Riverkeeper

The nine-mile Runnins River, which flows south through Seekonk and East Providence before emptying into Hundred Acre Cove, has suffered from high levels of bacteria for decades. While Hundred Acre Cove remains a popular place for fishing, kayaking and rowing, it has been closed to shellfishing since the 1980s because of that bacteria. An extensive, coordinated effort by Rhode Island and Massachusetts environmental agencies to identify the specific source of contamination has yet to yield a clear answer. Monitoring has revealed that bacteria levels are high in both dry and wet weather, so the culprit is not just polluted stormwater. Pipes have been investigated, septic systems analyzed and potential human markers—chemicals that might be found in human sewage, such as caffeine, chlorine, ammonia and the surfactants that are prevalent in laundry soap -- have been tested. But no obvious answers have been found. 

The Runnins River flows through thick strands of phragmites
in the "triangle" area of Seekonk. Bacteria in this area has
been high for decades, without clear explanation.
For Save The Bay, giving up is not an option. This is why our Riverkeeper program recently revived the Runnins River Task Force, a team that includes scientists and federal, state and local agencies that will explore new avenues of investigation. 

What we know: The Runnins River is impacted by businesses on Route 6, industrial development and small septic systems. It flows into a low marshy area called the “triangle” just before it hits Route 114, emptying out into Hundred Acre Cove in Barrington. An as-yet unexplored possibility is that the bacteria may be incubating within the phragmites marsh itself, as stagnant water warms in the vegetation. A dam, owned by the Exxon/Mobil Corporation, contributes to the stagnation of water. In another twist, Mobil has been required for years to pump groundwater out of the system because of a history of contamination. The Task Force will explore the possibility that groundwater pumping may be drawing more bacteria into the river. We will also look at the effects of higher tides and the backwatering from the Mobil Dam. 

Funding for this kind of work comes from federal sources, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Southeastern New England Program. Massachusetts and Rhode Island both rely heavily on state and local agencies to enforce important federal environmental laws protecting our local waters. Many of these agencies receive significant federal funding to do so. What happens at the federal level could have significant impacts on our water quality locally. 

Water quality testing on the Runnins River, for instance, is made possible by funding that comes from our regional EPA office and goes directly to Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM). If the regional EPA office is eliminated, or if Clean Water Act funding is cut, our ability to retain experts and engineers to help solve some of our long-standing issues in the Bay—such as the mysterious bacteria pollution in the Runnins River—will be severely hampered. It is imperative that Congress push back against proposals to weaken the Clean Water Act and the programs that support local Bay cleanup efforts. At the same time, state political leaders must also step up and invest in environmental agencies that are charged with protecting and improving Narragansett Bay. 

Thursday, April 12, 2018

A Day at the Aquarium, with My Favorite Things

by Erica Meier, communications intern

When I was told on the first day of my communications internship at Save The Bay that I would participate in the different aspects of Save The Bay’s programs, including volunteering at the Exploration Center and Aquarium for a day, I was ecstatic. I had no idea what to expect, but as someone with a love for all things ocean related, I was excited about the chance to experience working at the aquarium. I had never been to the Exploration Center and was delighted to learn that it has three touch tanks where I would get to help guests learn about and safely interact with the many critters that inhabit the tanks.

I began my day at the Exploration Center before it opened by meeting all of the interns and volunteers who work there. I spent the time before opening walking around to the different exhibits to familiarize myself with all of the creatures in the aquarium. I was amazed at how many different species of marine life are in the aquarium and shocked to discover that creatures like sea horses, little skates and dogfish sharks reside right off the coast of our little ocean state in Narragansett Bay.

Chain catshark eggs resemble "mermaid's purses" often
seen washed up on beaches.
An aquarist intern showed me the little skate and horseshoe crab touch tank where I would be stationed for the first part of the day. I was fascinated to learn that baby skates come from “mermaid’s purses” and that the aquarium has eggs growing in a nearby tank along with recently hatched baby skates and chain dogfish. Seeing the life cycle of little skates and chain dogfish right there in the Exploration Center was so amazing!

The skate and horseshoe crab touch tank was one of the most popular exhibits, fascinating kids and parents alike. Children were always eager to reach in and touch one of the little skates resting on a ledge near the edge of the tank, and their eyes lit up when I lifted up a horseshoe crab so they could see all of its little legs on the underside of its hard outer shell.

Recently hatched "mermaid's purses" reveal these juvenile
little skates and chain catsharks.
The parents were just as interested as I had been when I told them that the mermaid’s purses carried little skate eggs and showed them the tank where they, and their chain dogfish cousins, are visible growing inside of their eggs. Visitors of every age were fascinated with some aspect of these creatures, and I realized that the Exploration Center is not just a place for children to come explore, but an experience for the whole family.

Next I was off to the shark touch tank, inhabited by chain dogfish and a smooth dogfish shark. The smooth dogfish shark was in constant motion, dancing around the tank, swimming in a circular motion and bobbing up and down with its head out of the water. One bright-eyed and energetic toddler in particular loved this station as much as I did and kept returning to stand with me and watch the dogfish swim around and around. After eagerly reaching forward in the sharks direction time and again only to jump back when it swam near, he eventually worked up the courage to reach in and gently touch its back as it danced past. The energetic boy’s eyes lit up with excitement, so proud that he’d finally done it! He even took to grabbing my hand and bringing me back and forth with him between the three touch tanks, eager to interact with all of the critters. Interacting with the guests, particularly the children who were having such a blast exploring everything in sight, was my favorite part of the experience. I had just as much fun as they did and felt like I was learning and exploring with them.

The touch tanks at the Exploration Center and Aquarium
captivate visitors of all ages.
Last I moved to the tide pool touch tank, where children were especially interested in the many different critters they could uncover. Some young children excitedly pointed to shells and starfish in the tank, exclaiming how they’d seen the same creatures at the beach before. Kids would stand peering down into the water inquisitively as I instructed them to touch the backs of the starfish stuck to the wall of the tank and hold the shells that rest on the bottom of the tank. A few young children were courageous enough to hold a hermit crab that I gently placed in their hands and carefully touched the back of a spider crab.

The wonder and excitement of the kids visiting the Exploration Center was contagious, and getting to show them all the different critters in the Aquarium was an incredible experience. As someone who has always loved marine life and has worked with children for many years, I felt this experience truly combined some of my favorite things, and I had such a great time that I’ve decided to continue volunteering at Save The Bay’s Exploration Center and Aquarium even after my internship is over. 

Monday, April 9, 2018

Calling on my fellow college students: Stop trashing the Bay

by Julia Gentillo, communications intern

Although it’s the smallest state, Rhode Island has nearly 400 miles of coastline and 12 college and universities that students seasonally attend from August to May. These student bodies have an opportunity to positively impact the state, but are students doing more harm than anything else?

As a student at Roger Williams University in Bristol, I’ve experienced first-hand how college students treat their seasonal home. The Mount Hope Bay is one of the biggest selling points for the university—at least, it was for me. From anywhere on campus, I can catch a glimpse of the glistening bay. However, a closer look tells different story. When I visit some of my fellow students' most beloved spots along the shore, I find broken beer bottles, cigarette butts and school supplies scattered everywhere. My fellow students always brag about the Bay, but I wonder, why are they trashing it?

Growing up along the Hudson River taught me a lot about water quality and care. The Hudson is notorious for being dirty and polluted, so I was always conditioned to be mindful about the environment and the repercussions my actions will have on it. But it seems to me as if other college students don’t have the same attitudes when it comes to caring for the water. Although it is embarrassing to admit, I thought all water had the same grayish, murky tint until I came to Rhode Island. Now I know better: the Bay should never look like that.

Each year, Save The Bay organizes dozens of cleanups along Rhode Island’s shorelines. The cleanups take place on weekends from March to October throughout the state. Last year on International Coastal Cleanup day in September, over 2 million cigarette butts and 500,000 glass beverage bottles were collected across the country. Locally, Save The Bay volunteers cleared our coastal areas of 35,000 cigarette butts and 4,000 glass bottles.

Prior to interning at Save The Bay, I was really unaware of the issues with the Bay. I knew about a lot of broken bottles and trash along the shore, but what other problems could there really be? Well, as it turns out, Save The Bay does much more than just organize beach cleanups across the state.  I think colleges and universities in the area really need to push and educate more about the Bay and Save The Bay’s mission. There is so much everyone can do. The problem is so much bigger than just protecting the Narragansett Bay and its watershed, it’s a global issue.

Approximately, 83,111 students attend a college or university in Rhode Island. If each college student picked up just one pound of trash, we would be able to sextuple the amount of marine debris picked up in Rhode Island in 2017. Even if each college student couldn’t attend an official beach cleanup, they can still participate and make a positive impact. The Ocean Conservancy’s “Trash Free Seas” campaign has created an app to track individual efforts to clean up coastal areas. The app, Clean Swell, gives users an opportunity to share their results and learn more about the impact of marine debris. Clean Swell would be a great effort to get college students involved because let’s face it, we are always on our phones.

On average, 80 percent of college students drink, consuming roughly seven drinks per week. I am not a math major but, I believe that breaks down to 66,489 students drinking 465,422 drinks each week. Where do all of the 465,422 beverage containers end up? We all know not everything makes it into the proper recycling bin. Imagine the impact if 83,111 students stopped littering? Imagine how clean our shores would be if hundreds of thousands of bottles didn’t end up there in the first place.

I know college is overwhelming and stressful, but we shouldn’t treat our environment as if we don’t have time for it. It’s time for college students to stand up and take action about littering and marine debris, even if you don’t think you’re contributing to the problem. Leaving thousands of bottles along the shore does not solve anything. We have the power to positively impact the environment and keep the Bay looking clean and beautiful, unlike the Hudson.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Constitutional Guarantee: A Bay for All

by Kendra Beaver, staff attorney, David Prescott, South Coastkeeper, and Mike Jarbeau, Baykeeper

“Save The Bay” has become synonymous with improving the quality of our beautiful waters, but you may not realize that we’re also working to ensure that your constitutional right to use the shoreline is upheld. Article 1, Section 17 of the Rhode Island Constitution states, “the people shall continue to enjoy and freely exercise all the rights of fishery and the privileges of the shore, to which they have been heretofore entitled under the charter… of this state.” 

Our vision is a “fully swimmable, fishable, healthy Narragansett Bay, accessible to everyone.” Since Save The Bay’s inception in 1970, we have been dedicated to preserving and creating lateral access along the shoreline, while fostering a sense of ownership and stewardship for those who use the Bay. 

Community members harvesting
seafood at the Sabin Point shoreline.
The Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) has designated 222 “public rights-of-way” that guarantee public access to our shoreline. CRMC also now has an active program aimed at designating more rights-of-way, bringing the total number of state-designated public access points to our shoreline to 420, or one access point per mile of shoreline. 

In collaboration with CRMC and a cohort of other partners and volunteers, Save The Bay recently completed an important project that “ground-truthed” the existing 222 rights-of-way—physically visiting and observing these sites for true accessibility and any obstructions preventing access. We also combined and corrected existing geographic information mapping of the designated rights-of-way. 

Our preliminary report includes the following findings: 
  • Almost half of the access points are in need of maintenance. 
  • More than one-third of the access points are at least partly obstructed to foot traffic. Vegetation overgrowth and property encroachment were the most common obstructions, while purposeful obstruction (placement of boulders, fences, gates, etc.) was observed at nearly 10 percent of the sites. 
  • Only half of the access points provide parking. Without public parking, most citizens are unable to use these rights-of-way, rendering the access obsolete. 
  • Litter was observed at more than a third of the rights-of-way. Only 32 access points had trash receptacles, while 11 had recycling receptacles. 
  • Coastal flooding, coastal erosion and stormwater erosion were observed at about one-third of the access points, highlighting the continued threat to the existence of many of these rights-of-way from climate change and sea level rise. 

In the next phase of this project, we’ll be reaching out to individuals and communities to address obstructions, asking them to remove barriers to access, create parking or bike racks and supply trash and recycling receptacles. 

About 133 miles of Narragansett Bay’s 420-mile shoreline is lined with riprap walls, bulkheads and other manmade structures. These hardened shorelines, combined with rising sea levels and erosion, will only continue to threaten and impede public access. To fully realize our vision for a fully swimmable, fishable, healthy Narragansett Bay, “accessible to all,” we must protect existing rights-of-way and work cooperatively with CRMC and our communities to establish additional rights-of-way, so the waters of Rhode Island may be readily enjoyed by the public as protected by the Rhode Island Constitution. 

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Return of the Kickemuit: From defunct water supply to healthy habitat?

By Rachel Calabro, former Riverkeeper

Once a clean drinking water supply for residents in Bristol and Warren, the eight-mile Kickemuit River has recently been plagued by water pollution that has rendered its water unsafe to drink and its habitat severely degraded. Today, Save The Bay is embarking on a project with local partners to restore Kickemuit water to its former glory. However, waning federal support for local environmental programs threatens the viability of the effort.

The Kickemuit River watershed covers parts of the towns of Rehoboth and Swansea, Massachusetts, and Warren and Bristol, Rhode Island. Originating in Rehoboth, the freshwater river flows into the Warren Reservoir in Swansea, then under interstate 195 and Route 6 to the Massachusetts-Rhode Island border, where it empties into the Upper and Lower Kickemuit reservoirs. The dam at the southern end of the Kickemuit Reservoir marks the boundary between freshwater and saltwater Kickemuit.

Algae-covered Kickemuit Reservoir photo
Algae on the Kickemuit reservoir impairs habitat and water quality.
Use of the river as a water supply began in 1882, when clean water was delivered directly from the river to 6,000 residents through 14 miles of cast iron pipes. By 1908, bacteria was discovered to be the source of cholera and other waterborne illnesses, and the Warren Water Treatment Plant was created to treat Kickemuit water with chlorine. Over the next several decades, growing problems with water quality and inadequate water supply went unaddressed until 1986, when the Rhode Island Legislature formed the Bristol County Water Authority (BCWA). BCWA was charged with rehabilitating and upgrading the water distribution system and eventually building a connection to the Providence Water supply system, which would provide a sufficient supply of quality water to the residents of Bristol County, while bypassing Kickemuit sources altogether.

The BCWA has maintained the old system as a backup while taking water from Providence, but water quality and habitat in the Kickemuit have deteriorated to the degree that it will no longer provide potable water. Both the Shad Factory Pond on the Palmer River and the Kickemuit Reservoir have filled in with sediment, while invasive plants and algae have also become concerns. The dams that keep this system intact are aging. 

Over the years, Save The Bay has worked with local, state and federal partners to build fish ladders on both dams, in an effort to support the return of migratory fish such as shad and herring. But when the fish make their way into the reservoirs, they find ponds with poor water quality and little spawning habitat. Save The Bay is now working with the BCWA to assess both the Shad Factory and Kickemuit Reservoir dams for potential removal, while the water authority pursues a new backup source of water. 

On the Shad Factory Reservoir, we are in our second year of a habitat assessment with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. We discovered a new infestation of Asian water chestnut, an invasive plant that can rapidly take over and cover the pond surface, as well as large amounts of invasive fan wort and other aquatic plants.

Photo of salt water flowing over dam at high tide.
Salt water flows into the Kickemuit reservoir at high tides.
On the Kickemuit Reservoir, we are providing technical assistance to the BCWA and its consultants on a flooding and sediment quality study. The lower Kickemuit dam is located in a flood zone, and at extreme high tides, water from the lower Kickemuit River flows upstream through the dam and into the pond. Sea level rise projections show that this dam will become flooded and that salt marsh will start to form along the edges of the reservoir. If the dams are removed, it would be possible to expand the natural flood plain and reduce local road flooding, while allowing new salt marsh to establish. 

Save The Bay’s habitat restoration work is almost always done in robust partnerships with other state and local agencies and organizations, and with grant support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others. Without this grant funding, organizations, cities and towns will find it very difficult to fund these kinds of water quality and habitat improvements. As it is, ensuring funding for local watershed restoration is difficult, in part because Rhode Island is a small state with smaller scale projects than other parts of the country. You can do your part by supporting the congressional delegations of Rhode Island and Massachusetts in their fight to defend the Clean Water Act and the funding programs on which the Narragansett Bay and its watershed depend. 

Monday, March 19, 2018

Dam Removals in the Taunton Watershed bring new hope for the spring fish run

By Rachel Calabro, Riverkeeper

This past winter, Save The Bay participated in the removal of three dams from tributaries to the Taunton River, opening up miles of habitat to migrating fish and improving public safety around the aging structures. The three dams bring to six, the total number of dams removed in the Taunton River watershed, with more in the planning stages.
The 175-year-old Carver Cotton Gin Dam on the 5.5-mile Satucket River in East Bridgewater has been drained for many years, but it continued to impound water and limit fish passage. With the removal of this dam, river herring can now migrate up into East Bridgewater and into Stump Brook and access more than 650 acres of spawning grounds further down the waterway to the Atlantic Ocean, a migratory passage that hasn’t been open for more than a century. The Carver Cotton Gin Dam had previously been deemed a hazard by the Massachusetts Office of Dam Safety and labeled obsolete by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Removal of the dam not only opens up the Satucket River fish run, but also helps East Bridgewater weather heavy storms and precipitation, with the risk of dam failure eliminated.

Before West Britannia Dam removal.
The West Britannia Dam at the old Reed and Barton silversmith factory in downtown Taunton was the last of three dam removals on the Mill River, opening up the full length of the Mill River to herring for the first time in 200 years. Since the dam at Taunton State Hospital was removed in 2012 and the Whittenton Pond dam in 2013, river herring have returned in large numbers, along with such other species as sea lamprey. Removal of the three Mill River dams also reduces threats of dam failure and flooding downstream in downtown Taunton and will help improve water quality These before and after photos show the results of the new channel construction upstream of the mill.

After West Britannia Dam removal.

River herring, including alewife and blueback herring, are an important food source for cod, haddock, and striped bass, as well as marine mammal and birds. The herring migrate from saltwater to freshwater to spawn, and while there, they play an important role in water quality by contributing important nutrients. The Taunton River watershed has supported one of the largest herring runs in the region, but the thousands of dams installed for industrial-revolution-era factories have significantly fragmented the spawning and rearing habitat available. Today, river herring’s dwindling numbers have led them to be named a “species of concern” in the Greater Atlantic Region.

In East Taunton, the old wooden Barstow’s Pond dam on the Cotley River had been in such poor condition for many years that the Massachusetts Office of Dam Safety ordered its gates be opened and the pond behind it drained. The dam removal project here opens open eight miles of riverine habitat to river herring, American eels, seal lamprey and other native species. The dam was located in a highly sensitive area for historic Native American artifacts, and an archaeologist has been on hand to photograph the area. Much of Eastern Taunton along the edges of the Taunton River are believed to have been a complex of Native American villages dating back thousands of years. By restoring these rivers to their pre-industrial state, we are also preserving the landscape that was original to the area and restoring the fish and wildlife that were once plentiful.
These projects have been successful because of strong partnerships between local groups, federal and state agencies, and other partners. The high ecological value of the habitat in the Taunton watershed is part of the why the river has been designated a federal Wild & Scenic River.