Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Critter Tales: Sharks and Skates of the Bay

By Abbey Greene, Communications Intern

“Maybe if I just get up here.”

Bruce shimmied the best he could, and wiggled his smooth body up to the surface of the water.
“I just need to see, I’m so close!”

His strong tail swished hard under the water, propelling him higher. Finally, his face and eyes successfully poked out.

“Yes! I did it!” Bruce the smooth dogfish shark thought happily, bouncing up and down. He could see everything. He looked around his blue tank and saw it was rimmed with all kinds of people laughing at his super cool trick he worked so hard to perfect, reaching out to pet him. Bruce sank back beneath the water and swam up to his audience, hoping to be pet.

What Bruce was doing is called ‘spy hopping.’ Spy hopping is a common behavior for all dogfish and even other species of whales and sharks. “They look like they are dancing,” explains Adam Kovarsky, Save The Bay’s Exploration Center Manager. “They can stick their heads out of the water to get a better look at their surroundings.”

Bruce is one of the three smooth dogfish sharks currently at Save The Bay’s Exploration Center and Aquarium. These small sharks were donated to the aquarium by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services. They were found in the Rhode Island sound during regular survey trawls the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services conduct in the bay to track fish populations.

Dogfish can grow to be almost four feet long and live 15-17 years. Generally, the aquarium only keeps them for a short period of time. “The longest stay they ever have is about nine months. We let them grow, give them a bunch of good meals so they can put on some weight, and release them back into the bay better than we found them. That’s the goal,” Adam said.

Dogfish sharks are a top predator in the bay, keeping the food chain running smoothly. However, swimming with them in the Bay isn’t a problem.  “They’re not a danger to humans in any way. The smooth dogfish have no sharp tearing teeth at all… they want nothing to do with people in the wild so they just swim away, Adam said.”

Not only are dogfish a member of the shark family, they are also a part of a marine group called elasmobranchs, which means they have skeletons made entirely of cartilage, rather than bone.
Another elasmobranch in the aquarium is the Little Skate, and visitors can see and touch plenty of these in the Exploration Center as well.

“There are these little egg cases, called mermaids’ purses, because they’re a little funny,” Adam laughs. “The babies spend anywhere between 6-12 months developing and then they can hatch out. They can actually hold off hatching out of the egg if the conditions aren’t right. If it’s too cold, too turbulent, they can actually wait until the conditions are nice.”

The adult skates, baby skates and mermaids’ purses are on display in the aquarium, and if a member of the public is lucky, one might see a baby skate hatch out of the egg and begin it’s life.

Like dogfish sharks, little skates can live long lives. Males tend to live about 15 years, and females average around 17 years. They are common in Narragansett Bay, spending their time scavenging along the sand, cleaning up debris and old leftover food, and playing a vital role in keeping our Bay clean.

Want to know a fun fact about Skates? They are actually among the oldest surviving group of jawed vertebrates, first appearing 150 million years ago!

To visit and even pet the Smooth Dogfish and the Little Skates, the public is welcome to visit the Save The Bay Exploration Center and Aquarium in Newport daily from 10 a.m. - 4 p.m.

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!    

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Fish Passage is More Than Just Dams

By Rachel Calabro, Narragansett Bay Riverkeeper

We all drive across streams and rivers every day without much thought. Sometimes we look over the edge of a bridge to see the river running underneath. Sometimes, we don’t even know that a stream is running by underneath the road. Smaller streams tend to run through culverts, either round pipes or square cement boxes under the road. Unlike bridges, these culverts often constrict the stream and cause it to flow through a very narrow opening.

Narrow culverts and pipes do not make good passage for the fish and other wildlife that need to use streams and rivers as corridors. Fish need to move up and down stream to mate, eat and find refuge. Turtles, frogs and salamanders do too, as do mammals like river otters and raccoons. When they are forced to go up and over the road, small wildlife can be killed by traffic.

When the openings under roads are too narrow, flooding can happen and roads can wash out during storms. Many times road repairs are made and the culverts are replaced at the same size when they should in fact be bigger. Climate change is also causing larger storm events and more rain that swells streams and causes road flooding. Public works departments need to be aware of undersized culverts where they are causing harm to wildlife and public safety.

This summer, Save The Bay habitat interns are assisting staff with evaluating culverts and bridges in the Palmer and Kickemuit Rivers as part of our larger effort to study fish passage and habitat quality in these Upper Bay watersheds. We are on the lookout for areas where fish could get trapped or not be able to swim through a culvert. We are also helping to train new surveyors from the Rhode Island Department of Transportation and local conservation commissions.

So far, we have found a mix of different culverts from plastic pipes to cement boxes and stone bridges. None of these structures completely meet the standard of having dry passage or for the crossing to span both the stream and the river banks. In our car centered culture, it is sometimes a good learning experience to think of yourself as a fish or a turtle and to figure out how you would navigate your world with a human imprint.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Why Do We Swim? To Make a Statement for the Environment

By Justin Cheves, Communications Intern

Most people who find the courage to swim the 1.7 nautical miles across the East Passage each year for Save The Bay’s annual swim take the plunge right here in Narragansett Bay waters. But one dedicated swimmer has found a way to swim for Narragansett Bay and Save The Bay from across the Atlantic Ocean in Rome, Italy. 

As a visiting engineering professor at University of Rome, Charlestown resident Dr. Rick Fleeter spends more time in Italy than he does in Rhode Island these days, and he can’t make it home in the summertime. But an engineer’s mind is a natural problem solver. So he heads out to Lake Bracciano, a 22-square-mile lake not far from Rome, measures out the 1.7 nautical miles along the shoreline, and, on the day of the Save The Bay Swim, swims right along with the 500 swimmers back here in Rhode Island. Like many of the swimmers here, he sends letters to 80 or so friends, family members and fellow athletes, raising awareness and support for Save The Bay and Narragansett Bay from afar.

The idea for his “virtual swim” came along when Rick realized how many people are turned away from the actual event each year due to space limitations. “I just thought that’s a shame, because they could be out there raising money for Save The Bay.” So he proposed the idea and a virtual swim was born. 

Rick swims for his love of Narragansett Bay, which he first discovered during a visit to Rhode Island in 1971 because “Brown would give me financial support to swim.” He was immediately smitten. “I got invited to the coach’s house for a team picnic in southern Rhode Island; he lived on a salt pond. Being from Ohio, I knew nothing about the New England coast, its ocean or salt ponds. I just thought it was fantastic. And from then on, I knew I wanted to live there,” Rick said. And he has. 

After earning two degrees from Brown (and a third at Stanford), the aerospace engineer and professor moved all over the world for work—Los Angeles, New York, Japan, Australia, Malaysia, Italy, Israel, and other remote corners of the world—but he’s called Rhode Island home ever since, even commuting between Charlestown and his Reston, Va. company, AeroAstro, for over 20 years. 

His love of environment, though, first began as a self-proclaimed “child of the 60s” in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, where Native American culture formed his philosophy. “The Native Americans would do nothing that would damage the earth, because obviously, the earth was where you came from, where all life came from. Today, we dig a hole in the ground, pull something out of it, use it, and then throw it onto the surface of the earth. We can do better than that. We take for granted that our human-built machines create undesirable waste products, but nature throws nothing away,” Rick said.

“I have lived in so many places in the world that need their own Save The Bay organization. Everywhere you go, people are degrading their environment, believing that it’s ok in their particular situation,” Rick said. “Save The Bay and the Bay Swim are one way I can make a statement about one place where together we are drawing the line and don’t want to see another part of nature ruined. That’s how I can be an example for other people.”