Monday, September 26, 2016

Bay Watch: Save The Bay Waterkeepers are the Eyes, Ears and Voices for Narragansett Bay

By Justin Cheves, Communications Intern

If you’re like me, you know how easy it is to worry about the ongoing protection of our environment. After all, the verdant forests and rivers don’t have voices to tell careless people not to dump their weekend’s worth of trash in the woods. And oceans can’t tell a power plant to stifle its emissions. Thankfully, during my internship at Save The Bay, I’ve met three strong voices that speak on behalf of the treasured natural resources of this community, Narragansett Bay and its watershed in particular. Those voices belong to Save The Bay’s Waterkeepers. 

Meet Tom Kutcher, David Prescott and Rachel Calabro, Save The Bay’s Baykeeper, Coastkeeper and Riverkeeper, respectively. Not just job titles, these are all formal designations of the international Waterkeeper Alliance, which supports local Waterkeeper organizations in providing confident, assertive voices for important waterways around the world. The word “keeper” is an ancient concept from Europe, in which people were charged with looking out for their rivers. At Save The Bay, the title embodies the personal responsibility these keepers feel for taking care of our waters. 

Waterkeepers must meet certain quality-assurance guidelines, maintain vessels that are actively used to patrol their assigned waterbodies, have publicly-available phone numbers for citizens to report pollution incidents or concerns and respond to citizen complaints. Save The Bay employed its first Baykeeper in 1992, added a Coastkeeper in 2008, and just this year, applied for and received its Riverkeeper license, strengthening the organization’s voice in the vast 1,754-square-mile watershed region. 

As I interviewed these three, my worries about the health of our local environment were calmed. For I clearly understood that their work is much more than a job; it’s a passion. 

Narragansett Baykeeper 
Tom Kutcher serves as Narragansett Baykeeper, regularly patrolling the waters of upper Narragansett Bay on the lookout for blatant pollution and other signs of water quality crises. He’s not an enforcement officer—in fact, none of the Waterkeepers have authority to enforce environmental laws—but brings attention to violations and presses enforcement agencies to invoke the laws that protect watershed areas around the state. “I’m pretty much an environmental watchdog and advocate for the Bay,” said Kutcher, in his signature, well-worn Save The Bay ball cap and T-shirt. 

As part of Save The Bay’s advocacy team, all three Waterkeepers have the credibility and community influence needed to fight for legislation and policy that protect our waters. For example, Kutcher is a wetlands scientist who served on a legislative task force comprised of stakeholders from the building, municipal and engineering communities. As part of this task force, he helped convince state legislators to pass a landmark Wetlands Act that expands wetlands protections for the first time in 45 years. “I talked to people on both sides about my ideas to get this bill passed, something that would help out both ends of the argument,” he said. 

For the Baykeeper, the work is personal. He’s a fisherman, surfer and boater who has been intimately connected to the Bay his entire life. “I grew up not far from Narragansett Bay. I fished, I swam, I quahogged. I took boats out there; all my childhood pastimes were on the Bay,” Kutcher said. He wants to leave it in better shape for his children and the next generations. 

South County Coastkeeper 
As the South County Coastkeeper, David Prescott provides a visible on-the-water presence on Little Narragansett Bay and along Rhode Island’s south coast, from Narragansett into the waters of eastern Connecticut, where some of the Bay’s most ecologically important and vital habitats exist. 

Working out of Save The Bay’s South Coast Center in Westerly, his work is uniquely challenged by the fact that the Pawcatuck River and Little Narragansett Bay form the border between two states. Besides monitoring water quality and patrolling local waters for problems, a good portion of his time is spent building strong collaborative relationships with environmental organizations and town council members in both Rhode Island and Connecticut. Last year, after a seven-year study of water quality conditions in Little Narragansett Bay, he united key leaders from both sides of the Pawcatuck River in a call to action for community-wide steps to save Little Narragansett Bay. That call in 2015 launched an ongoing and almost unheard of bi-state collaboration to reduce human impacts on these waters. 

An avid surfer who spends as much time working on the water as he does enjoying it with his family and children, Prescott plainly remembers getting very sick from surfing in sewage-laden waters after a big storm. “That’s why I want to make sure the Bay is safe and healthy for everyone.” 

In early 2016, Save The Bay proudly introduced its first Riverkeeper in Rachel Calabro. Though the designation is new, her role as an ambassador for the inland waterways of the Taunton and Blackstone rivers is not. The two major Bay tributaries, which lie largely in Massachusetts, have been subject to plenty of development and damage over the years. “Migratory fish use these rivers to breed and then swim out to the Bay, so I am on the lookout for illegal dumping of waste or other hazards into the rivers and wetlands. I speak for the fish,” Calabro said. 

Indeed, a smile lights up Calabro’s face as she describes her love of fish in a way that made me think she must surely swim with them every day. “Fish are just awesome. I love learning about them. I loved nature, animals and the water when I was growing up. I always wanted to be a part of it in some way,” she said. 

Like Prescott, Calabro’s work takes her across state lines, making her former role with the Massachusetts Division of Ecological Restoration an environmental advantage. In a 10-year project in Taunton, she collaborated with the Army Corps of Engineers, Massachusetts Department of Transportation, individual property owners, and a community of recreational anglers to remove three dams on the Taunton River and install a fish ladder at a fourth dam, restoring miles of breeding ground to river herring that had been kept out. 

Changing Times 
Over the years, the Waterkeepers have seen the Bay’s biggest threat—human impact— evolve from deliberate and conspicuous large-scale pollution inputs to the cumulative effects of small-scale pollution by millions of individuals—subtler, and in many ways, more challenging. But they face their work with hopeful optimism, eager to offer solutions to the problems that threaten the Bay. While they agree that their continued vigilance is only one part of the healthy longevity of our waters, they give my own worries about my local environment some peace. Because I now know that the Baykeeper, Coastkeeper and Riverkeeper are the watchful eyes of our Bay, working to keep our waters safe, and the strong voices to speak up in times of need. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Staff Blog: Winter at the Exploration Center & Aquarium

By Adam Kovarsky, Aquarium Manager and Education Specialist

As summer comes to an end, we vacuum the sand out of our cars and get out our sweaters. As we leave the beaches, Narragansett Bay drops in temperature to prepare for standard winter conditions, which are not too fun to swim in. And just how we start our migration inland during the winter months, the Striped Bass starts its annual migration south to the warm waters hugging the south eastern coast of North America.

The Striped Bass is the official Rhode Island state fish and the ideal catch for all Rhode Island recreational fishermen. This larger predator in the Bay is a top level consumer and helps keep the checks and balances on point in our extremely lively and productive bay. Soon, the wild Striped Bass population of Narragansett Bay will be re-gaining one of its lost members, Fogarty. Fogarty the fish is a 34” Striped Bass that was rescued by one of our marine science classes during a survey trawl; he was found with a hook still in his mouth. Fogarty has since made full recovery and is ready for release shortly. 

Before we release Fogarty, you can come and see this beautiful specimen at Save The Bay’s Exploration Center and Aquarium along with dozens of other Narragansett Bay creatures. Our winter hours are Friday, Saturday and Sundays 10 a.m. - 4 p.m.. We will also be open for most Rhode Island school holidays. Check our website for special events and openings, or give us a call at 401-324-6020.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Advocacy Blog: Rust Tide in the Bay

By Tom Kutcher, Narragansett BayKeeper

Anyone who has spent much time on the Bay in the last few weeks has probably noticed some patchy but abundant tea-colored water in the Bay. The culprit? “Rust tides,” according to scientists with the R.I. Department of Environmental Management (DEM). Rust tide is an algae bloom of microscopic dinoflagellates that use a red pigment to photosynthesize. The bloom is happening pretty much throughout the Bay and has been documented in nearby waters such as the Narrow River, our coastal ponds and estuaries in New York and Massachusetts.

DEM reports that the bloom is not toxic to humans, but may have negative effects on sensitive fish species. However, although I have been seeing numerous large, dark streaks and patches of rust tide throughout the Bay, I’ve also been witnessing many schools of pogies being chased by bluefish in the upper and mid Bay, which seems to be a good sign that they are not being incapacitated by this event.

Rust tide is naturally occurring, but some scientists are suggesting that this may be the largest rust-tide event we’ve seen in decades. DEM expects the bloom to dissipate as waters approach 60 degrees, which doesn’t usually happen until sometime in October. Until then, please report any signs of fish stress to me directly at 401-272-3540 ext 116, or to Dr. Chris Deacutis ( at RI DEM Fisheries.  

Thursday, September 15, 2016

With Friends Like These: A New Friend in the Lincoln School

By Bridget Kubis Prescott, Director of Education

Save The Bay long ago recognized that if we are to fulfill our mission to protect and improve Narragansett Bay, we’d have to reach deep into a new community of supporters—the hearts and minds of young people, school children, who would one day become keepers of our beautiful Bay. Our education program has since evolved from isolated classroom presentations into rich integrated experiences with entire grades, schools and school districts. The success of these programs is rooted in strong partnerships that begin with relationships with individual teachers and grow over time. 

A New Friend in the Lincoln School 
While our partnership with Central Falls has become like an “old friend,” we also make new friends along the way, like this year’s partnership with the all-girls Lincoln School in Providence. At the urging of Lincoln School board member and former Save The Bay executive director Curt Spalding, the head of Lincoln School Suzanne Fogarty and I sat down last year to discuss possibilities and worked with science teacher Anna Painter to build a program that fit perfectly into Lincoln’s mission and structure. The Lincoln School was looking for a program that could “enhance their science-themed curriculum and at the same time be strategic and deliberate.” The Middle and Upper schools at Lincoln School already had strong partnerships in the community, and now, with Save The Bay, they have a similar experience for their Lower School. 

Lincoln students in kindergarten through second grade use our Bay Center and education vessels as extensions of their classroom to learn about marine critters, their habitats and adaptations, what Save The Bay is all about, and how they can make a difference to Bay health. “Through the educational experiences that Save The Bay education staff and Lincoln School staff develop together, the girls become associated, at an early age, with an organization that makes a difference. They have pride in their city and state and are empowered to make a difference in their world,” Fogarty said. 

Lincoln Lower School Director Maureen Devlin said, “The literal excitement that this program generates is incredible. This past week one of our first graders was up and dressed for their Save The Bay program at 5:30 a.m. The program encourages our girls from an early age to explore and solve problems and empowers them to make a difference in their community. It really complements what we do in the classroom and allows learning to come alive in authentic, real-world experiences.” 

Monday, September 12, 2016

Guest Blog: This is how you get to the Save The Bay Swim

By Michael Michaud

People Actually Swim in the Ocean?

Maybe, like me, you’re not from Rhode Island, or maybe you didn’t grow up near the beach, or maybe, also like me, it just never occurred to you that people might actually swim in the ocean.

Regardless, maybe one night you’re frolicking in the water at the town beach with your kids when a kayaker paddles by, trailing a swimmer behind him. Maybe you point to the swimmer and shout to the kayaker, “What’s he doing?”

And the kayaker says “Training for the Save the Bay swim.”

“What’s that?”

“Ocean swim. Newport to Jamestown. 1.7 miles.”

And maybe you stand there as they paddle off into deeper water thinking, 1.7 miles? For real?

Those People Swimming Out by the Buoys

And then maybe at some point later that summer you’re back at the town beach, look up from your book and notice a group of people swimming out by the buoys. You watch them for a minute and then you remember, the Save the Bay swim! They must by training for the Save the Bay swim! But then you’re also thinking, How the hell did they get out that far? Is that even safe? And then as you watch them go from buoy to buoy, momentarily disappearing in the surf and then reappearing, maybe you find yourself thinking, I wonder if I could…?

Next thing you know you’ve joined an open water swim group and you’ve become one of those people swimming out by the buoys. You’ve got your wetsuit, your swim cap, your goggles. You’re doing it. Three swims a week. Before work. After work. On weekends. Once you get over your initial fears (Um, sharks…?) you find you really love open water swimming — the look of the beach from so far offshore, the camaraderie of the swimmers in the water, the exhausted feeling you get as you pull your body towards the setting sun at the end of a long swim.

Year 1: You Kayak The Swim

Then one night, another swimmer asks if you’re doing the Save the Bay Swim and you say you’re not because you just aren’t sure you’re ready for it yet and so he asks if you’d be willing to kayak for him at this year’s swim. Yes! you say. Of course you’ll kayak! Great!

And on race day, a few weeks later, you find yourself sitting in your kayak in the shadow of the Naval War College, surrounded by swimmers and kayakers, waiting for the canon to go off and the race to start. When it fires, your swimmer takes off and for a few seconds you can’t see him, but then he stops and waves you over and you paddle in his direction and then the two of you head out across the bay and the sun is shining and the water is streaming past your boat and all you can hear is that little voice in your head repeating, Next year! You’re going to do this next year!

The Next Year, Your Swim

And then next year comes! You’ve trained all summer! Found your kayaker! Raised your $400! And now you’re in the water, waiting for the cannon to go off, ready to swim. You look across to Jamestown and then up at the Pell Bridge. You glance around at all the other swimmers and you think about how far you’ve come since that first night that you saw the swimmer and kayaker at the town beach, since your first buoy swim.

When the cannon fires you lower your head below the surface and begin to swim. You feel the cool water slide past, feel your body, energized, as you pull it forward. You break free from the weedy beach, find a rhythm, sight on the far shore, and move out into open water, your kayaker trailing behind.

That’s how you get to the swim. Or, that’s how I did. Your story will be different, but just as meaningful, and just as fun.

Mike would like to thank Fred Bartlett and the Narragansett Open Swimming Enthusiasts for allowing him to join their group and to believe that he, too, could swim the buoys.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

CoastKeeper Blog: Mermaid's Hair and Brillo Pads Don't Belong in our Waters

by Dave Prescott, South County Coastkeeper

Just the other day, while out on Little Narragansett Bay, I came across a disturbing, but all too familiar scene. During the summer months, when Bay and Pawcatuck River waters are at their warmest, large expansive mats of a green algae, known as Cladophora, litter the surface of the Bay. Yesterday was no exception. However, the expanse of macroalgae was larger than I have ever witnessed over the past decade.

Cladophora, also known as mermaid’s hair (and similar to a Brillo pad), thrives in high-nutrient environments. Little Narragansett Bay is plagued with an overabundance of this type of algae due to the nutrient loads coming down the Pawcatuck River and off the land. The bottom of the Bay, specifically from the mouth of the Pawcatuck to the section between Sandy Point and Barn Island, is littered with huge mats of this algae. In some areas, the Cladophora is inches thick. In other places, it is several feet thick. At certain times during the summer, this algae surfaces and litters the top of the Bay. In addition, directly below the algae, the sediment is highly organic due to the slow breakdown of the algae and smells like rotten eggs from the bacteria decomposing it.

Last summer, Save The Bay issued a Call to Action to the communities of Westerly and Stonington to help protect and save Little Narragansett Bay. As part of the Call to Action, we asked these communities, as well as individuals, to start taking steps to help protect our local waters. If nutrient levels in the river and Bay are not addressed and reduced, this algae will continue to bloom and then decompose, leading to decreased dissolved oxygen levels and threatening the survival of such marine life as fish and shellfish.

The sources of nutrients entering our waterways are wide and varied: septic systems, cesspools, sewage treatment plants, fertilizers from lawns and farms, pet waste, polluted runoff from the more urban sections of Westerly and Stonington. We need to start understanding that we are all contributors to the problem and that we all need to be part of the solution. We need to start taking action now to protect the delicate and extraordinary natural resources of Little Narragansett Bay.