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.