Monday, April 30, 2018

For the Love of Rhode Island

Rachael Lewin, Communications Intern

          I’ve always thought Rhode Island is a special place—the smallest state, nestled in the corner of Connecticut and Massachusetts. Although Rhode Island’s land area is only 1,045 square miles, the ocean, a resource that gives us our beautiful rivers and an expansive 400 miles of coastline, makes it feel much greater. Unfortunately, these waters are facing more threats than ever. Shorelines are shrinking, creatures and their habitats are dying, and water temperatures are rising. The idea of climate change may be overwhelming, but we still have time to help our Bay and its inhabitants. Since 1970, Save The Bay has been working toward its mission to protect and improve the waters of Rhode Island through multiple programs involving education, advocacy and habitat restoration. Located at Easton’s Beach in Newport, Save The Bay’s Aquarium and Exploration Center teaches community members just how special these habitats are, by giving visitors an up-close and personal experience with many of the creatures of Narragansett Bay.
          As a youngster, I visited Save The Bay’s Exploration Center and Aquarium for a field trip in elementary school. I remember encountering animals I had never seen before, as well as species I once believed to be plants. Now, as a college intern in the communications department, one of my very first projects was to spend the day at the Exploration Center and Aquarium, taking photos, helping visitors navigate the exhibits and teaching about the critters living in them. Because the last time I went to the aquarium was on a field trip over a decade ago, I was really excited to experience it again as an adult.
Save The Bay's Exploration Center and Aquarium is
located right on Easton's Beach in Newport
at 175 Memorial Boulevard.
          The friendly staff and volunteers at the aquarium are eager to share their knowledge and answer any questions—creating a positive and welcoming energy felt by all who step through the double-doored entrance. With over 40 different species all coming right from our Bay, this little space in the center of a uniquely-shaped round building, tucked in the corner of the parking lot of Easton’s beach in Newport, is a hidden gem within our tiny state.
The Exploration Center and Aquarium gives visitors a close up and intimate view of delicate critters and their habitats, a unique experience not found at many other places. Since all of the creatures at the Aquarium come straight from Narragansett Bay, holding some of them and learning how their habitats are being destroyed can help instill in both adults and the youth of Rhode Island a sense of how delicate the natural ecosystem of the Bay is and how we as humans are accountable for its health and the well being of the inhabitants, from the smallest mollusk to the largest seal.
Much like the ocean, the Exploration Center and Aquarium is always changing. The creatures living here are mostly just visiting, brought in at a young age and released back into the wild when they have a higher chance of survival. Also, a monthly theme features a different animal crucial to the Bay, and usually, on the third Thursday of each month, the Aquarium gives visitors a special, after-hours chance to help feed the critters during Feeding Frenzy. At this registration-only activity, visitors see how and what the creatures eat and get the unique opportunity to help! Private tours of the Aquarium are also available, a perfect option for classes or birthday parties. These one-hour tours give guests an even closer look at the exhibits and more focused interaction with the volunteers and staff.
Anyone can see Rhode Island is beautiful. The state’s expansive coastline, majestic lighthouses, and tiny towns are all very similar yet still unique in their own ways. Learning about how habitats are being destroyed and whole species are in danger of extinction has, for me, shined a new light on the impact humans are having. The time I’ve spent working with Save The Bay has not only taught me more about the various creatures inhabiting the Bay, but also about issues on a larger scale pertaining to both the wildlife and the ecosystem as a whole.
          Introducing these issues to young minds creates active adults who help Save The Bay in its mission to protect and improve Narragansett Bay, from its water condition to its marine life. Places like Save The Bay’s Exploration Center and Aquarium show exactly how special these little details within our state are and why it’s so crucial that we all work together to protect our Bay and its inhabitants. The passion from each individual working or volunteering at the Aquarium is central to its success, and this is what makes Save The Bay an integral part of the states overall conservation effort.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Earth Month Crafts for the Kids

by Julia Gentillo, communications intern

Earth Month activities are in full swing here at Save The Bay. If you missed the chance to visit our table at Roger Williams Zoo’s Party for the Planet on April 17, you can still join the fun! You can make these fun and easy Bay crafts at home with your kids!

Monday, April 23, 2018

Critter Tale: The Atlantic Horseshoe Crab—Not Really a Crab.

by Rachael Lewin, communications intern

Hello! I am one of the horseshoe crabs living at the Save The Bay Exploration Center and Aquarium. I don’t have an official name at the aquarium, but you can call me "Poly"—short for Limulus polyphemus, the scientific name for my species. Save The Bay’s education team found me in Narragansett Bay a few years ago. Right now, I live in a touch tank with other horseshoe crabs, little skates and moon snails. As with many other critters at the aquarium, the team brought me here at a young age with the intention of keeping me safe until I’m fully grown and able to scour for food on the ocean floor and defend myself from local predators and then releasing me back into the wild. Just about everyone has seen a horseshoe crab shell washed up on a beach somewhere. After all, we've existed on this planet for millions of years. But, we’re still really misunderstood and I'd love to clarify a few things for you.

At first glance, everyone thinks I am a baby, but I’m just smaller than all the other adult horseshoe crabs here. Usually, the way horseshoe crabs grow is by shedding our old small shells so a new, larger one can grow in its place, a process called "molting." While our new shells develop, we must be extra careful to avoid predators such as sharks, turtles and seagulls, because the new shell takes a few days to harden. Save The Bay’s aquarist, Adam Kovarsky, says they’re not sure why yet, but my shell seems to grow at a slower rate than the average horseshoe crab, which lowers my chance of surviving in the wild. So, as it turns out, I’ll stick around for a while. 

My size isn’t the only misperception people have about me and my horseshoe crab brothers and sisters. When I crawl out from my resting place under the cool sand to say hello, visitors often are afraid to touch me when they see my claws, squirmy legs and spiky tail moving all around. But, from our name to our spiny bodies, we are much gentler than we appear on the surface.

My tail, a long spike that drags behind when I move, is not used for stinging people and other critters, as many think. When we get flipped upside-down, we use our tails to turn us back over onto our feet. We also use our tails to help us steer as we move along the bottom of the ocean, much like a rudder on a boat.

Did you know that horseshoe crabs are not actual crabs? We’re more closely related to ticks, spiders and scorpions. We got our name because of the five sets of legs underneath our shell. Our legs have pincers on the ends that look a lot like crab claws, but are much too soft to do any damage to humans. We use our claws to tear apart food and place it into our mouth, in the middle of our underbelly. Also, our claws help humans identify our gender. Males have claws that are round and shaped sort of like boxing gloves, and females have longer thinner claws that, when open, look like two fingers making a peace sign. Look at the picture to the right: by looking at my first set of legs, can you tell if I am a girl or a boy?

Horseshoe crabs are often referred to as “living fossils” because we’ve been around for longer than any other animal in the world—over 300 million years—and our bodies have not changed! We have a vital presence in marine ecosystems; our eggs provide food for shorebirds, and sometimes our shell serves as a home for various creatures looking to hitch a ride. We also serve a very important purpose for humans. In the ’50s, a scientist discovered that our baby-blue blood contains a special cell that prevents bacteria from invading our bodies. Since then, our blood’s been harvested for use in the development of pharmaceutical drugs and vaccinations. Because we are so important to the medical community, scientists go to great lengths to minimize the fatality rate of horseshoe crabs being used in the process, yet about 10-30 percent of us still die during or after the process. When the reality being harvested by humans is combined with the threat of natural predators, life in the wild is even riskier for little guys like myself, making my current home at the Exploration Center and Aquarium so important to me and many other marine creatures.

I am so happy I was rescued and brought to Save The Bay’s Aquarium and Exploration Center because I’m safe and serve an important purpose as an educator. I love my current tank-mates, but I’m always excited to see what new critters will come in to hang with us! Come see me and all of my friends at Save The Bay’s Exploration Center and Aquarium located at Easton’s Beach in Newport! We're open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every Friday, Saturday and Sunday until Memorial Day. During summer, we're open every day! Hope to see you soon!

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.