The Post – Under the Pier: Let’s Get Technical, Part II-Environmental Issues

Let’s Get Technical, Part II: ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES

Okay. We’re going to get REALLY detailed now, but I happen to LOVE the ocean, and in particular Narragansett Bay. There’s a lot going wrong, and a lot going right. It’s a passion of mine. So for those of you who want to know about all kinds of environmental things relating to salt marshes, bays, sea creatures, oil spills, global warming, and what man does RIGHT to fix things, keep reading.

And for what it’s worth, though I am speaking here of Narragansett Bay, these programs are going on in many coastal areas all over the US and the world. So this information is as relevant to people in North Carolina, Texas or California as it is to New Englanders.

The story involves, among other themes, a love of the bay, it’s creatures, and the very survival of those things. One of the character’s, Jerry, is passionate about “her critters.” Throughout the story, her “mantras” repeat like a church litany:

“It’s all about the critters.”

“No critters, no future.”

“Gotta save the critters!”

And she reminds people that the only way to achieve these things is to:

“Educate and Rehabilitate”

Is she over-reacting? Here’s a recent evaluation on the state of Narragansett Bay:

From the 2006-2007 Save the Bay’s STATE OF THE BAY Assessment and action plan:

“Six years have passed since we first answered the question “How’s the Bay doing?” in the landmark report State of The Bay 2000. While we have made tremendous progress toward our mission, new challenges to water quality and ecosystem health offset the gains of effective protection and restoration programs.

This edition shows that, despite considerable progress in some of the indicators, the Bay has declined slightly from an overall score of 4.5 in 2000 to a 4.3 today. The negative trend is driven by sharp declines of fish and shellfish resources, and a spreading area of low dissolved oxygen and unusually warm water temperatures creating a “dead zone” on the bottom”

So, the bottom line is that in spite of a lot of efforts, the trend is still somewhat backward. What’s going on?

According to Save the Bay, some of the problems are:

Eelgrass loss due to disease and pollution. This is significant, as there’s been a 40% decline in the grass since 1960. The importance of eelgrass in the bay is described on University of Rhode Island’s Coastal Habitat Restoration website:

“Rhode Island’s primary seagrass is eelgrass. Eelgrass provides many ecologically valuable functions. It produces organic material that becomes part of the marine food web; helps cycle nutrients; stabilizes marine sediments; and provides important habitat.

Many species of fish and wildlife depend on eelgrass. Eelgrass beds provide protection for bay scallops, quahogs, blue crabs and lobsters. Tautog and other fish lay their eggs on the surface of eelgrass leaves, and young starfish, snails, mussels, and other creatures attach themselves to the plant. Waterfowl such as brant feed on eelgrass. Studies in New England have documented the occurrence of 40 species of fish and 9 species of invertebrates in eelgrass beds.”

Nutrient Pollution: Primarily from storm water runoff and waste-water treatment plants, which result in too much nitrogen. This causes:

phytoplankton blooms, overgrows, can cause disease in fish and humans; when they die off, they sink to the bottom and can cause oxygen depletion resulting in fish kills

overgrowth of seaweed to several meters thick; blocks light and depletes oxygen in lower layers of water; excess seaweed washes ashore and rots, creating foul smelling, unpleasant beaches

precious eelgrass dies since light cannot penetrate to bottom of bay through all the phytoplankton and seaweed; without eelgrass, flounder and scallops disappear as do other invertebrates who need the eelgrass for homes and protection

Cesspools -The RI Dept of Environmental Management estimates there are 50,000 cesspools in the state, all substandard. Some date back over half a century. According to Save the Bay, “Many of these cesspools—underground pits or tanks into which untreated human waste pours—overflow into backyards and leak contaminants to groundwater, contributing to dangerous bacteria and nutrient loading into the Bay and drinking water sources. Cesspools have been linked to recent clam and fish kills, and nutrients from their overflow contribute to the floating sea lettuce mats found in open water, as well as the increase in green slime and stench that invades coves and inlets.”

Wastewater: aside from the hazards from raw sewage being discharged into the bay, some of the water treatment plants themselves are substandard, or at or near capacity.

Other problems include:

Oil spills, such as the Prodigy Oil Spill, and North Cape oil spill. Not only were marine life killed, and fishing grounds contaminated, and but the eggs and larvae of fish and invertebrates were affected. Fishermen and lobstermen lost considerable income as well as they were unable to fish in their usual areas.

Trawler damage to the sea bottom habitat and fishing stock depletion – Newer trawling gear and more powerful boats allow areas of the sea bottom previously inaccessible, to be fished. In addition, the gear can often collect much larger numbers of fish and by-catch (the other creatures not desired, that were caught along with the species being sought). Fishing stocks are depleted, areas that used to shelter baby and juvenile fish and shellfish are being scraped clean, and the very bottom structures and normal flora are being changed or destroyed in the process. This topic will be discussed in the next section on commercial fishing.

Dredging, or rather, where to dump what’s dredged up. Many harbor areas require periodic dredging to keep the channels open to shipping. Natural processes in these quieter waters results in the sediments being deposited so that over time, the channels would close up. A big problem is that many of the sediments in the area may be contaminated with heavy metals, man-made chemical compounds and other serious pollutants. The real issue is “where to dump what is dredged up.” In the past these were just disposed of close to the site of dredging, usually wetlands, marshes, etc.

Toxic waste sites that leak contaminants into the land around the bay and the bay itself. Rhode Island Superfund sites include a large one at the Newport Naval Education/Training Center. It was used as a fuel depot since 1900, and the 11 acre portion known as McAllister Point accepted wastes that mostly included domestic refuse, acids, solvents, paint, waste oil and oil contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). This went on from 1955 to the mid-1970s. Sludge from fuel tanks was dumped on the ground or burned there, and there was groundwater contamination and ocean water disposal as well. Related sites nearby were also contaminated.

Global warming : Rhode Island House Bill 7884, The Rhode Island Global Warming Solutions Act, introduced in January of 2008, Chapter 83, 23-83-2 (a) states that the general assembly finds and declares global warming to be a threat:

“Scientists predicted global warming will exacerbate air quality problems, decrease or eliminate the habitat of indigenous plants and animals, trigger accelerated beach erosion and sea level rise resulting in the displacement of businesses, residences and key infrastructure like bridges and drinking water and wastewater treatment plants, damage marine and freshwater ecosystems and the natural environment, and increase the variety and incidence of infectious diseases, asthma, and other human health-related problems.”

Save the Bay’s Baykeeper, John Torgan, testified before the legislature about the global warming effects, and added the following specifics:

“Narragansett Bay’s average water temperatures have increased more than 3 degrees Fahrenheit in the last century; severe storms have increased 88% in Rhode Island in the past 60 years. Warmer waters have fundamentally disrupted the natural balance of the Bay’s ecosystem and have dramatically changed the assemblage and distribution of plant and animal species. Shellfish and lobster diseases, once considered a problem only in more southern estuaries, have now found their way into the Bay at problem levels. Reproduction and recruitment failure of oysters, mussels, lobster, winter flounder, scallops, eelgrass, and other species correlate with these increases in temperature. Nutrient pollution and low dissolved oxygen levels, nuisance algae blooms, and related water quality problems are similarly exacerbated by higher temperatures. Disruption of the traditional plankton bloom cycle impacts the very currency of life in the Bay. Sea level rise and storm-related coastal erosion threaten our beaches, shoreline, and coastal properties and businesses. “

Salt marsh depletion and poor fish runs to spawning grounds. Some of the bay’s many salt marshes started forming as long as 3500 years ago. Currently about half of those marshes have been filled in. Salt marshes serve not only as habitats for a variety of creatures and breeding grounds, they also clean and filter water, protect shorelines from floods and storms and can keep up with rising sea levels to offset those effects.

Fish runs are an important part of maintaining fish stocks in the bay. Save the Bay’s website explains the evolution of the current problem:

“River herring, Atlantic salmon, rainbow smelt, sturgeon and American shad depend on fish runs for survival. They are anadromous fish, meaning they are born in freshwater rivers, streams, brooks and ponds but mature and spend their adult lives in Narragansett Bay or the ocean. Each spring, these fish instinctively fight their way upstream to return to the freshwater rivers and streams where they were born in order to spawn. The journey to spawning grounds is not an easy one – along many streams and rivers in Rhode Island, dams and culverts act as barriers, preventing fish from swimming upstream to reach spawning habitats. Furthermore, the instinct to return to a particular place of origin is too strong to allow them to choose another river, creek, or stream. Narragansett Bay previously supported commercially valuable Atlantic salmon and alewife (river herring) fisheries. However, the Industrial Revolution combined with overfishing created havoc with the migratory patterns of these anadromous fish. The Blackstone and Pawtuxet Rivers each ended up with one power-producing dam for every mile of river by the middle of the 19th century, and therefore many fish runs simply disappeared. The Atlantic salmon was completely eliminated from its Narragansett Bay spawning runs by 1869…There are 18 existing fish runs in the Narragansett Bay watershed but most of these existing runs are in need of further restoration. Historically, at least 45 runs existed in the Narragansett Bay watershed Among these are four of the most significant freshwater tributaries of Narragansett Bay – the Taunton, Blackstone, Pawtuxet and Ten Mile rivers.”

Because many of the dams no longer serve the useful purpose for which they were built, they have been allowed to decline into a serious state of decay. This not only threatens public safety, but makes it just about impossible for fish to make their way upstream.

Shellfish loss: Bay scallop numbers are low, due in part to the loss of eelgrass in the bay. Lobsters, clams, scallops, and oysters have had their numbers seriously depleted due to oil spills and water quality issues.

So, is there any hope for the bay? Are there any ‘educate and rehabilitate’ efforts happening? Or should Jerry just give up and move to Alaska?

There are a number of very active forces working hard to save Narragansett Bay. Some include:

· Save the Bay
· Narragansett Bay Estuarine Research Reserve System
· Narragansett Bay Estuary Program
· University of Rhode Island Environmental Data center
· SeaWeb
· Rhode Island Sea Grant (on resources page) see bookstore re fishing dredging info
· University of Rhode Island Coastal Institute

Some actions include:

Eelgrass restoration: Both Save the Bay’s Eelgrass planting program and the URI’s Coastal Restoration Program are actively trying to reverse the loss of this precious plant.

Salt marsh restoration: A number of salt marsh restoration projects through Save the Bay are in progress. Their site also explains how to restore a salt marsh.

Fish runs: A very recent set of projects to restore fish runs have begun. To learn more about these restoration programs click here.

Shellfish RestorationSave the Bay’s Scallop Restoration project uses seed scallops from a local aquaculture farm, and distributes them not only in salt marsh ponds, but now into open areas of the bay. The North Cape Oil Spill restoration project included considerable restoration of quahogs (hard-shelled clams), oysters, and bay scallops . Seed stock for these shellfish were obtained from upweller sites in the state. Upweller sites take advantage of tidal currents in their aquaculture setups. Aquaculture itself, is the art, science, and business of farming aquatic plants and animals, including shellfish.

Aquaculture and upweller information can be found in the booklet, Rhode Island Aquaculture Initiative PDF, as well as at their main initiative site. Other sources are: the University of Maine Sea Grant site , Coastal Aquaculture Supply, the upweller page for the town of Bourne, MA (on Cape Cod), AND…..

****For any YouTube enthusiasts: check out this You Tube page with live underwater footage of an upweller operation!!!!

Creation of Coastal Buffers: Save the Bay is working to educate the public in using bay-friendly landscaping and yard techniques for watering and fertilizing plants on properties bordering the bay. Also they are planting trees and bushes that would serve to be a buffer between built-up areas and the bay, which can prevent erosion and inhibit storm water run-off

Dredging sediment regulations: Since dredged up sediments can represent an environmental hazard, new regulations have been enacted on where materials from dredging sites can be dumped. For example, in 2004, the US EPA designated a site nine miles south of Point Judith, in Rhode Island Sound, to be used as the designated dumping site for all harbor and channel dredging in the region. The site will be regularly monitored by environmental officials and could be used for about 20 years. Monitoring of such sites now includes research on how the materials will affect local wildlife, and may include “capping” the sediments dumped there with clean sediment to isolate the material from the surrounding wildlife and sea water.

Brownfields Restoration is another way to restore formerly polluted landfills and waste sites, by converting them to non-polluting uses, such as golf courses, parks or commercial buildings. The Save the Bay Center construction project is an example of such a conversion.

Oil Spill and Toxic Waste Restoration programs: Projects, such as the North Cape Restoration Program , Prodigy Restoration Program, and the Newport Naval Eductation/Training Center call for things such as eelgrass planting, re-establishing shellfish beds with seed clams and oysters from aquaculture farms, capping waste sites to prevent rainwater from seeping down through hazardous wastes and getting into groundwater, removal of waste drums, and constructing a golf course over a formerly contaminated site. The Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s Narragansett Laboratory, which conducts research on changing environmental conditions, growth and survival of fish stocks, also is the Restoration Center that oversees some of these projects.

Global warming: Save the Bay’s global warming program includes working with the state legislature on a regional greenhouse gas initiative, promoting green building technology, using biodiesel fuel on their education craft, and educating the public.

For those of you who love Google Maps and want to SEE some of these projects and places, check out this recent email I received from Save the Bay. They’re now on Google Maps and you can see a map of the area, or zoom down with a satellite image to see ground level, the places they’re working at.

We’ve put Save The Bay
on the Map

Get a better look at our efforts to Protect, Restore
& Explore
Narragansett Bay and its watershed

Thanks to Google Maps, the big picture is just a few keystrokes away. Remarkable technology allows you to zoom right to ground level to check out our restoration sites, policy hot spots, programs and event locations. To get started, just click anywhere on the map on the right. When it loads, click on a map pin or search for what you’re looking for in the index on the left side of the page.

Save The Bay on Google Maps

NEXT UP: COMMERCIAL FISHING – GEAR VS. ENVIRONMENT, REGULATIONS, CHALLENGES

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