Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Seafood Apostle

            As a child, Kate Masury said that her favorite food was lobster. Even while earning a degree in environmental studies and later teaching marine conservation, she still proclaimed her love for eating seafood. But her friends saw a conflict in her culinary and conservation passions.
            “They didn’t see how my conservation side and my love for eating seafood fit together,” she said. “But that’s how I became interested in sustainable fisheries. I thought that eating it gave me a closer connection to the ecosystem.”
            A native of Kittery, Maine, who moved to Newport three years ago, Masury is the
program director of Eating with the Ecosystem, a nonprofit group that she said promotes “a place-based approach” to preserving New England’s fisheries.
            “It’s all about eating in balance with the ecosystem, eating diverse species in proportion to their natural abundance,” she explained. “Species don’t exist in isolation from each other; they interact with each other. So if we eat only one or two species, it has cascading effects down the food web.”
            But that’s exactly what most people in coastal New England do. According to a study conducted by Masury and a team of volunteers, although more than 50 species are captured in commercial fisheries in the region, just five species dominate the marketplace – lobster, scallops, soft-shelled clams, cod and haddock.
            “There’s a lot of room for growth if we want to eat in balance with the ecosystem,” she said.
            For instance, whiting is abundant in local waters and captured in great volume by the commercial fishing industry, but almost all of it is shipped to markets in New York. It’s seldom eaten in Rhode Island. Butterfish, scup, dogfish, skate and many others face a similar fate.
            “A lot of consumers don’t know that those species even exist here,” Masury said. “At farms we can see what’s growing, but on the seafood side, a lot is hidden from the average consumer unless they spend a lot of time on the docks. And if people do know they exist, they don’t really know how to cook with them; they’re not sure what the flavor profile is and if they’re going to like it.”
            So Masury is trying to do something about it.
            She hosts a series of public dinners around the region – in conjunction with chefs, fishermen and scientists – that feature local seafood species that are underutilized by local consumers. At each event, a fisherman or scientist talks about the species being served.
            “We try to curate a menu that tells a story about the marine ecosystem,” Masury said. “And people have really liked learning about the different species that call that ecosystem home.”
            She also conducts extensive market research on what local species are available at area seafood markets and grocery stores.
            “There’s not much information about seafood after it hits the dock. No one tracks where it goes once it’s landed. So in order to promote different species, we help to track their availability in the seafood supply chain,” she said.
            Last year she sent citizen scientists to dozens of seafood markets around New England to see what species were available, where they were caught, and how much space was devoted to each. She plans to continue this effort in years to come to track how the availability of local species changes through time.
            “Monkfish used to be underutilized, for example, but now we’re seeing it in markets competing with haddock and cod for price, which means consumers are starting to demand it more,” Masury said. “But we also found that the marketplace consisted of only 25 to 30 percent local species, with the rest from outside the region.”
            To help spread the word about what species are available and how to cook them, Masury has co-authored a cookbook called Simmering the Sea, which provides recipes for such locally abundant species as sea robin, scup, razor clams and slipper limpets. And a food truck in the shape of a boat travels to farmer’s markets and other events to offer cooking demonstrations by area chefs and provide information about local fisheries. She has also started an online seafood club on Facebook and Instagram called New England Seafoodies where people can share recipes, discuss where to buy certain species, and hear from fishermen about what they’re catching.
            “If we eat a wider diversity of species in proportion to their natural abundance, then we have minimal impact on the food web,” Masury concluded. “If we don’t take care of the ecosystems that provide our food and the habitats that our seafood relies on, then we won’t have healthy fisheries or healthy ecosystems.”

This article first appeared in the November 2019 issue of Newport Life magazine.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Resilient local coral may help tropical relatives

            The ongoing decline of tropical coral reefs around the world is causing a domino effect that could impact the one-quarter of all marine life that depends on this ecosystem. Reefs are becoming bleached and dying as warming waters force corals to expel the algae that live in their tissues and produce sugars to provide food for the coral.
            A Rhode Island scientist is co-leading a collaborative effort to determine if New England’s only hard coral species – a variety that can survive bleaching – could provide a solution to the coral bleaching problem in the tropics.
            The northern star coral is found in the waters all around the Rhode Island coastline. Its range extends from Cape Cod to the Gulf of Mexico.
            “Some corals in Florida can have hundreds to thousands of individuals in one colony, and they can be 10 to 20 feet high. Here in Rhode Island, most of our coral colonies are about
Northern Star Coral (Roger Williams University)
the size of a silver dollar. They don’t get big, mainly because they don’t grow during the winter,” said Koty Sharp, Roger Williams University associate professor of biology, marine biology and environmental science. “They’re also not super charismatic; they’re not as visually impressive. But under a microscope we see beautiful structures, tentacles, mouths, different colors. So to me they’re beautiful because I can see their inner beauty.”
            Sharp believes that the northern star coral’s adaptability to life in both temperate and tropical waters may provide insight into how corals handle the stress of changing environmental conditions, which could ultimately help tropical corals be resilient to the climate crisis.
            “Because the northern star coral lives in this large latitudinal range, individuals of the same species experience really different temperature changes and really different environmental shifts throughout the year,” she said. “They’re exposed to different thermal regimes – drastic shifts up here and stable temperature conditions down south. That gives us the flexibility to learn more about how an individual’s history or experience of temperatures and water quality conditions may influence the physiology of the organism and how that influences its resilience.”
            Sharp and colleagues from throughout the species’ range are conducting a wide variety of experiments to learn about the symbiotic relationship between algae and the northern star coral, as well as investigations of its thermal resilience, tolerance for heavy metals and how it responds to other threats. Sharp’s focus is on the bacteria that live in and on the coral.
            “The peculiar thing about this species is that because it goes through winters where water temperatures drop to 2 degrees C, they go through a period of dormancy in winter when they retract into their skeleton and shut up for the winter,” she said. “We don’t know much about what happens during that period of inactivity, but from our bacterial data, it looks like there is very little regulation of the surface microbiome of the coral in winter, and then in spring there is a reorganization of the microbiome.
            “We’re focused on finding the processes that happen so they can have this spring awakening,” Sharp added. “Every New Englander can relate to this; what do we do to regroup and reboot? That’s the key to coral’s resilience to such extreme temperatures and conditions that are unfavorable to most coral species.”
            Sharp and a team of Roger Williams undergraduates are conducting several laboratory experiments designed to identify the factors that influence coral health and its relationship with its algal partners. They are also using DNA sequencing to identify the types of bacteria that live in the corals, culturing those bacteria, and determining what role each plays.
            “We’re finding there are bacteria in and on the coral that we think are very important for defense against marine diseases,” said Sharp. “Some are actively inhibiting the growth of potential coral pathogens.”
            How the results of Sharp’s research can be transferred to helping tropical corals become resilient to warming temperatures is uncertain.
            “We’re hoping to learn more about how corals recover from disturbance, whether a thermal disturbance like a warming event or a winter event up here in New England,” Sharp said. “My lab is interested in what that recovery looks like from a microbial perspective. But it’s not necessarily the goal to apply microbes from New England to tropical reefs. What’s more broadly useful is identifying the mechanisms they use for recovery.
            “If bacteria provide the ability to resist or recover from stress, then what’s the biochemistry of that success? It may be as simple as the production of certain chemicals that kill other pathogens. It may be that there are certain compounds the bacteria make in the springtime that support the growth of the coral host. We just don’t know a lot about the functional significance of associated bacteria, but we’re excited to learn more about the partnership and how it can be translated to corals in the tropics,” she said.
            Sharp is pleased with each of the small successes she and her students are achieving, like their recent ability to spawn corals in the lab and create the conditions the larval corals need to settle on a rock and start to grow. This will enable her to grow multiple generations of larval corals that her colleagues around the country can use in their own studies.
            “It’s a New England coral that we can learn a lot from about coastal ecosystems in New England, but we also want to translate our findings to the tropics in new and powerful ways,” Sharp said. “We need all the information we can get.”

This article first appeared in EcoRI.org on October 11, 2019.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Improved water quality in upper Narragansett Bay attracts more fish

            Just off Conimicut Point in Warwick, Heather Kinney navigated The Nature Conservancy’s 21-foot workboat to a buoy marking the location of an unbaited fish trap she had set in 14 feet of water four days previously. About the size of a lobster pot, the trap was deployed as part of a research project to document the abundance, diversity and size of the fish that spend at least part of the year in upper Narragansett Bay.
            When Kinney, the Conservancy’s coastal restoration science technician, and colleague
Tim Mooney and Heather Kinney set a fish trap. (Todd McLeish)
Tim Mooney pulled in the trap, it contained three black sea bass, two feisty blue crabs and an oyster toadfish, an ugly golden creature with brown stripes and spots that can survive in poor water quality. True to its name, the toadfish even croaks.
            “The sea bass have dorsal spines and the toadfish will bite, so there’s plenty to be careful of when you’re handling them,” Kinney warned as she and Mooney removed the fish and measured them before tossing them back into the water.
            As Kinney zigzagged back and forth across the upper bay to the 12 trap sites between Rocky Point in Warwick and Watchemocket Cove in East Providence, she and Mooney repeated the process of pulling in traps and setting new ones. The results were usually similar to their first haul, though at several sites they also used eel traps that targeted smaller fish and often captured dozens of juvenile black sea bass and scup. One trap contained more than 20 spider crabs.
            “When the Narragansett Bay Commission reduced the nitrogen output of its wastewater plants by 50 percent, there was no record of how that affected the fish population,” said Kinney. “There was anecdotal evidence that more fish were coming into the area, but no one was quantifying it. So that’s what we’re doing. We want to see what the juvenile fish population is up here. As pollution goes down, we wanted to have a sense for how the populations have changed.”
            With funding from the federal Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program and assistance from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, the fish survey began in 2015 using fine seine nets at 12 locations from Conimicut Point to the Pawtucket boat ramp on the Seekonk River. Two years later the fish trap survey was added. Both surveys are conducted monthly from May to October.
            “I don’t think anyone was expecting to find many fish in the Seekonk River, so everyone is surprised at the number of fish we get there,” Kinney said. “The diversity of species is surprising.”
Because the net mesh is smaller, the seine nets catch the most fish – sometimes thousands of menhaden and silversides, plus summer and winter flounder, pipefish, pufferfish, needlefish, killifish, mummichogs, striped bass, hogchockers and more. Where rivers flow into the bay, they often catch freshwater species like largemouth bass, perch, mullet, bluegill and sunfish.
The abundance of black sea bass in all of the traps is notable, according to Kinney, because it may be a signal of the changing climate. Black sea bass, which prefer warmer waters, were seldom caught in significant numbers in Narragansett Bay until relatively recently. But, she said, most of the fish are in the upper bay because water quality has improved.
“We’ve reduced nutrients and improved water quality, but now we’re seeing how much of the story now is about habitat loss,” added Mooney. “Water quality is better but shoreline habitat is lacking in a lot of places. Fish are returning but the habitat they’re finding isn’t great.”
To learn more about habitat loss, the Conservancy is conducting a video survey of the bottom of Narragansett Bay using a camera attached to a sled that is towed behind a boat. Funded by Rhode Island Sea Grant, the project will identify seafloor habitat in the region – is it muddy, rocky, sandy or cobble – as well as the marine invertebrates that live there and the general health of the habitat. The results of the video survey will help to identify priority areas for habitat restoration.
The first fish habitat restoration project will take place in the waters off Sabin Point in East Providence beginning in late October, when large concrete “reef balls” will be placed just offshore.
“The purpose of the reef balls is to test whether the structures are an effective strategy for increasing juvenile fish survival rates and increasing overall productivity,” Mooney said. “By attracting adult fish, it should also enhance recreational fishing opportunities.”
The fish trap surveys will continue for another 3 to 5 years, while the seine surveys have no scheduled end date.
“These surveys are critically important to understanding the changes taking place in our fish communities,” Kinney said.

This article first appeared in EcoRI.org on October 3, 2019.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Rescue Mission

            When Kathy Castro’s beloved horse Santana died in 2004, she was heartbroken. The animal had a mind of its own, which made him challenging to train and ride, but he also taught Castro so much about herself.
            “That horse was just amazing,” she recalled. “He taught me about trustworthiness and how to be patient. He was hyperactive, too – never connecting his body and mind together – but he was the most wonderful friend and companion.”
            To honor Santana, Castro established the Santana Center at her home in North Kingstown, a non-profit organization that rescues horses destined for slaughter and works to
Kathy Castro, right, at the Santana Center (Mike Derr)
place horses in loving homes. Last year she rescued and found homes for 11 horses, which helped her win a $10,000 grant from the ASPCA through its Help a Horse contest. Through the first three months of 2019, she is already well ahead of her winning pace.
            The problem, according to Castro, is that there are just too many horses in the United States. “We don’t need to breed a million thoroughbreds,” she said. “We have too many racehorses, too many quarter horses, too many wild horses. It also becomes too expensive for many owners to keep their horses. And when a horse gets old or sick, they don’t know what to do with it.”
            As a result, about 100,000 horses are sent to Canada and Mexico to be slaughtered each year. Congress is now considering a bill to ban the shipping of horses to slaughter, a practice many consider barbaric, but if the bill passes, it will result in an enormous number of homeless horses.
            “Horse rescues like the Santana Center are a Band-aid,” said Castro, who works as a fisheries scientist at the University of Rhode Island. “I’ve found homes for 40 horses, but 75,000 died. We’re only addressing the side problem. The bigger issue is who’s giving up horses and how do they end up in the slaughter pen. Is there a way to address that so people can keep their horses?”
            When she started the Santana Center, Castro worked with the Rhode Island SPCA and the state to conduct a survey to determine how many horses resided in the Ocean State. The result – between 6,000 and 7,000 – was far more than anyone had guessed. Yet a national study found that there are plenty of homes available for horses. It just takes some effort to find them.
            So Castro took that as a sign. She started visiting the websites for horse auctions – the horses that aren’t sold are sent to slaughter – and began identifying animals she thought she could find homes for.
            “We see these horses online, and we fall in love with them,” she said. “It’s the look in their eyes. We fix them and then we adopt them out.”
            Like Luna, a beautiful paint that Castro’s daughter took a liking to. They started raising money to purchase her from the auction house, when a woman from Michigan expressed interest in her.
            “We didn’t need to keep Luna, so we worked together to save her,” she said.
            As she saves more and more horses from slaughter, Castro is building a nationwide following for the Santana Center.
“People take notice that we’re pulling horses from the auctions, and they start fundraising for us and talking about us – people I’ve never met. It’s a big network,” she said. “Just about every horse we’ve adopted out in the last year has found a home through word of mouth.”
Castro has found homes for her recently rescued horses in California, Maine, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., as well as in Foster and Middletown, R.I., and elsewhere. And she still has 12 horses in residence at the Santana Center awaiting homes, including Kyah, a 17-year-old Belgian quarter horse; Maverick a 16-year old quarter horse; Beau a yearling quarter horse; and Ivy, a 12 year old thoroughbred, not to mention two mini-mules, Sam and Frodo.
“It’s hard to stop from taking more. I get calls from horse owners all the time who say they have old horses they’re trying to get rid of, but they’re not horses I can place somewhere,” she said. “We’re not a sanctuary, so we need to take horses that are place-able, horses I can move once I fix their problems. Two came just last week, and now we’re in an economic hole that we have to crawl out of because they need vet care.”
Luckily, Castro has many great volunteers – high school girls, families, older women, URI students, and others who have any number of reasons for committing themselves to the cause. And she enjoys financial support from numerous donors and grants. The latest support comes from After the Finish Line, a California-based group that helps thoroughbreds find new careers after their racing days are over.
“What we really need to do is solve the problem of horse overpopulation,” she concluded. “I love rescuing horses, but I don’t need 12. I know what to do with the horses; I can fix them. And If I can’t, I can find the people that can. But we need to fix the unwanted horse problem.
“For me to go out of business because we don’t need to rescue any more, I would love that,” she said. “And then I would just ride.” 

This article first appeared in the fall 2019 issue of South County Life magazine.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Building resilient communities

            When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, Alex Wilson was the publisher of Environmental Building News, a trade publication he had founded 15 years earlier in an effort to encourage the construction industry to pursue more sustainable building methods. The magazine had a significant influence in the development of building design and construction practices that were more environmentally responsible and resource efficient.
            But the hurricane got Wilson thinking in a somewhat new direction, one that focused on construction principles that emphasized resiliency when living conditions were not optimal.
            “I noticed that older homes in the Gulf that weren’t flooded but still lost power for 
Storm damage in Florida following Hurricane Michael (Shutterstock)
weeks or months were more livable than newer homes in the same circumstances,” Wilson said. “Older homes, constructed before air conditioning came along, were built with passive features to keep them comfortable, with wrap-around porches that shaded windows from the direct sun, designs that channeled summer breezes through the building.”
            He knew that Katrina was not going to be the last storm that resulted in lengthy power outages, so he thought about how to design buildings that would ensure the safety of their occupants. He called it passive survivability.
            “The idea is that buildings should be designed to maintain habitable conditions passively when the power goes out,” said Wilson. “I initially got excited about the concept because I saw it as a motivation to get people to build greener buildings. I argued that even people who didn’t care about the environment still probably wanted to keep their families safe.”
            Over time, he shifted his terminology from passive survivability to “resilient design” so people didn’t think he was advocating for the installation of survivalist bunkers. And then he reduced his involvement in Building Green Inc., the company he had founded to encourage green building practices, and launched the Resilient Design Institute, a nonprofit that promotes the idea of passive survivability so buildings and communities are better prepared to weather the next storm.
            “The climate is changing, and it’s changing in a way that’s increasing vulnerabilities to a lot of different threats – more intense storms, more frequent tornadoes, increasing drought conditions, flooding, sea level rise, wildfires,” he said. “There are a lot of these risks that we’re facing, and it’s becoming ever-more-clear that we need to make our buildings and communities more resilient to them.”
            To Wilson, the idea of resiliency is about creating buildings that are better able to bounce back from disturbances – whatever those disturbances may be. It may mean raising mechanical equipment out of basements so they don’t get flooded, building with fireproof materials, designing structures to resist wind damage, or improving energy performance.
            “The first task is understanding the vulnerabilities,” he said. “The vulnerabilities in Ithaca will be a lot different than in Tuscaloosa, and it’s important to understand what those vulnerabilities are and what can be done to mitigate them for particular locations.”
            Wilson used these ideas in contributing to the design of a state park lodge in Alabama to be resilient to hurricanes, and he helped develop resilient building guidelines for the cities of Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. He also led an effort to create credits for resilient design in the LEED rating system of the U.S. Green Building Council.
            At the same time, he is also looking toward the next chapter in his life. As he begins to think about transitioning to retirement, he is searching for the right individuals to take over the Resilient Design Institute so he can spend more time on his farm in southern Vermont.
“I want to build a writers cabin by the pond we have,” Wilson said. “I want to finish up revisions to the paddling guides I’ve written for the Appalachian Mountain Club. And I’m looking forward to my first grandchild.”
           
This article first appeared on the Ithaca College website on September 25, 2019.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Time for hawk migration

            It’s bird migration season, a time when billions of birds undertake the most dangerous time of their lives – the long journey south to avoid the unpleasant winter weather in the north. Many of them travel several thousand miles to Central America, South America or the Caribbean, often completing the exhausting journey in just a few days.
            As exciting as the migration season is for nature lovers, it isn’t something that’s easy to observe. Almost all of the songbirds migrate high in the sky in the middle of the night, so all we can do is note the appearance or disappearance of species on the ground as they come and go. We can’t actually watch them migrating.
            But that’s not true of hawks, eagles and falcons. They migrate during the daylight hours
A kettle of hawks in migration (bvg23 via Flicker CC)
and are large enough to be seen relatively well – at least through binoculars – as they traverse our area. And now is the time to watch for them.
            Most raptors soar southward on thermals of rising warm air that keep them aloft with little need to flap their wings. And on days when the weather patterns are just right – winds from the north after the passage of a cold front – hawks from throughout the region could all be on the move at the same time.
            The first time I ever went in search of migrating hawks was one of those ideal days. The weather was perfect at Mt. Tom in central Massachusetts, and raptors of a dozen varieties – bald eagles, red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks, peregrine falcons, Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks, and more – put on a parade like no other. We must have seen several thousand hawks that day, and it was enough to convince me to make a point to spend time every fall watching for hawks.
            The most spectacular of the birds to observe were the broad-winged hawks, a species that migrates in huge numbers through the Northeast in aggregations called kettles, which can sometimes contain as many as a thousand birds. And that day we saw numerous kettles pass over us one right after another.
            Imagine a couple hundred broad-winged hawks high in the sky circling ever higher on rising currents of warm air, never flapping their wings even once. And when they get so high that the warm air begins to cool, they shoot off one by one in a southerly direction until they find another thermal that carries them upward again. Repeat the process a few dozen times in a day, and the birds will have traveled several hundred miles toward their winter residences.
            The best places to watch migrating hawks are along mountain ridges, but since Rhode Island has no mountains, the best bet is to try an open hillside in the western part of the state. Or, since most hawks don’t like to migrate over open water where there are no thermals, they follow the coastline, so they can sometimes be seen in good numbers almost anywhere along the south coast of the state. Napatree Point in Westerly can be an especially good spot when the weather is right.
Although I’ve never had as good a day of hawk watching as that first time, I always have my eyes to the sky at this time of year. If you catch it just right, it’s an impressive spectacle to enjoy.

This article first appeared in The Independent on Sept. 20, 2019.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Invasive snake worms spreading in Rhode Island

                Just hearing the name of one of Rhode Island’s newest invasive species is enough to make local residents queasy – snake worms.
                Even though they look similar to the region’s more common earthworms and they’re not much larger, their behavior easily identifies them. Not only do they slither through the grass like snakes, they also jump away if you try to pick them up. In their native Korea and Japan, they are called Asian jumping worms.
                “That jumping is how they get away from predators,” said worm expert Josef Gorres, an
Snake worm in Vermont garden (Josef Gorres)
associate professor of plant and soil science at the University of Vermont who formerly taught at the University of Rhode Island. “It scares them.”
                It scares people, too.
                “They can be a bit of a pest when you have a Fourth of July party and you have a new patio and they crawl around like snakes,” said Gorres, who has found the worms in his home garden in Vermont. “They make people squeamish.”
                The new invader has probably been in the United States for more than 50 years. The story told about their arrival involves a shipment of cherry trees from Japan that was sent to Washington, D.C., and the worms were in the soil around the tree roots. Whether that’s true or not, Gorres isn’t sure, but he believes the worms have probably been in Rhode Island for a decade or more. Residents are just now beginning to notice them.
                A survey of URI Master Gardeners conducted by Gorres in 2015 found snake worms in Slater Park in Pawtucket and in gardens and mulch piles in Barrington, Jamestown, North Kingstown, South Kingstown and Richmond. Today, the worms are common at URI’s East Farm, where the Master Gardeners maintain several gardens and greenhouses, and they have been reported at other scattered locations around the state as well.
                Nan Quinlan, who coordinates the Master Gardeners’ vegetable demonstration garden at East Farm in Kingston, suggests that the worms may have arrived there in deliveries of mulch, soil or potted plants or even on the tires or fenders of cars or trucks.
                “There are so many possibilities here that I strongly hesitate to blame any one source,” she said. “What makes the most sense is that the Asian worms were already present in the soil at East Farm for a long time and found their way to areas like mulch piles and the compost pile we built and maintain inside the garden.”
                Quinlan’s speculation that they may have come from deliveries of soil or potted plants aligns with Gorres’ understanding that they are commonly transported in plant material via the horticulture and nursery industry.
                “Folks in horticulture should worry because the worms can negatively affect their stock of plants,” Gorres said. “The castings the worms produce are very granular, very loose, so if anything tries to grow in the castings, the roots will have a hard time getting a foothold. Plants need something more stable to hold onto. It makes the plant wilt and look like they’re experiencing drought symptoms.”
                Snake worms can be a problem in forests as well. They consume the top layer of the soil and dead leaves – called the duff layer – where the seeds of plants germinate.
                “Once that layer is gone, the plants don’t have a place to put their seeds where they will survive until the following year,” said Gorres. “You end up with a forest with fewer understory plants, and all that’s left are saplings of trees that deer will feed on. The end result is a lack of regeneration of the forest.”
                This concern is also true of the other earthworms found in the Northeast, all of which are non-native and could be impacting forests in a similar way. Any native earthworms in the region were crushed by glaciers during the last Ice Age. Most of the worm species found in New England today arrived following European colonization of the area.
                “We’re now experiencing the second wave of earthworm invasions,” Gorres said.
                “One of the things I’m especially worried about is that the loose castings will make the soil highly erodible,” he added. “Castings from European worms stick together. The soil on a slope where snake worms are found might easily erode away.”
                To reduce the likelihood of the spread of snake worms, Gorres suggests that consumers ask vendors selling plants, mulch or soil whether the worms have been found in their products.      
“They’ll probably say they haven’t been, but if they’re truthful they may say it’s the new normal, which it may be,” he said.
                Gorres is studying several varieties of insect-killing fungi that may control the worms. He also said that some people swear by a golf course fertilizer that is formulated to control earthworms called Early Bird by Ocean Organics, though he notes that there is no certified pesticide to control earthworms.
                David Gregg, director of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, cautions that those investigating whether they have snake worms in their gardens should not confuse them with worm snakes, which are native to New England and may be Rhode Island’s rarest snake. Worm snakes grow only about 10 inches long and may look like a large scaly worm. “Worm snakes = good, snake worms = bad,” he wrote in an email message.

This article first appeared on EcoRI.org on Sept. 23, 2019.