Saturday, August 18, 2018

Seeking seabirds between the swells

            Traveling aboard the University of Rhode Island research ship Endeavor earlier this month, I spent way more time than I probably should have staring out at the gray seas, scanning between the swells in search of birds. It’s my natural inclination when I’m in an unusual place – to watch for whatever birds or other wildlife may be about -- and many miles from land is indeed an unusual place.
            I was traveling with a group of local teachers and oceanographers, learning about ocean science as part of the Rhode Island Teachers at Sea program, which provides educators with an opportunity to get hands-on research experience that they can use to illuminate their classroom
Wilson's storm petrels (Dan Izirarry)
lessons. And as energizing as it was to cruise the high seas, deploy oceanographic instruments, and gain a better understanding of how science works, I frequently found myself with one eye on the horizon wondering if a rare seabird might be darting by as we were collecting data.
            The birds I was looking for were species that most people have never heard of – shearwaters, storm-petrels and jaegers.  These seabirds are unknown to but the hardiest of birdwatchers because they are almost entirely pelagic, spending nearly their whole lives far out at sea and only returning to land – mostly on inaccessible, uninhabited islands in the Southern Hemisphere – for short periods to breed.
            To get a good look at these remarkable creatures usually requires a lengthy boat trip 15 or more miles offshore, out to where the swells churn your stomach and land is nowhere in sight. So the Endeavor was the perfect platform to find them. At a spot between Block Island and Martha’s Vineyard called the Mud Hole, where the ship stopped to deploy some equipment, seabirds were everywhere.
            Mixed in among some gulls were hundreds of shearwaters, which always send my heart racing.  To the untrained eye, shearwaters look like dirty gulls.  But their stiff-winged flight just above the cresting waves gives them away.  They fly so close to the waterline that it’s easy to lose them as the waves rise and fall. 
            The most unusual part of a shearwater’s anatomy is its beak.  It appears to have tubular nostrils on the upper mandible -- hence their colloquial name “tubenoses.”  This odd growth is actually an adaptation that allows them to drink seawater and to rid their system of excess salt, since they never have access to fresh water. 
            Like shearwaters, storm-petrels are tubenoses, but that’s where their resemblance ends.  These robin-sized brown birds flit and flutter butterfly-like among the waves, often playing patty-cake with their feet on the water as they search for tiny edible morsels.  As their name suggests, storm-petrels tend to be most active and abundant in stormy, white-capped seas with gray skies.
            Then there’s the jaegers, perhaps the most unpredictable of the seabirds.  Sometimes they soar high overhead like a hawk or low to the water like a shearwater, and at other times they may initially go unnoticed and arrive with a flock of gulls. But they quickly give themselves away.
            For those who find the behavior of gulls or crows unappealing due to their aggressiveness and scavenging habits, you’ll definitely dislike jaegers.  They seldom find their own food, instead spending their feeding time harassing smaller birds into relinquishing their meal. 
            Far out to sea, beyond the reach of most of mankind, this behavior has allowed them to find a niche in the brutal oceanic world, and to flourish.  But at my dinner table, that’ll earn you confinement to your room.

This article first appeared in the Independent on August 16, 2018.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Seabird die-off remains a mystery

            Aboard the University of Rhode Island research ship Endeavor during the first days of August, seabirds were abundant in the waters between Block Island and Martha’s Vineyard. The birds weren’t the focus of the trip – it was really about providing local teachers with an opportunity to get hands-on science experience through the Rhode Island Teachers at Sea program – but the birds couldn’t be ignored. They were constantly in view.
            Most were shearwaters, long-winged birds that skim the surface of the waves as they search for marine organisms on which to feed. And last year at this time, many were unexpectedly dying and washing up on beaches throughout southern New England and Long Island.
            The population appears to be healthy this year, but scientists have not yet figured out the cause of last year’s die-off.
            “We’re still trying to piece it together,” said seabird researcher David Wiley, research
Great shearwaters (istock)
coordinator at the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in Massachusetts. “We’re studying their livers to look at their toxicology to see if something killed them. And a team at Woods Hole is looking at birds caught as bycatch in gillnets. But we haven’t come up with anything definitive yet.”
            Scientists speculate that the birds, which breed on islands in the South Atlantic and migrate to the East Coast in summer, arrived in local waters last year in such poor physical condition that they could not survive. Whether that is because of a lack of food or an accumulation of toxins or something else entirely is unknown.
            “It could be something here [in the North Atlantic] as well,” Wiley said. “It could be a toxic algal bloom that’s caused the problem here. That’s another thing to look into. But right now, it’s all speculative.”
            Although few birds have been found dead in the region this year, Wiley and a team of scientists hope to find some answers in a continuing study of great shearwaters, the most common of the shearwaters in the region, that began in 2013. Each year they capture 10 shearwaters and place satellite tracking tags on them to monitor their movements. The researchers hope to learn how and where the birds spend their time in the region.
            To capture the birds, they toss bait into the water from a small boat, and they use a hand-held net to catch any birds that get close enough to reach. They then weigh and measure the shearwaters, place a band around a leg, take blood and feather samples, and release them back into the wild.
            So far their research has confirmed that the most important feeding area for the birds is in the Great South Channel, a deep-water site east of Chatham, Mass. Unfortunately, the area is also an important commercial fishing destination, where hundreds of the birds are caught and drown in gillnets each year, mostly in August and September.
            “Everybody is eating sand lance – the birds, the whales, the fish – so that’s where the fishermen go, too,” Wiley said. “Sand lance is the key to the southern Gulf of Maine.”
            A tiny eel-like fish, sand lance are a favorite food of humpback whales, sharks, cod and other ocean predators. They spend their nights buried in the sand on the seafloor. Their cyclical population abundance drives changes in populations of the species that prey on them. And when sand lance numbers are high, conflicts arise between the whales, birds, fish and fishermen.
            The scientists are trying to figure out how to reduce the fishing by-catch of shearwaters, but they have had little success to date. The fishermen bait their nets to attract dogfish, and the baiting attracts the birds. If they don’t bait their nets, the nets must remain in the water longer as the fishermen wait for the fish to arrive, which increases the likelihood the nets will capture or entangle whales, porpoises and other marine mammals.
            Four years of data from 40 great shearwaters has confirmed that the birds move around a great deal, making it difficult to employ management strategies to protect them.
            “Some static management measures like marine protected areas may not be as effective as they used to because the ocean is changing,” Wiley said. “We may be able to use our satellite tagged birds to look at where the hot spots are occurring in almost-real time. Then management can be as dynamic as the oceans themselves. We’re trying to get ahead of the curve to see if there are other ways of managing the ocean.”
            URI doctoral student Anna Robuck is examining the birds from a different perspective. She is conducting toxicology tests of the birds to determine whether they are contaminated with any of a long list of chemical compounds, from long-banned pollutants like DDT and PCBs to such industrial compounds as flame retardants and perfluorinated compounds, which are used as water repellents and in non-stick cookware and many other consumer products.
            While she expected to find some of the contaminants in the birds’ tissues, including DDT, which is ubiquitous in the ocean, she was surprised to find some of the more than 4,000 perfluorinated compounds in the seabirds at similar concentrations to those found in gulls that live in Narragansett Bay.
            “That was totally unexpected,” Robuck said. “The shearwaters live in the remote South Atlantic, so we weren’t sure we were going to be able to detect measurable concentrations, because we were uncertain that the compounds would be found in the oceanic environment. They’re found in surface water in Narragansett Bay at much higher concentrations than offshore, so we’re not sure why they’re in the seabirds.”
            Birds in the bay are contaminated with a different set of perfluorinated compounds than those in offshore waters, which suggests to Robuck that the compounds are finding their way to the offshore environment via the atmosphere.
Nonetheless, she isn’t convinced that the contaminants have anything to do with the mass mortality of shearwaters last year.
            “The contaminants aren’t lethal in the way we saw happening to the birds last year,” she said. “No way was it related to their contaminant burden. There are so many variables at play. I thought we’d test for something and figure it out pretty quick, but it’s turned into something much more complex.
            “It’s probably an interplay of a lot of things – oceanographic conditions, food, stress from climate change,” Robuck concluded. “It’s a lot of stressers adding up. It’s really sad to see.”

This article first appeared on EcoRI.org on August 9, 2018.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Trawling for insights into a changing bay

            After dropping an oceanographic measuring device over the side of the Cap’n Bert, a University of Rhode Island research boat, Joe Zottoli records data about water temperature, salinity, and dissolved oxygen levels between Fox Island and the northwest shore of Jamestown. Then he and Captain Steve Barber deploy a small commercial fishing net behind the vessel and tow it along the floor of Narragansett Bay for 30 minutes. After covering approximately one mile, they haul the net back in, dump their catch on deck, and sort the animals by species into colorful baskets.
It’s a process they undertake twice every Monday throughout the year to sample the changing composition of marine life in the bay, a research project that began in 1959 and has revealed a great deal about how the bay has changed from season to season and year to year.
            An early spring storm brought poor visibility and rough conditions, but the first tow turned up some species finally on the move after a chilly winter. The season’s first spider crabs
 and horseshoe crabs were among the dozen species in the net, a sign that the crustaceans were returning to the bay after wintering in deeper waters offshore. On the other hand, a rare winter flounder was on its way out to sea after spawning in the bay.

            “The species in Narragansett Bay are a lot like people in Rhode Island,” said Zottoli, a URI graduate student. “Some species are resident, and other species are temperature dependent, so when the water is warm they’re here and they leave when it gets cold again.”
            As Zottoli entered data about the number and size of each species captured, Barber steered the boat toward the mouth of the bay, where they will start the process all over again.
            The original objective of the research project, one of the longest continuing studies of its kind in the world, was to assess the seasonal occurrence of marine life in the bay. No one imagined that the study would still be happening 59 years later. But because it is, the project is providing scientists with a unique window into how the changing climate and other factors have affected the composition of fish in the bay.
            According to URI oceanography professor Jeremy Collie, who has managed the project since 1988, the total biomass of fish and marine invertebrates in the bay hasn’t changed dramatically through the years, but the particular species present has. When the study began in 1959, the dominant species captured were those that preferred cold water, like winter flounder, cunner and hake, and the abundance of fish was evenly spread out throughout the year. But the bay has warmed by about 2 degrees Celsius since then, so warm water species like scup and butterfish have become more abundant, and fish numbers are high in summer and quite low in winter.
            Scup is now the most abundant species captured in the trawl net, with approximately 25,000 individuals caught last year, mostly in the summer and early fall.
            “In the 1990s we thought overfishing was the problem, but since 2000 it’s been clear that climate change has been the big driver of fish communities,” Collie said.
            Other changes have occurred, as well. The community of marine life in the bay has shifted from mostly fish to mostly invertebrates like crabs and squid, probably because invertebrates can consume a wider variety of prey than fish, which often specialize in a small number of prey species. The bay also has fewer species that live on or near the bottom than it used to, because most of the available food is now higher in the water column.
            Over the years, more than 130 different species have been captured in the trawl net and returned to the sea, with a peak of abundance in the 1990s.
            Is there likely to be another shift in fish species coming soon?
            “There is speculation about how the reduction of nutrient inputs from wastewater treatment plants is affecting the overall productivity of the bay.” Collie said. “But there isn’t a clear shift happening yet.”
            He also expects that the composition of marine life in Narragansett Bay will begin to more closely resemble estuaries to the south, like Delaware Bay or Chesapeake Bay. While he has joked that Rhode Islanders may soon have to switch from eating lobster rolls to crab cakes, Collie said “we’re not there yet. We had a couple of really warm years in 2010 and 2012 when we had a lot of blue crabs in the bay, but that peak hasn’t been sustained.”
            The data collected from the study is used by scientists around the world. In addition to URI researchers, it is used by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management in its assessments of fish stocks that are important to commercial and recreational fisheries. The data is also incorporated into analyses of fish population trends around the world.
            “It’s important to have a baseline of what things used to be like so you can look at trends over time, like the impact of climate, changes in water quality, and the impact of human activities like power plants,” said Collie.
            The second trawl of the day begins at a spot between Beavertail and Narragansett and covers another mile of seafloor. While sorting, weighing and measuring his catch, Zottoli said it was exciting to see three different kinds of flounder – including one he had difficulty identifying -- plus several skates, blue and rock crabs, and a variety of other species. He called it a hint that spring was finally around the corner.
            Unlike the catch of the first trawl, which is representative of the species found in the middle of Narragansett Bay, the second trawl typically catches species more typical of the open water south of the bay.
            “The water is generally warmer at the first station, so we get more warm-water tolerant fish and a lot more juveniles,” Zottoli said. “Closer to Rhode Island Sound, we get more cold-water species and deep-water species, which is why we got all those little skates.”
            Although the number of individual fish captured was relatively low, Collie said it isn’t surprising or worrisome.
            “I like to think of our fish trawl as monitoring the pulse of Narragansett Bay,” he said. “It’s one indicator of how well the ecosystem is working. We measure its pulse every week and see how the fish population is humming along, like the way you measure your own heart rate. As long as we’re going out there and filling our net over the course of the year and we’re getting healthy specimens, that tells us that we have a healthy bay,” he said.

This article first appeared in the August 2018 issue of Newport Life magazine.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Invasive Asian crab outcompeting young lobsters

            Speculation about the cause of the decline of lobster populations in Narragansett Bay has focused on an increasing number of predatory fish eating young lobsters, warming waters stressing juveniles, and a disease on their shells that is exacerbated by increasing temperatures.
            A new study by a scientist at the University of North Carolina points to another contributing factor – invasive Asian shore crabs.
            The crabs were first observed on the coast of New Jersey in 1988, where they probably arrived in the ballast of cargo ships. They quickly expanded up and down the East Coast – arriving in Rhode Island in 1996 – and they are now found at densities of up to 200 per square meter in the intertidal zones of southern New England.
            “If you flip over a rock, it’s like going into an old basement and turning on a light and
Asian shore crab (RIMEIS)
watching the cockroaches scatter,” said Christopher Baillie, who conducted the study as a doctoral student at Northeastern University. “They’re really abundant.”
            The dramatic increase in the density of Asian shore crabs in the region was followed by a massive decline in the density of green crabs. The green crabs are also not native to the region, having been introduced more than 100 years ago, “but it’s an indication of what the Asian shore crab could be doing to native species,” Baillie said.
            Adult lobsters live in much deeper water than the shallow intertidal zone inhabited by Asian shore crabs, so the two species seldom interact. But some larval lobsters settle in the intertidal and subtidal zones, which they use as nursery habitat. Prior to the arrival of the Asian shore crabs, it was an area that had fewer predators and an abundance of food. But now the young lobsters are finding themselves in competition with the crabs for food and shelter.
            When Baillie surveyed the shoreline in Nahant and Swampscott, Mass., over a five-year period, he found a dramatic increase in the density of Asian shore crabs concurrent with a decrease in the density of juvenile lobsters. He then conducted several laboratory experiments that found that smaller juvenile lobsters lost out to the crabs when competing for food and shelter, especially as the crab numbers increased.
            “We saw that the presence of Asian shore crabs significantly reduced the amount of time the lobsters were able to spend in the shelter,” Baillie said. “The more crabs we introduced, the more times the lobster was displaced. When the crabs were at higher densities, the lobsters spent the entire time fleeing from predation attempts by the crabs.”
            In similar tests, lobsters that were slightly larger than the crabs were able to obtain food and shelter, but the lobsters fed more frequently and ate faster in the presence of the crabs.
            “It appeared that they perceived the crabs as a competitor, and sometimes the lobsters even attacked the crab,” said Baillie. “So while that sized lobster was the dominant competitor, there is a potential energetic cost to battling the crab as well as a potential for injury in those battles.”
            According to Niels-Viggo Hobbs, a lecturer and researcher at the University of Rhode Island who studies Asian shore crabs, Baillie’s research confirms what many scientists have suspected – the crab has a substantial negative impact on young lobsters.
            “There are still a lot of unanswered questions,” he said. “There may also be a positive impact for lobsters. The crabs may provide a food source for adult lobsters. Lobsters love to eat smaller crustaceans, as well as bivalves and other things. The take home message for me is that even when we talk about invasive species, we can’t always say they’re 100 percent bad.”
            Although the crabs arrived in Rhode Island waters at about the same time that lobster numbers began declining in Narragansett Bay, Hobbs said it’s unclear if the crabs were a major factor in the lobster decline.
            “The problem is that on top of Asian shore crabs showing up, we also had lobster shell disease, increasing water temperatures and other factors working to make life for lobsters more difficult. The Asian shore crab certainly didn’t help. It’s difficult to say how bad an impact it had, but it was certainly poor timing if not worse.”
            The long-term implications of Baillie’s study are unclear, since most lobster nursery grounds are in deeper waters than where Asian shore crabs are found.
“But as the crabs continue to expand their range into the northern Gulf of Maine, there is potential for further interactions with juvenile lobsters,” Baillie said. “And while there’s a number of things going on with lobster populations, we’ve shown that the Asian shore crabs may be reducing the value of this nursery habitat for lobsters.”
            Unfortunately, there is little that can be done about the invasive crabs. They are occasionally used as bait by tautog fishermen, but not enough to affect population numbers. And they are too small to be a valuable commercial fishery. A parasite in the crab’s native range in East Asia is believed to castrate the crabs, rendering them unable to reproduce, but releasing the parasite in local waters would likely cause more harm than good.
            “It would be incredibly dangerous to go down that rabbit hole,” said Baillie.
            “The crabs are established and here to stay,” added Hobbs. “So the best we can do is keep an eye on how they impact our native species, and then hope that maybe there’s some good that comes out of it.”
Baillie hopes his study will at least draw attention to the effects the crabs have and prompt government leaders to prioritize what he calls “fairly simple changes in policies” – like requiring the discharge of ballast water in the open ocean – that could be implemented to prevent future introductions of invasive species to the marine environment.

This article first appeared on EcoRI.org on August 1, 2018.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Moth Mingle sheds light on diversity of winged insects

            When most people think about moths, it’s the pest species they imagine, like the caterpillars of gypsy moths and winter moths that have defoliated area trees in recent years. But those invasive species are hardly representative of the immense diversity of native moths that inhabit the fields and forests of Rhode Island. An event last week in Kingston demonstrated exactly that.
            Dubbed the Moth Mingle, the annual public program hosted by the Rhode Island Natural History Survey brought a small group of moth aficionados, as well as the merely curious, to URI’s East Farm for a late-night spectacle of creatures great and small that inspired wonder and amazement.
            According to David Gregg, director of the Natural History Survey and the host for the evening, the Ocean State is home to about 1,000 species of moths, and they play an important role in the ecosystem as pollinators and as food for birds and other animals.
            “When you see a lot of species diversity like that, it’s reflecting a lot of complexity in our ecology,” Gregg said. “So if you want to monitor the health of the environment, you should direct
Checking out the bait trap at the Moth Mingle (Photo by Renay McLeish)
your attention at groups with a lot of biodiversity because it will capture a finer grain picture.
            “Moths are also declining in number – we know that from monitoring events like this one – and we don’t know why,” he added. “So it’s something we need to pay attention to.”
            Most moths only fly after dark, some for only a few hours well after midnight, so the action at the Moth Mingle didn’t really get started until complete darkness had set in. By then, several simple strategies were in use to attract moths.
A large white sheet hanging vertically in a field was illuminated with a light bulb. Two other bulbs – an incandescent and a compact fluorescent – illuminated opposite sides of a piece of white cardboard in an experiment to determine which type of bulb attracts the most moths. In the nearby woods, a bucket trap with a black light was deployed to capture whatever flying insects were nearby, and a bait made from overripe fruit, brown sugar and red wine was smeared on several tree trunks to attract hungry moths in search of a meal.
Throughout the evening, the headlamp-wearing participants wandered back and forth from sheet to bucket to experiment to bait-smeared trees to observe the moths, try to identify them, and learn what they could about each species.
Alex Baranowski, a recent University of Rhode Island graduate who describes himself as “an insect person,” has been interested in moths since childhood when he collected and reared moth caterpillars at his home in Bristol, Conn. He was one of the most knowledgeable participants at the Moth Mingle, happily identifying moths and discussing their natural history.
“I’m not sure why I’m so into moths,” he said. “I’m just fascinated by them. They’re this large successful group of insects that occupies just about every role in the ecosystem possible. Some eat plants, some are predatory, some feed on decomposing insect material, some are parasites, and some are adapted to eating food and grain that people have stored.”
By 9:30, moth activity had begun to pick up. A tiny black-and-white patterned moth called a Hebrew clung to the bucket trap as several tan-colored grapevine loopers fluttered around it.
“There are two kinds of grapevine loopers, but only they can tell them apart,” Gregg said. “Their coloration tells you that moths are bird food – they’re trying very hard to convince you that they’re just a leaf.”
At the sheet, a dozen varieties of moths perched beside tiny beetles, stink bugs, grasshoppers, caddisflies and other insects that had been attracted to the light. A slug moth the size of a pencil eraser was dressed in pink and pale green with furry legs. A few inches away was a skiff moth in shades of chocolate and chestnut. A moth with a checkerboard pattern inspired a bit of debate over its identity, while a rice-sized orange and white moth was found to be a leaf miner.
Cindy Sabato of Wakefield attended the Moth Mingle simply out of curiosity. She said it was a way to learn more about the insects that were attracted to her porch light.
“As humans, I think we tend to be less afraid of what we understand, and I love facing and becoming friends with things that make me uncomfortable,” she said as she pointed out a moth she thought looked like lace. “The experience was great. I was fascinated by the many types and shapes and sizes of moths.”
Later in the evening, moth numbers and diversity continued to increase at the sheet, but the two-bulb experiment wasn’t attracting many moths at all, perhaps because its location was in a breezy area that may have discouraged moths to fly. The bait sites also had few moths, though that was expected.
“Only half of moth species eat as adults,” Baranowski informed the group. The others only eat as caterpillars. In addition, many of those that would be attracted to the smell of the bait don’t usually become active until closer to 2 in the morning, he added.
Back at the sheet, Gregg asked the group, “Who wants to see a moth’s eyes glow?” As expected, all of the participants did. After everyone got their turn to see the tiny reflection of a moth’s eyes in his flashlight, Gregg said, “humans are simultaneously curious and frightened of things in the dark. So we turn on a light and we find that they’re cool.”
At the event’s conclusion, Sabato was pleased to have learned so much about moths. “I most certainly walked back to my car feeling less afraid of being hit up by flying insects in the night than when I went in,” she said. “So mission accomplished.”

This article first appeared in the Independent on July 26, 2018.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Beach litter can be killer problem for marine life

            It’s the peak of beach season, which unfortunately means that it’s also the peak of beach litter season. And as unsightly as food wrappers, water bottles and other trash is to human visitors, it’s an even worse problem for marine life and other species.
            Last summer alone, Geoff Dennis picked up 2,946 bottles and cans, 2,389 bottle caps, 129 cigarette lighters, and 529 straws on just one beach in Little Compton. And that’s just the trash he counted and photographed. There were many many more cups, plates, cigarette butts, fishing
Plastic bottles collected by Geoff Dennis on Little Compton beach
gear, balloons, plastic utensils, take-out containers, plastic bags, and even bags of dog waste that he threw out without counting.
And every bit of it came from people who didn’t care enough about their community or the environment to dispose of it properly.
When I first talked to Dennis about his beach cleaning activities a year ago, he told me he has been doing it for years, and he is discouraged that the quantity of trash he picks up hasn’t declined.
“It really bothers me. The first time, I came back with over 100 mylar balloons,” he said. “If I can start a conversation with people about it, that’s great. But most people just don’t care.”
Dennis estimates that about half of what he picks up on his nearby beach is generated by local beachgoers and the other half from beachgoers many miles away, since it shows evidence of having drifted on ocean currents for some time.
            Thankfully, people aren’t dying from this mass of trash. But we can’t say the same about seals, fish, whales, sea turtles and other animals. That’s because an untold amount of trash gets blown into the water, where it lingers – sometimes for decades – until an unsuspecting animal unwittingly eats it or becomes entangled in it.
            Plastic is especially troublesome because it never disappears entirely. It just breaks down into tinier bits that are easier and more likely for wildlife to consume. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, billions of pounds of plastics end up in the ocean every year.
            Most leatherback sea turtles that are discovered dead along the East Coast, for instance, have a mass of plastic bags in their digestive system that the animals probably mistook for jellyfish, their favorite food. A young sperm whale was found dead on the coast of Spain in April with 64 pounds of plastics in its stomach, and a pilot whale in Thailand died last month from swallowing 80 plastic bags and other trash. Seals are often photographed with plastic wrapped tightly around their throat, cutting into their skin and causing infections, and seabirds are regularly observed entangled in improperly discarded fishing line.
There have even been cases of restaurant patrons finding plastic particles in the fish they have been served. In fact, a recent study found that a quarter of the fish in markets in California had tiny bits of plastic in their guts.
            So set an example for your friends, family and community. Dispose of trash properly at the beach and make the effort to pick up trash left by others, as Geoff Dennis does. Even better, become one of the 2,600 volunteers who join with Save the Bay for the annual International Coastal Cleanup in September.
The local marine life will appreciate it.

This article first appeared in the Independent on July 19, 2018.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Rhode Island keeps close eye on resident goose population

            The Canada goose on Alexis McCabe’s lap looked anything but comfortable. The bird was upside down with its feet and belly pointed skyward and its head between McCabe’s legs. But that was how McCabe, a first-time volunteer, had just been taught to hold the goose as she attached an aluminum band around the bird’s leg.
            “It was a very bizarre experience,” said McCabe, a Warwick resident and a student at the Community College of Rhode Island. “I was very concerned about the location of its beak. And banding it was more difficult than I thought it was going to be because the goose was a lot stronger than I expected.”
            The goose and a dozen others had been herded by five kayakers – staff and volunteers with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management – into a pen adjacent to Green End Pond in Middletown on July 2 as part of an annual effort to monitor Rhode Island’s resident Canada goose population.
            Capturing the geese took longer than banding them, but even that wasn’t especially  
difficult, since the birds were in the middle of molting their flight feathers, a three-week process that begins in mid-June and makes them unable to fly.
            Josh Beuth, the DEM biologist who oversees the banding of 600 to 800 resident geese each summer, said the state’s population of non-migratory geese was established in the late 1980s when the migratory population was declining.
            “The resident population has taken off better than anyone expected they would, and now we have a fairly liberal hunting season to keep them in check,” he said.
            Beuth guesses that there are between 3,000 and 7,000 Canada geese that live in Rhode Island year-round, mostly near urban areas along Narragansett Bay, including Apponaug and Pawtuxet Cove in Warwick, the Seekonk River in Providence and East Providence, and in Newport and Middletown where “big houses have big lawns that go down to large bodies of water.”
Where the geese gather in areas of high density, the birds’ feces can raise bacterial levels and increase nitrogen in the water, which can lead to algae blooms and unhealthy water.
            “The geese aren’t the primary source of pollution that leads to the closure of beaches, but they definitely contribute to the problem,” Beuth said.
            The birds can also be a nuisance to homeowners, due to the large quantity of droppings they leave on lawns.
            “The most common thing I hear when I show up at a site to band the birds is, ‘Are you here to take the geese away?’” said Beuth. “But we can’t relocate wildlife. As soon as they can fly again, they’ll go right back where they came from. And nobody else wants the problem anyway.”
            He advises residents with nuisance geese to allow a natural vegetative buffer to grow between the water’s edge and the lawn to provide a place for predators to hide and to make it difficult for the geese to get from the water to the lawn.
            “If the geese have to get through a place where a coyote or a fox could be hiding, they might not go there,” he said.
            To keep the population of resident geese from expanding too much, the state has extended the goose hunting season and raised the bag limit for those hunting resident geese. Since it is impossible to tell the difference between a migrant and resident goose, the fall hunting season begins in September, long before the migrant geese arrive in the region, when up to 15 geese may be harvested per hunter per day. In Providence, Bristol, and Kent counties, and the northern part of Washington County, where most of the resident geese live during the winter months, the hunting season extends into February, with a bag limit of 5 birds per day.
            ”The areas where the resident geese are hunted have far fewer nuisance issues than in the urban areas where hunting isn’t allowed and where people feed them, which only adds to the problem,” said Beuth.
            The population of migrant Canada geese has recovered from the declines it experienced in the 1980s and 90s, though in recent years it has undergone another slight decline, leading state wildlife officials to shorten the hunting season this year from 70 days to 60 and reduce the daily bag limit from 3 to 2.
            “Migrant birds breed on the tundra, where they have a limited breeding season,” Beuth said. “If it’s a late ice-out year or there’s limited food available, it could lead to the birds being in poor condition or having poor reproduction. They have boom and bust years, and if you get several bust years in a row, the population can really take a hit.”
            After the team of goose banders completed its work at Green End Pond, they moved on to Gardiner Pond, where they banded 25 Canada geese and captured 6 others that had been banded in previous years. By the end of the goose molting period, the team of biologists and volunteers banded a total of 704 resident Canada geese in Rhode Island and recaptured an additional 259 previously banded birds.

This article first appeared on EcoRI.org on July 12, 2018.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Limited availability of local seafood in New England

            Those looking to purchase local seafood at grocery stores and fish markets in New England may have a difficult time finding much, especially if you’re searching for something other than shellfish. Just 15 percent of the seafood available at markets in the region originated in New England, according to a pilot study by the Rhode Island-based non-profit Eating with the Ecosystem.
            “Unfortunately, the results weren’t super surprising to me,” said Kate Masury, the program director at Eating with the Ecosystem who coordinated the project with University of Rhode Island Professor Hiro Uchida and student Christina Montello. “We’re a seafood producing region, it’s a big part of our economy, but we’re not making it available to our own consumers.”
            Rhode Island’s results were better than the regional average, though still not as high as one might expect. About 24 percent of the seafood in Ocean State markets was captured in New England waters, which compares favorably to Massachusetts and Connecticut, at 12 percent each, and New Hampshire and Vermont, at 5 percent. Only Maine – 33 percent – had more local seafood available in the markets surveyed than those in Rhode Island.
            The findings are the result of a citizen science project called Market Blitz that took place over a two-week period in March. Volunteers visited 45 supermarkets and seafood markets in all six New England states to identify what species were available and where it was captured. 
            While the percentage of locally caught species available for purchase was low, the total number of species for sale was unexpectedly high. Ninety-one species of fresh or frozen marine life could be purchased during the survey period, including 45 species identified as being landed in the New England region and 85 species from outside the region or unidentified. (The overlap is due to some species being caught both locally and beyond the region.)
            Again, Rhode Island was above average, with 50 species available at the 12 markets surveyed, far more than the other states.
            Despite the variety of species available, however, Masury said that New Englanders typically do not eat a diverse diet of local seafood. Oysters, quahogs and lobsters dominate the markets, followed by four other varieties of shellfish. Farmed salmon is the most popular regional finfish, followed by flounder and haddock.
            “We eat a lot of a few things, and it’s mostly shellfish,” she said. “When people go out to eat at a restaurant or go to a seafood market, they want traditional New England food. Shellfish is what people are demanding.”
            Where does the rest of the New England seafood harvest go, if not to New England consumers? All over the globe.
            “Two-thirds of the seafood caught in the U.S. is exported elsewhere, some species more so than others,” Masury said. “In Rhode Island, whiting – also called silver hake – is a fairly big fishery, but most people here have never heard of it. It mostly goes to New York and it’s distributed out of the region from there.”
            In a report issued by Eating with the Ecosystem in late June, the authors wrote that the low availability of locally caught seafood “may not necessarily imply that the market is dominated by non-regional seafood. Rather, it may be in part because the markets did not bother to indicate – or advertise – that the seafood is from the region.”
            The report also noted that many of the study’s results suggest that Maine and Rhode Island were different than the other New England states.
“Seafood is a bigger part of the economy in those states, they depend on fisheries more than other industries, and people who vacation in both areas want local seafood,” Masury said. “So part of the reason why those states had more availability of regional species is because there is more demand for local species.”
And that, she added, is the take home message of the Market Blitz. The region has plenty of room to improve, but consumers will have to demand it.
“For many businesses, it’s an economic decision,” she said. “If they don’t think people are going to buy it, they’re not going to offer it. So the biggest thing we can do is to show there is demand for local species. Buy the local instead of the imported. And if you don’t see local in your market, ask for it.”
The Market Blitz study will be conducted twice a year for the foreseeable future to build up a database and demonstrate how seafood availability changes over time. In the next phase of the project, interviews will be conducted with fishermen, seafood dealers, processors, chefs and consumers about the mismatch between what species are available in the ecosystem and what species are available in the marketplace.
“One of the things we talk about all the time with consumers is eating a diversity of local species in proportion to their natural abundance,” Masury said. “Species more abundant in the local area should be a larger part of our diet. We hear that species like dogfish and sea robin are abundant in local waters, for example, but you don’t realize that because that’s not what’s available in the local market. Our goal with the Market Blitz is to quantify what is available.”

This article first appeared on EcoRI.org on July 6, 2018.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

How is South County preparing for rising tides?

            Superstorm Sandy had a devastating effect on the business community along the Misquamicut shoreline in 2012. Little Mermaid’s restaurant and Sam’s Snack Bar were completely destroyed; Paddy’s Beach Club and the Andrea Hotel barely avoided the same fate.
            As they have rebuilt their businesses over the last six years, they have done so with rising sea levels and increased storm surge in mind. Little Mermaid’s and Sam’s now operate out of customized trailers. The Andrea Hotel has been converted into a seaside restaurant under a giant tent, and Paddy’s uses portable bars and furniture grouped in the sand. All can move their entire operations inland if a major storm approaches the area.
            According to Lisa Konicki, president of the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce, all four businesses have traded in their permanent structures for temporary facilities that allow their owners to be more flexible in their operations. And they’re not the only ones with their eye on the changing climate.
            Nearby, the Purple Ape made a dramatic architectural change in their business fa├žade to
Volunteers plant marsh grasses along Narrow River. (Charles Biddle)
reduce areas where water could enter. And the Atlantic Beach Casino Resort relocated the doors and windows to its indoor pool building for the same reason.
            These are just a few of the many private, municipal, state and federal efforts underway to make South County more resilient in the face of rising seas and increasingly severe storms and to mitigate potential damage from the changing climate. Sea level has already risen about 10 inches since 1930, according to a gauge in Narragansett Bay, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projects it will rise another 20 inches by 2030 and more than 9 feet by 2100.
            “This could mean that a 30-year mortgage taken out today on a home or business could experience more than three feet of sea level rise during the loan term,” said Grover Fugate, executive director of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council. “When combined with more frequent and intense coastal storms, that’s going to mean significant impacts to coastal property.”
            To prepare for what is to come, some organizations along the coast are attempting to rise above the situation by raising the elevation of their operations or raising protective barriers to protect their infrastructure. The Watch Hill Yacht Club, for instance, used hydraulic jacks to hoist its entire 4,000-square-foot clubhouse up 15 feet and constructed a new storm-resistant entry level beneath it. The new first floor has garage-like doors on all sides that can be opened to allow waves, rising tides and storms to move through without causing damage.
The town of Narragansett recently completed construction of a tall berm around three sides of its wastewater treatment facility next to Scarborough State Beach. “It added a couple hundred thousand dollars of expense, but it also added 30- to 40-years of protection for the sewage treatment works,” said Michael DeLuca, the town’s community development director.
Prior to the berm construction, major storms often caused the facility to flood, forcing the plant to temporarily shut down until the water could be pumped out again.
Perhaps the most dramatic effort to rise above the rising tides took place at Ninigret Pond, where the elevation of 30 acres of salt marsh owned by the R.I. Department of Environmental Management was raised by up to a foot and replanted with more than 100,000 native marsh plants. Material dredged from the Charlestown Breachway was delivered to the marsh and placed in such a way as to recreate a natural saltmarsh.
The rising sea level was causing the marsh to drown in place, said Caitlin Chaffee, a coastal policy analyst at CRMC, which partnered on the project with DEM, Save the Bay and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “The goal was to increase the area of high marsh, which is the habitat most rapidly on the decline in Rhode Island,” she said. “Lots of the area was holding standing water and not draining at low tide, so the vegetation dies, the marsh subsides, and it becomes prime mosquito breeding habitat.”
Using contractors, staff and volunteers, the partners raised the surface of the marsh and created a mosaic of habitat. Save the Bay coordinated the work of about 150 volunteers to plant cordgrass, salt meadow hay and other native plants.
“Full vegetation recovery will take a few years,” Chaffee said, “but we are really encouraged by what we see so far. Many of the plants did really well, and a lot of stuff is coming in naturally by seed. It looked like a moonscape at first, but now we’ve got plenty of green on the marsh.”
A similar project at a salt marsh on the Narrow River was completed last winter, led by The Nature Conservancy, and marshes at Quonochontaug and Winnipaug Ponds are due to have the same treatment in coming years.
CRMC and the University of Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Center have examined the issues of coastal erosion, sea level rise and storm surge from a more comprehensive manner with a planning document that mapped how these factors would affect all 420 miles of the state’s coastline. The document, the Shoreline Change Special Area Management Plan (or Beach SAMP), aims to provide guidance to landowners, municipal planners and others involved in building in coastal areas.
One outcome of the Beach SAMP, which was completed in May, is the requirement that those seeking a permit to build in affected areas must complete a risk assessment for their property, which includes identifying a “design life” for the structure based on its risk from climate-related factors.
According to Teresa Crean, coastal community planner at the Coastal Resources Center, the Beach SAMP provides the tools to inform decision making while offering adaptation strategies that can help move projects forward.
“The next challenge comes in creating demonstration projects that test out these adaptation strategies,” Crean said. “Our options are to figure out how to keep the water out, accommodate the water coming in, or get out of the way.”
This article first appeared in the July 2018 issue of South County Life magazine.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Is Narragansett Bay too clean?

            Whenever lobsterman Al Eagles finishes fishing for the day, he scoops up a bucket of water from Narragansett Bay to wash down his boat. And every time he does so, he glances into the bucket to see what’s in the water. In the past, he saw an abundance of microscopic marine organisms – tiny marine plants called phytoplankton, equally tiny animals called zooplankton, and occasionally something a little larger. Lately, however, when he glances in that bucket of water, he sees nothing but water.
            “There’s nothing swimming in it; there’s no life at all,” he says. “We’ve turned Narragansett Bay into a swimming pool, which is good for swimming but not good for the marine environment. It’s become a dead environment. It’s supposed to be murky with marine life.”
            Eagles, a 68-year-old resident of Newport, and fellow lobsterman Lanny Dellinger of North Kingstown, are two of many concerned fishermen who believe that changes at Rhode
Fishermen on Narragansett Bay (Michael Cevoli)
Island’s 19 wastewater treatment plants have resulted in Narragansett Bay becoming too clean.
            “It’s Chernobyl out there,” says Eagles, referring to the Russian nuclear plant that melted down in 1986 and left a wide area around it devoid of life. “It’s the same thing in Narragansett Bay.”
            The idea that the bay could be – let alone is – too clean is highly controversial, since most people would agree that the decades of work and investment to reduce the volume of pollutants being discharged into the bay has been worthwhile and should continue. While the scientists who study the bay and its inhabitants disagree with many of the fishermen’s conclusions, the scientists acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers to explain what Eagles, Dellinger and their colleagues have observed.
            The main culprit in what the fishermen see as a decline in marine life in Narragansett Bay is nitrogen. They say the wastewater treatment plants aren’t discharging enough of it.
Nitrogen is a naturally occurring element that makes up about 79 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere. Most fertilizers are made of nitrogen, and humans excrete several grams of nitrogen in their wastes every day. In water bodies, nitrogen causes algae to bloom, much like it stimulates fertilized grass to grow. And when discharged in large quantities into Narragansett Bay from wastewater treatment plants, it can cause widespread algae blooms in the summer that often results in poor water quality that can suffocate marine life.
            But algae – also called phytoplankton – is also the first step in the marine food chain. Those tiny marine plants are fed upon by zooplankton, many of which are the larval stages of lobsters and other commercially important fish and shellfish. Without enough nitrogen being delivered into the bay to stimulate the growth of phytoplankton, the zooplankton will starve, and other marine life may avoid coming into the bay. That’s what Eagles and Dellinger believe has happened as a result of what they consider an overreaction by state officials to a fish kill that occurred in Greenwich Bay.
            When approximately a million fish, mostly menhaden, washed up dead on beaches in Warwick and East Greenwich in August 2003, it caused a public uproar. The governor and the General Assembly responded by establishing commissions to study what caused it, and scientists concluded that it was the result of a unique set of circumstances that included stagnant water, a neap tide, excess nitrogen and other factors. The only one of the causal factors that environmental managers could control was...

Read the rest of this article in the June 2018 issue of Rhode Island Monthly magazine.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Caribbean crab species found in Pt. Judith Pond

            When Jim Turek captured some fish, crabs and other creatures from a salt marsh at Camp Fuller in South Kingstown during the Rhode Island Natural History Survey’s annual BioBlitz on June 13, he didn’t expect to find a crab species that had never been recorded in the state. In fact, he didn’t even know he had.
            Turek placed the specimens in an aquarium at the event to show visitors what was living in nearby waters. But when science teacher Becky Lash observed the crab, she immediately knew it wasn’t the usual hermit crab that everyone assumed it to be. It was shy and remained hidden in its shell, unlike the usually aggressive native hermit crabs.
            Eventually it was identified by University of Rhode Island ecologist Niels-Viggo Hobbs as a thinstripe hermit crab, a species that typically lives in the Caribbean and ranges only as far north as Virginia.
            Hobbs said the crab’s discovery in Rhode Island waters may be a sign of a northward expansion due to warming waters, but it also may have been released by someone who
Thinstripe hermit crab (Project Noah)
purchased it at a pet store. Several pet stores in the area occasionally have thinstripe hermit crabs in stock.
            "It's too early to tell whether it's a range expansion or an accidental introduction by an aquarium hobbyist," said Hobbs. "In fact, with this one individual, we'll never know for sure. Both scenarios are entirely plausible, and both underscore dangers related to introduction and potential invasion."
            Hobbs said it is difficult to predict how this species may impact populations of native hermit crabs in Rhode Island, and it is uncertain whether the thinstripe hermit crab is even reproducing in the state. He revisited the area a few days after the crab was discovered and did not find any other specimens.
            "It is not a very common species in its native range, and it's also very shy compared to the most common native hermit crab, so it would probably have a tough time directly competing with native species," Hobbs said. "However, given the many factors that go into making a successful invader, it's not always easy to predict."
            Bioblitz is a 24-hour event to assess the biodiversity of a parcel of land. The Natural History Survey has conducted the event using volunteer naturalists for 19 years, and the Camp Fuller site was the smallest parcel yet – about 85 acres. The 184 participating volunteers counted 1,007 species, including 18 mammals, 89 birds, 302 vascular plants, 66 beetles, 158 moths, 29 seaweeds, 47 mosses, 56 marine diatoms, 25 ants, 14 butterflies, 74 fungi, 7 amphibians and 23 fish.
“That’s quite a lot of species for what is our smallest Bioblitz by acreage,” said David Gregg, executive director of the Natural History Survey. “It reflects very diverse habitat – a little salt marsh, a little sand flat, a little patch of beech woods, a little dry woods, a little peat bog, all together and packed into 85 acres.”
Gregg called the discovery of the thinstripe hermit crab similar to the discovery of a mosquito fish at a pond in Little Compton during a previous Bioblitz.
“That Little Compton pond had been there with those fish for years and nobody had been there to look at it,” he said. “You had to have a Bioblitz to find it. Bioblitz is essentially a game, and people do it for the fun of it, for the sense of adventure and exploration, and you often end up finding things you never would have looked for otherwise.”
The thinstripe hermit crab wasn’t the only rarity found during this year’s Bioblitz, however. Two rare fungi were discovered that local naturalists were unable to identify until contacting an international expert in Norway. And four plants on the state’s list of rare species were found where they had never been reported before.
In addition, the state’s second record of the Asian needle ant was reported by Providence College ant expert James Waters, who also found the state’s first record on the PC campus in 2016.
According to Gregg, most ants must be observed under a microscope to identify them, so Waters and his students collected numerous ants for closer inspection. The students took digital pictures of the ants and posted them to a website called iNaturalist, which uses volunteer experts to identify wildlife.
“Within 24 hours, a famous ant guy, Alex Wilde, happened to be looking at ants on iNaturalist and identified it as the Asian needle ant,” Gregg said.
Native to Japan and elsewhere in Asia, the species is now found throughout the U.S. Southeast and as far north as New York. It is considered invasive, since it displaces native ants. The ant is known to infest homes as well as natural areas, and it has a painful sting.
“It has been spreading dramatically recently, and now it’s fairly common in New York City,” Gregg said. “We wondered whether the sighting in Providence in 2016 was a fluke or if it is seriously spreading our way. Now that we’ve found it on the shore of Point Judith Pond, it seems to be seriously spreading.”
Those interested in participating in next year’s Bioblitz should contact Kira Stillwell at the Rhode Island Natural History Survey at 401-874-5800 or kstillwell@rinhs.org.

This article first appeared on EcoRI.org on June 27, 2018.