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.

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