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.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Swimming with whale sharks is part of URI shark class

            University of Rhode Island students interested in learning about sharks enjoyed the experience of a lifetime last month by swimming with blue sharks in Rhode Island waters and with hundreds of whale sharks – the largest sharks in the world – off the coast of Mexico. They all returned home motivated to pursue careers in marine science and excited to get back in the water with these charismatic animals.
                The harmless, plankton-eating whale sharks provided the most memorable experiences for the students.
                “I went into the class with the expectation that we’d see only a few, but before we even got in the water on the first day we saw the dorsal fins of hundreds of them swimming around our boat,”
Student Alexa Farraj snorkels above a whale shark. (Choy Aming)
said Bethany Deloof, a junior marine biology major from Strongsville, Ohio. “Once we jumped in the water, it was an incredible experience snorkeling with huge sharks swimming all around me. There were so many that one even bumped into me.”
          “We were surrounded by them from all sides and it was an extremely beautiful experience, but also a humbling experience,” added senior Alexandra Farraj, a Park Ridge, New Jersey, native studying marine biology. “They were just so large and yet so gentle, not even caring that we were there.”
                Brad Wetherbee, the URI professor who taught the class, calls whale sharks “the gentle giants of the ocean.” Although they can grow up to 60 feet long, most of those swimming around the students were about 30 feet in length.
                Twelve students were enrolled in the two-week class designed to introduce them to shark ecology and shark research methods. The first week was spent at URI, where the students attended daily lectures followed by boat trips into Narragansett Bay and Rhode Island Sound to fish for dogfish – a small common shark – and snorkel with blue sharks. The second week was spent at Isla Mujeres, near Cancun, Mexico, where scientists discussed their shark research and the students swam with whale sharks and snorkeled at coral reefs. At night they observed sea turtles nesting on area beaches. Each student was also required to give a presentation about whale shark research.
                “They could sit in a classroom for a hundred days and not learn as much as they did in this class,” said Wetherbee. “The ocean was our classroom, and it was a great learning experience for them.”
                The students all agreed.
                “I especially liked being in the field and meeting scientists who do this work,” said senior Maranda Ealahan from East Lyme, Connecticut, a marine biology major. “We met multiple researchers from different countries who do research on different species of sharks and rays. Being side by side with them while they did their job was very cool.”
                “What I enjoyed most was being able to finally see animals in person that I have only ever read about,” added Laura Berard, a senior marine biology major from Cumberland. “I also found it to be a different experience seeing certain animals in their natural habitats versus seeing them in an aquarium environment.”
                Not only did the students have great adventures and learn about sharks, they also learned a great deal about themselves.
                “I learned that sometimes you just need to go out of your comfort zone,” said Ealahan. “Before this summer, I was scared of being in the water with sharks. Then, on our last day in Rhode Island, we had the amazing opportunity to swim with blue sharks. I was pretty scared at first, but I decided to just jump in with a 9-foot long blue shark. It made me appreciate large sharks even more.”
                Perhaps most important, the class affirmed the students’ interest in marine science and inspired them to work even harder to achieve their career goals.
                “I greatly enjoy the research environment, and taking this course confirmed that I love being involved in field research,” said Berard.
                “This class showed me how different people can navigate this field and have amazing careers doing what they love,” Farraj said. “I’ve always wanted to study coral reefs, sharks or marine mammals, and this class definitely gave me a new appreciation for marine biology and for sharks and coral reefs.”
                “After taking this class, I have no doubt that I want to be in the field as a marine biologist,” said Deloof. “Sitting on a boat looking out at the open ocean, I realized that was how I want to spend every day of my future career.”

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Sharks, rays, lobsters affected by underwater electric cables

            Little is known about how marine life will respond to the electromagnetic fields emanating from the spiderweb of cables carrying electricity from the Block Island Wind Farm and the many other offshore wind power installations planned for the East Coast. But a new series of studies by a team of oceanographers at the University of Rhode Island suggests that some organisms will definitely be affected.
            “The concern is that DC currents generate permanent electromagnetic fields, and we don’t really know how organisms will relate to them,” said John King, a professor at URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography. “We know that some organisms, like sharks and skates, are sensitive to these things. So the question becomes, if you build offshore power facilities, will
migratory organisms cross the cables or not. Will it affect eels that migrate to the Sargasso Sea or lobsters that have an onshore-offshore annual migration?”
            To find out, King and postdoctoral research fellow Zoe Hutchison conducted a series of field experiments around the Cross Sound Cable that carries electricity from New Haven to Long Island. They attached acoustic tags to skates and lobsters and placed them in an enclosure around the cable. An array of hydrophones in the enclosure detected the animals’ movements. Additional animals were placed in a second enclosure farther from the cable to compare the results.
            “We definitely saw effects in behavior in both lobsters and skates, though it was more dramatic in the skates,” said King, who serves on the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council’s Habitat Advisory Board for offshore wind development. “The skates liked to spend time in the areas that had the highest EMFs. Their swimming behavior was definitely altered as they approached the cable. We didn’t see any evidence that a single cable is a migratory barrier, but they could definitely detect it and reacted to it.”
            “The skates moved slower around the cable but also moved more often and covered a longer distance,” added Hutchison. “They did a lot more turning, like an exploratory behavior, as if they were looking for food.”
            Sharks and skates have a sensory ability to detect the electromagnetic fields generated by the circulatory system of their prey, according to King, and they may also use it to find mates.
            “They might think the cable indicates a food source, so they spent time around the cable thinking they’re going to get fed,” he said.
            The experiment found that lobsters moved less freely around the cable, but the electromagnetic fields did not prevent them from crossing it.
            “The lobster response was much more subtle than the skates,” Hutchison said. “They had an increased exploratory behavior, too, but it wasn’t as pronounced as the skates. We know that spiny lobsters in the Caribbean use the Earth’s magnetic field to orient themselves and to figure out where to go, so we postulate that American lobsters may have a similar ability to detect magnetic fields.”
            King and Hutchison will conduct a similar study with migratory eels this fall to assess how they are affected by the cables. (They attempted it last year, but little electricity was traveling through the cable at the time.) Rather than placing the eels in an enclosure around the cable like they did with the skates and lobsters, they will release tagged eels to see how they behave as they cross the cable on their way to the Sargasso Sea, where they spawn.
            “Previous studies have shown that eels slow down and investigate every cable they cross. One study found that when eels had to cross multiple cables, they slowed down every time,” said King. “So we wonder if they have a whole bunch of cables to cross, does it slow them down enough that they never get to the Sargasso Sea.”
            The researchers pointed out that just because the behavior of the animals they tested was affected by the cables, it does not necessarily mean they were negatively impacted by them. They are, however, worried about the cumulative impacts of the electromagnetic fields from the numerous cables that will likely be installed for many offshore wind turbines in the future.
            “There’s going to be hundreds or thousands of turbines off the East Coast, so it would be nice to understand these effects and how it translates into impacts before they get built,” King said. “Right now the government is pushing full speed ahead to get these things built, and I don’t think they really care that much about their impacts. The environmental reviews are being done really fast.”
            King is also worried that the results of his studies are being downplayed by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which funded the research, due to political pressure.
            “They hired a consulting company to produce a public document about our studies, and they minimized EMF as a concern and misinterpreted our study,” he said. “We didn’t say that we saw something that needed to be addressed immediately, but we also didn’t say that what we saw is OK and not to worry about it.”
            King believes more studies need to be done before any conclusions can be drawn about the effect of electromagnetic fields from power cables on marine life.
            “From a marine spatial planning context, it probably makes sense to have cable corridors rather than randomly distribute the cables all over, and that would probably have different results than studies of just a single cable. So we still have some questions to answer.”

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

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

URI student tracks endangered salamander in New Mexico

          It’s easy to understand why University of Rhode Island junior Emma Paton has had a lifelong interest in wildlife. Her father is a URI professor who studies birds and amphibians, and her mother is a biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
          But when it came time to dive into her first independent research project, she left her parents behind and headed to New Mexico to study an endangered species, the Jemez Mountains salamander.
          “I’ve been interested in salamanders since I was a kid. I just loved going outside and looking for them,” said Paton, a wildlife and conservation biology major who lives in Hope Valley. “So when
I heard about this project in New Mexico, I knew it was something I wanted to do.”
          Working in collaboration with URI Associate Professor Nancy Karraker, Paton spent 10 weeks this summer in the Jemez Mountains of northwest New Mexico surveying for the rare salamander.
          “They’re very rare because of human disturbance in the area, but there’s also a lot that’s unknown about them,” she said. “It’s thought that they spend the majority of the year underground and only come to the surface during monsoon rains in the summer, when they like to hang out under cover of rocks and big decaying logs.”
          In previous years, those looking for the salamanders often damaged the decaying logs the amphibians preferred, destroying their habitat. So last year, Karraker set out a series of artificial cover objects – terracotta saucers, artificial rock piles, and boxes with wood chips inside to mimic natural logs – to provide additional habitat options.
          It was Paton’s job to periodically visit each of four locations where the artificial habitat was created to see if any salamanders were using them. She also sought them out at locations where they had previously been found and searched for them in other areas that looked promising.
          “We only found 24 salamanders in 10 weeks, which means they’re definitely still endangered, but that’s up from just seven last year,” she said. “And only one was found under an artificial cover object. But our study wasn’t conclusive. With such a small sample, we don’t have a definite answer about the state of their population.”
          In addition to her salamander survey, Paton also collected data about a disease that is killing many amphibians in the tropics and has been found in some salamanders in the Southwest. To learn how the disease had reached the mountains of New Mexico, she swabbed every salamander and frog she could find – even some invasive earthworms – to determine whether they had contracted the disease.
          “I liked every part of my experience this summer,” she said. “Being in the field with Dr. Karraker was a really great experience. I got a lot of exposure to things I haven’t been exposed to before. And the whole ecology of the West is so different from what it’s like back in Rhode Island. I also got to work with a Park Service biologist who was studying mountain lions and bears, and that was a great experience.”
Paton’s summer research was supported by URI’s Coastal Fellows program, a unique initiative designed to involve undergraduate students in addressing current environmental problems. Now in its 23rd year, the program pairs students with a mentor and research staff to help them gain skills relevant to their academic major and future occupations. 
“The program definitely confirmed that I’m on the right career path,” Paton said. “And it definitely gave me more of a sense of independence just being so far away from Rhode Island and living on my own.”

Monday, August 26, 2019

Salamander survey hopes to find conservation success

            Spring salamanders are one of the giants of the salamander world, at least in the Northeast. They can grow to more than 8 inches in length, and their diet often consists of other salamanders. But they are also quite rare in southern New England. They were not discovered in Rhode Island until the 1980s, and they still have only been found in a few locations in the northwest part of the state.
            In Massachusetts, however, the tan or pinkish species with faint black spots was removed from the state’s list of rare species in 2006. This year, the Massachusetts Division of Fish and Wildlife has launched a two-year survey to reassess the health of its populations
Spring salamander (Jacob Kubel, MassWildlife)
amid concerns that the changing climate may be negatively affecting the cool streams where they live.
            “Spring salamanders have a long head with a square snout and external gills,” said Jacob Kubel, a conservation scientist with the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program. “So if you were to turn over a rock in a stream and found a big, long-gilled salamander with a square snout, that’s a dead ringer for a spring salamander. It can’t be confused with any other salamander.”
            Kubel said that the natural history of spring salamanders is also somewhat unusual. After hatching in a stream, they live as larvae for three or four years before metamorphosing into adult salamanders.
            “They can’t be in a stream that’s going to completely dry up in the summer, but they also do better in streams that don’t have fish that might eat them,” he said. “That habitat isn’t extremely common, so the species isn’t extremely common.”
            Spring salamanders are primarily found in forested streams with seeps of cold groundwater in high-elevation, hilly terrain. They’ve been found at just four sites in Burrillville and Foster, Rhode Island, but populations in Massachusetts have been located from the Berkshire Mountains to Worcester County. It's listed as a state threatened species in Connecticut.
            “The main objective of our survey is to do a quick assessment to make sure nothing has happened to our state population,” Kubel said. “If we can check off a great majority of historic sites and also find sites we didn’t know about previously, that tells us the status hasn’t taken a turn for the worse since delisting.
            “The other component is that, as an agency, we need to be cognizant of climate change and its impacts on environmental resources,” he added. “With spring salamanders being a cool water, high elevation species, it might be one of the first to show stress at the population level. They’re like the canary in the coal mine.”
            Kubel and a team of volunteers are visiting locations where the salamander has been found in the past to document that the species hasn’t disappeared. Next year they will focus on finding new populations.
            He said the results so far have been encouraging. But the work isn’t easy, and the success rate is pretty low.
            “I was at a site last week where we didn’t have any historic records but I thought it was likely to be there, and I found quite a few – seven individuals – after turning over about 400 rocks,” he said. “But then I went to another stream nearby that I thought should have them, and I only found one after turning over 500 rocks.”
            At the conclusion of the survey in 2020, Kubel will produce a report that makes recommendations about the conservation status of the spring salamander. The data will also be used as a baseline for comparative studies conducted in the future.
            In addition to the spring salamander survey, Kubel is also leading efforts to conduct genetic analyses of blue spotted and Jefferson salamanders, two rare species that look similar and are thought to hybridize, to clarify the geographic distribution of each.
            No conservation activities have been undertaken in Rhode Island to study or monitor spring salamander populations, but recent land acquisitions have protected some of its habitat, according to Chris Raithel, a retired wildlife biologist with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.
“There are only a handful of known localities for it, but Rhode Island seems to be at the edge of its range,” he said.
“These guys have very specific habitat requirements, so it could be that the combination of high gradient perennial streams with a low abundance of fish in a heavily forested area isn’t available in Rhode Island,” added Kubel.
The Rhode Island Wildlife Action Plan lists spring salamanders as a species of greatest conservation need.

This article first appeared on EcoRI.org on Aug. 26, 2019.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Mingling with moths late into the night

            If you forget to turn your porch light off before going to bed, you may wake up to a mass of moths and other insects clinging to the side of your house. For most people, that’s not an appealing thought. But to moth aficionados, that scenario is as exciting as Opening Day to Red Sox fans.
            Moths are often maligned as pests, and indeed some of the best-known species are – like invasive gypsy moths and winter moths that have defoliated much of Rhode Island’s forests in recent years (though it’s their caterpillar stage that does all the damage). But the overwhelming majority of the hundreds of kinds of moths found in our area are harmless and
play a beneficial role in the environment. Most moth caterpillars, for instance, are the primary food source for many of our breeding songbirds.
            I cannot claim to be a moth expert, but my appreciation for moths has been growing since I’ve been attending the annual Moth Mingle sponsored by the Rhode Island Natural History Survey. The event illustrates the diversity of moth species in the region by hanging a powerful light bulb in front of a white sheet in a meadow after dark and waiting for moths to arrive. They also set up an illuminated moth trap in the woods and paint a malodorous concoction of beer, yeast, and rotting fruit on tree trunks for those species that prefer a stinky meal.
            The action at the sheet started fast this year. Once it got dark out, hundreds of tiny caddis flies arrived from out of nowhere to cling to the sheet, and then the parade of moths began. They started small, then grew in size, and their amazing patterns, shapes and colors were impressive.
There were zebra-striped varieties, delicate pale green ones, bold wood-grained specimens, a big beige one with fuzzy legs, and a large number of cream-colored moths with tan highlights. It sounds almost like a Halloween parade, and sometimes it felt like that as new species repeatedly showed up to show off.
I have no idea what species they were – few people around here do – but that wasn’t necessary. It was just a fun couple of hours acknowledging the wonderful diversity of life that we wouldn’t even know existed unless we stayed up way past our bedtime to attend events like the Moth Mingle.
And it wasn’t just moths that showed their face at the sheet. Lots of other insects did, too. Like grasshoppers, ladybugs, click beetles, stinkbugs, lacewings, treehoppers, and a praying mantis. There was even a giant stag beetle the size of my thumb with a monster-sized pair of pincers. It was a great learning experience for the dozen intrepid humans crowding around the sheet trying to get a close-up look at every creature that made an appearance.
I was so excited by what I saw and learned that night that I tried to create my own Moth Mingle in my backyard. I hung an old bedsheet on the side of my shed and drove my car into the backyard and shined the headlights on the sheet. When I came back an hour later to see what insects had arrived, my car battery was dead and not a single moth was in sight.
Clearly, I did something wrong. Maybe I need a different kind of light bulb. Or maybe I’ll just leave my porch light on all night and hope for the best. At least I won’t lose any sleep that way.

This article first appeared in The Independent on August 15, 2019.