Friday, August 28, 2020

Study finds Block Island salt pond an 'oasis' for fish

        While the coastal ponds in Rhode Island’s Washington County – Winnipaug, Quonochontaug, Ninigret, Green Hill and others – have received a great deal of research and conservation attention through the years, their cousin on Block Island, Great Salt Pond, has only recently begun to be studied and monitored. Early results of a monthly fish survey suggest it’s a unique and important ecosystem deserving of restoration and additional protection.
        The 800-acre water body was a freshwater pond as late as the mid-1800s that would occasionally breach during storms, according to Scott Comings, associate director of the Rhode Island office of The Nature Conservancy. A channel opening to Block Island Sound was dug by hand in the 1870s, and it has been a tidal salt pond ever since.
        “It’s very clear that the Great Salt Pond is one of the jewels of Block Island,” Comings said. “It’s about as pristine a coastal pond as you can find in Rhode Island. We’ve done a lot of land acquisition

Seine netting fish on Block Island (Nature Conservancy)
around it, but about six years ago we became engaged in the marine environment throughout Rhode Island, and we decided to figure out what we could do to get an idea of what’s happening on the pond and gather a long-term data set to inform future decisions.”
        The Conservancy started with a fish survey, following the same protocols that the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management has followed at the state’s coastal salt ponds for decades. Once each month from May through October, Nature Conservancy scientists deploy a 130-foot seine net at eight sites around the pond. They count and identify every species of fish they capture and then release them back into the water.
        The quantity and diversity of fish they capture is impressive. Nearly 120,000 fish of 78 different species were tallied during the first six years of the survey, and the research team often catches thousands of fish each time they pull in the net. Most are common baitfish like silversides, mummichogs and killifish, but they also catch good numbers of species of commercial and recreational importance, like winter flounder, tautog, black sea bass, scup and squid.
       “It’s a highly productive site that serves as a nursery for a lot of fish species,” said Dee Verbeyst, the Conservancy’s Great Salt Pond scientist who coordinates the surveys and other monitoring efforts in the pond. “The pond is a refuge for resident and migratory species, and for an increasing number of tropical species as well. Compared to the coastal ponds, the Great Salt Pond is smaller in size but our fish numbers and diversity are similar.”
        The number of tropical species that find their way to the pond is especially impressive. They include butterflyfish, mojarra, longhorn cowfish, lizardfish, chain pipefish, seahorses, and even blue-spotted cornetfish, a pencil-thin reef-dwelling species native to the Indian and Pacific Oceans that has only recently spread into the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.
        “My first summer doing the survey in 2015 we caught something that we couldn’t identify at first,” said Verbeyst. “I had done a semester of fisheries research in the Turks and Caicos, where bonefishing is popular, so as I looked at this torpedo-shaped fish I thought it might be a bonefish. We sent them to some researchers at the University of South Florida, who confirmed that’s what they were and said it was the farthest north that juvenile bonefish had ever been documented.”
        The fish survey of Great Salt Pond, along with water quality monitoring, bay scallop surveys, salt marsh monitoring and other studies, are providing a picture of a healthy ecosystem that is facing increasing demands from human users.
        “It’s an oasis in the middle of the ocean and a really important offshore refuge for juvenile fish,” Comings said. “For the amount of use it gets, it’s in good shape, though we definitely want to focus on getting it in better shape.”
        He said that the pond was healthier in the 1980s, before climate change began impacting the area and before the effects of development and boating were as noticeable.
        “Block Island is often an afterthought when it comes to resource management in the state, but this fish survey is one of those things we can work together on to base some conservation work on in the future,” said Comings, noting that The Nature Conservancy plans to continue the survey for at least 20 years to identify trends in fish diversity and abundance.
        “We’ve been very good at conservation of the watershed around the pond,” he added. “Working in the pond itself is much more dynamic and there’s a lot more to it. We need to be careful about the next steps we take, but I’d like to see us move into some sort of restoration or conservation action, to take some of the data we’re collecting and use it to improve the pond and its natural resources.”
        This article first appeared on on August 27, 2020.

Monday, August 24, 2020

She can't wait to get back to guiding birders around world

        On a boat trip looking for seabirds off southern New Zealand, Gina Nichol kept a close eye on the boat’s captain as the seas got rough and the weather deteriorated. She was leading a tour of nature lovers from around the world, and she knew from experience that if the captain looked confident, her clients would feel safe, regardless of the conditions.
        “At one point the captain threw out some chum to attract the birds, and it was clear he was totally comfortable with the situation,” said Nichol, the founder of Sunrising Birding, a wildlife tour company
Gina Nichol with albatrosses in New Zealand.
in Cos Cob. “And then we got drenched by an unexpected rogue wave.”
        It’s one of hundreds of adventures the native of northwest Connecticut has had in her 15 years helping travelers see some of the world’s most spectacular wildlife.
        “Despite the drenching, it was still an exciting adventure getting up close and personal with albatrosses and seeing them in their space,” she said. “That’s what I love most.”
        Seeing rare wildlife – especially birds – has been Nichols’ life work since she started her tour company in 2005. She has led trips to dozens of countries and seen thousands of species of birds in that time. This year alone, she scouted sites in Belize for a future tour and led trips to Japan, Costa Rica and Texas before the pandemic struck and canceled several months of tours. She still hopes to make it to Brazil and Greece in the fall and to Chile and Jamaica before the end of the year.
        “We go all over the world, and we listen to our clients and try to go to the places they’re interested in going,” she said. “Their bucket lists are often places like New Zealand, Japan, Finland and Borneo.”
        Nichol followed in her father’s footsteps by taking an early interest in nature. She studied environmental education at Cornell University, then worked several wildlife-related jobs before becoming program director for the Greenwich Audubon Center. It was then that she led her first nature tours, first to the Pacific Northwest and then to Greenland, Iceland and Baja California.
        “By that time, I was hooked on wildlife travel,” she said. During 12 years as a science teacher at Greenwich Academy, she began organizing small nature tours for friends and eventually started Sunrise Birding. “It started with a core group of Connecticut birders who followed me around the world, and it expanded from there. Now I’ve got clients in Norway, Canada, Spain, England, all over.”
        Her clients are a mix of serious birders looking for particular target species and those with a general interest in wildlife and a love of adventurous travel. She employs six other leaders with expertise leading birding tours to various parts of the world – plus her husband, appropriately named Steve Bird – and she hires local guides in every country they visit to support local conservation.
        “We don’t have the knowledge of someone who goes out into the field in those countries every day,” Nichol said. “We’re really good at learning the birds, finding them, pointing them out, and backing up our local guides.”
        While she claims it’s difficult to identify a favorite birdwatching destination, Nichol said she especially loves visiting Brazil’s Pantanal region, the world’s largest tropical wetland where she can reliably find hyacinth macaws – the largest parrot in the world – along with jaguars, giant otters, anteaters and hundreds of species of birds during a 10-day trip.
        “It’s like you’re on a South American safari,” she said. “And I love our tour of the Greek island of Lesvos for spring migration. It’s my second home.”
        It’s even more difficult for her to select her favorite bird. Hummingbirds are high on the list, she said, “but I really love owls. They’re so interesting and mysterious and unique. It’s hard to pick just one species, though, because all birds are quite fascinating. Whatever I’m looking at now is my favorite.”
        When she’s not leading a tour, Nichol is birding around Connecticut every day near her Branford home. She especially likes Hammonasset Beach State Park for shorebirds, saltmarsh birds and owls, or Chatfield Hollow State Park in Killingworth for forest birds. And this spring – the first time in a decade she was home for the whole month of April – she made daily visits to Lake Saltonstall to observe a growing family of great horned owls.
        As she tries to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the founding of Sunrise Birding during a time when the travel industry has been shut down due to the pandemic, Nichol is looking ahead to offering new tours to Bolivia, Mongolia and Morocco next year while also hosting birding workshops and giving bird-related lectures around southern New England.
        “I really like sharing the experience of seeing something unique or seeing a spectacle, like when we saw 150 sea eagles on the ice in Japan,” Nichol said. “I like watching people enjoy the spectacle and get in touch with their inner child, their inner curiosity, and their love of nature.”

        This article first appeared in the September 2020 issue of Connecticut Magazine.

Sustainable accessories from cork trees

        For those whose only image of cork is in a wine bottle, Helena Silva has news for you. The Seekonk resident is designing and manufacturing handbags, jewelry, umbrellas, wallets and other products sustainably harvested from cork oak trees in Portugal, the world’s largest cork producer. Sales of accessories from her company, Bent and Bree, have taken off since she launched in 2016, and now she is adding products for men – and considering opening retail shops in Florida and Newport.
        Silva was working in the fashion industry when she went shopping for a diaper bag after giving
birth to her second child. She was bothered that she could only find bags made of plastic, leather or other materials that didn’t fit with her desire for a vegan, non-toxic, sustainable product. So she designed her own bag made from cork, which Silva says is not only sustainable but also recyclable, durable, light-weight, washable and resilient. That bag remains Bent and Bree’s most popular item.
        “That first bag was designed for a specific need,” says Silva, who spent part of her childhood in Portugal. “Since then I’ve been looking at trends, doing focus groups, and asking people what they need in a bag. I’ve improved the functionality of handbags because I know the sizes people are looking for, the pockets they need, and the special purposes they’re used for.”
        Collaborating with designers in Portugal and several Portuguese cork factories requires that Silva travel there several times each year to oversee production and make sure the quality is up to her standards. “Our success comes mostly from our return customers; word of mouth about our products is excellent,” she says. “People see us at retail shows, flower shows, wine shows, and they keep coming back wanting more.”

        This article first appeared in the August 2020 issue of Rhode Island Monthly.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Digging for Rhody gold

        Just as the sun peeks above the East Bay, Jody King completes his 500-foot commute to work, from his home in the Oakland Beach section of Warwick to his 25-foot boat docked at the marina at the end of his street. As soon as he starts the engine, he takes off across the water. Today his destination is a few hundred yards off Barrington Beach, where he will spend four hours digging for quahogs.
        It’s a job King stumbled into in his 30s, and it’s a job he lives for. A year-round commercial shellfisherman for 25 years, he repeatedly claims he wishes there were eight days in each week so he had another day to go quahogging.
        Drifting in 15 feet of water, King assembles his gear – two telescopic poles called stales clamped together with a handle at one end and a bullrake at the other. The rake, a square steel basket nearly two
Photo by Julia Hopkins
feet wide with pointed tines that dig into the sediment, is manipulated with a series of tugs on the handle as he walks backward across his boat.
        “They call this bullraking for a reason,” King says. “It’s the hardest job you’ll ever love. I’m 59 and in as good a shape as I was when I was 25. I’m strong like an ox. Just don’t ask me to run more than 100 yards.”
        Soon after he slides the rake into the water, he knows it’s not going to be a lucrative day. King aims to harvest 600 clams each day in the winter – 1,000 in the summer, when the quahogs aren’t as deep in the sediment – but to do so requires a little wind to ensure that the boat drifts just enough to keep his rake moving across the bottom. He figured out that the optimal winds will push his boat at .35 to .39 miles per hour. But on this day, there is no wind whatsoever.
        “The quahogs aren’t in one spot, so in order to catch them you have to drift through miles of bottom,” says King, who teaches a class for the general public called Come Clam with Me. “Sometimes it’s the wind that pushes me, sometimes it’s the tide, and sometimes I have to push the boat myself. Today is one of those days.”
        Despite the lack of wind, King seems to dance with his bullrake, creating a distinct rhythm with each tug on the handle as he does a two-step across the deck. “The sound is mesmerizing,” he says. “Every time the rake shakes, I hear a quahog go in.”
        King is one of about 500 licensed commercial quahoggers in Rhode Island, though only about 100 of them work full-time and year-round. It’s an iconic industry in the state, but it’s one that is facing considerable challenges as its workforce ages, profits are inconsistent, and demand for quahogs ebbs.
        And yet those like King who have made quahogging their lifestyle can’t imagine doing anything else. “Every day is a great day because I get to do something I love,” King says. “The only time I don’t love my job is when it doesn’t give back to me, when I don’t make enough money. But overall, it’s given back to me 100-fold.”
        After 20 minutes of tugging and dancing, he’s ready to haul in his catch. So he takes a rope tied to his rake and wraps it around an electric hauler. When he turns on the machine, it retrieves the rake from the bottom. King then shakes out the mud and the clams too small to keep, and he dumps the rest in a sorter. As he sorts and counts the quahogs by size – from smallest to largest they’re called littlenecks, topnecks and hogs – he calculates how much money he made. Not much.
        But he’s not discouraged. Holding up a littleneck, he says, “I paid for my house with these little guys, and multiple trucks and multiple motors on my boat. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have clams to dig.” Quahogs have been harvested from Narragansett Bay for millennia. Archaeological sites at Point Judith Pond and Pottowamut documented large piles of empty quahog shells at Native American camp sites that date back hundreds...
Read the rest of this article in the August 2020 issue of Rhode Island Monthly magazine.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Wildlife immune to itch from poison ivy

        As I watched a white-tailed deer with budding antlers feeding on the leaves of shrubs and plants at the edge of my yard last month, I realized that for many long moments its face was right in the middle of a patch of poison ivy. It may have even eaten some.
        And a week before, while horseback riding along a road in Middletown, the horse reached down to nibble on some roadside vegetation and dragged its muzzle through a mass of the same shiny, three-leaved, rash-producing vine.
        Just thinking of it made me shiver, since I was terribly allergic to the nasty plant when I was a kid.
I even went through a series of 10 weekly injections when I was about 12 to reduce my susceptibility. It seemed to work, as I’ve contracted poison ivy very seldom since then. But it hasn’t stopped me from being hyper-aware of it everywhere I go.
        Observing that deer and horse, however, got me wondering why they weren’t concerned about the poison ivy. Wouldn’t they get the same nasty rash as I do whenever I come near it?
        Apparently not, as I soon learned. It turns out that only primates get an itchy rash from poison ivy, and not even every primate species does so. Some aren’t bothered by it at all. Reptiles, amphibians, insects and other mammals can’t get it either. Nor can birds, many of which eat the berries the plant produces each fall.
        And don’t worry about your dog or cat. Their coat protects their skin from the active ingredient in poison ivy – urushiol – though they can transmit that oily compound to you if they get it on their fur and then you pet them. So if you know they’ve been in a patch of poison ivy, give them a bath.
        According to the Smithsonian, poison ivy is in the same family as mangoes, cashews and pistachios, strangely enough, all of which produce urushiol. Beware: If you chew on mango skin, you could get a blister rash on your lips. While you can safely eat mango flesh without any negative effects, every part of the poison ivy plant – the leaves, stems and roots – are poisonous. And if you burn it and accidentally inhale the smoke, it could have serious repercussions on your lungs and even lead to death.
        But only if you’re a primate. The rest of the world’s species – except guinea pigs, for some reason – can just treat it like any other harmless plant.
        Why that’s the case has only recently been discovered. In humans, urushiol causes what scientists call a cell-mediated immune response, which essentially means that it tricks your immune system into thinking that your skin cells are foreign objects that must be eradicated. The rash isn’t caused by the poison ivy but by your immune system attacking your own skin cells.
        Most non-primates don’t produce the skin protein called CD1a that triggers the allergic reaction when it comes into contact with poison ivy. That’s also why scientists have had such a hard time studying many skin disorders – they try to conduct experimental tests on animals, and animals don’t respond because they don’t produce CD1a.
        Some scientists think that urushiol evolved as an antimicrobial defense agent to protect the poison ivy plant against infection. It’s not a defense against people. Nonetheless, I still take it personally whenever poison ivy raises an itchy rash. I’m certain that it’s out to get me.

This article first appeared in the Newport Daily News on August 10, 2020.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Help spot deer to determine Rhode Island's herd size

          The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management is trying to get a better idea of the size of the state’s white-tailed deer herd, and it is asking Rhode Islanders for help in doing so. Throughout the months of August and September, anyone who observes deer in the state is encouraged to report how many bucks, does and fawns they see via an online form.
          The Ocean State is “not hurting for deer,” said Dylan Ferreira, the state wildlife biologist responsible for monitoring the deer herd. But to get an accurate idea of the population size, he is planning to create a computer model, and one set of data that is crucial to the model is what biologists

call “recruitment” or the number of newborns that make it to reproductive age.
          “While recruitment won’t give us population numbers, it will give us a fawn-to-doe ratio and tell us how successful our does are at reproducing,” Ferreira explained. “Then we can plug that into the model as another piece of evidence for our population tally.” He suspects that the ratio will be between 1 and 1.5 fawns per doe, on average.
          This information will be added to data about how many deer are killed by hunters and vehicles each year, the number of hunting licenses sold and an index of what Ferreira calls hunter effort, among other data.
          “If hunters harvest 1,000 deer one year and 2,000 the next, it could be because the population has changed or because hunters have put in more effort to hunt them,” he said. “We’ve got a new online licensing system in place to better monitor hunter numbers and effort, as well as a hunter effort survey.”
          About 2,200 deer were killed by hunters during the 2019-2020 hunting season, an increase from the nearly 2,100 harvested the previous year. Ferreira said the deer harvest has been rather stable since about 2013.
          “We have plenty of deer in the state, so for most hunters, if they put a little time in, they’ll get one,” he said, noting that deer can become a nuisance in urban and suburban areas where hunting is not allowed. An overabundance of the animals can also have a negative impact on plants and tree seedlings in the forest understory if deer numbers are not kept in check.
          Hunting is the only method the state employs to manage the deer herd in Rhode Island, and hunter numbers have been on the decline in recent years.
          “If you ask the hunters, they’ll say we’ve got too many hunters, but if you ask a forester, they’ll say we don’t have enough,” Ferreira said. “It’s a delicate balance. I think we’re losing hunters too fast, so we’re looking for more ways to recruit, retain and reactivate hunters. Having enough hunters to manage the deer is important.”
          Although this is the first year DEM is seeking public reports about deer observations, the project is similar to the annual effort to collect information from the public about the number of turkeys and turkey poults observed each summer.
          To participate in the deer observation survey, follow this link to report any deer observed. A fact sheet linked from the survey will help observers distinguish between bucks, does and fawns. By late August, most fawns will no longer have spots, so Ferreira suggests identifying them by their smaller size and shorter nose. Bucks should be easy to identify as all should have antlers by now.
          Ferreira requests that only deer observed during daylight hours be reported, and deer captured on trail cameras should be excluded. If the same individual deer are seen repeatedly in the same general area, only report them once.
          “You can attach a photo to your observation as well,” Ferreira said. “That’s a good way for me to do quality control, though I’m confident most people know what’s what. I just like seeing pictures of deer.”

This article first appeared on on August 10, 2020.

Monday, August 10, 2020

URI scientist bets sea urchins will be next big seafood trend

          In a laboratory lined with dozens of 20-gallon fish tanks at the University of Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay Campus, eco-physiologist Coleen Suckling is raising Atlantic purple sea urchins to determine whether the Ocean State might benefit from establishing hatcheries or aquaculture facilities for growing the spiny marine creatures.
        Sea urchins are a popular delicacy in Japan and at sushi restaurants around the world, with an annual economic value of about $175 million. Most of those sales come from red urchins and purple urchins harvested in California, Alaska and British Columbia and green urchins from Maine and the
Coleen Suckling poses with purple sea urchins (Todd McLeish)

Canadian Maritimes. But little is known about Atlantic purple urchins, which are a common sight in Rhode Island waters, and whether they could capture a portion of the urchin market.
        That’s where Suckling comes in. An assistant professor of sustainable aquaculture, she is conducting studies to determine whether local urchins could be profitably raised and sold. “Some urchin species might not be very tasty, or maybe they don’t grow fast enough to make it profitable,” she said. “There are still lots of questions we need to answer about the Atlantic purple sea urchin. The key thing is, can we make them marketable.”
        Sea urchins crawl around on the seafloor down to about 500 feet, where they consume algae and other tiny marine organisms. Suckling calls them “underwater gardeners” for their ability to shape the habitat in which they live. Their voracious appetite enables them to keep algae from growing out of control, but if the urchins are too successful, they could remove so much algae that other algae-eating creatures won’t have enough to eat.
        Based on her studies so far, Suckling knows that sea urchins are resilient to the changing climate. She said they have a remarkable ability to adjust their physiology to rapidly acclimate to changing temperature, salinity and acidity conditions. “They’re generally good at coping with climate change,” she said. “That means they have good potential for commercial harvest.” In a separate study, she also found that urchins are able to cope with microplastics in the marine environment by using tiny appendages that look like microscopic jaws to pick off particles of plastic from their bodies.
        Are the edible parts of Atlantic purple sea urchins appealing enough to compete with established urchin species? That’s the big question Suckling is tackling next.
        The edible part of the sea urchin is its gonad tissue – which chefs refer to as roe or uni and Suckling describes as tasting “like what you imagine a clean ocean smells like.” This tissue must be large, firm, and a bright pumpkin or lemon color to fetch the highest prices.
        Most wild urchins have unimpressive gonads, however, so commercial harvesters collect wild-caught urchins and feed them what Suckling calls “a finishing diet” in cages in the open water for a few months until their gonads grow larger and develop a bright coloration. So Suckling has partnered with Urchinomics, a company that is pioneering urchin ranching around the world. She is testing the company’s sea urchin feed to see if Rhode Island urchins will eat it and, as a result, become commercially appealing.
        “If they become marketable, then it opens up a whole interesting range of potential options,” she said. “Under future climate conditions, there may be a need to diversity what we produce in the seafood sector. And since urchins are good at coping with acidification, this could be a good opportunity here in Rhode Island to exploit sea urchins.”
        During the first round of testing last winter, Suckling’s students fed the urchins a variety of commercially-available feeds, including the product made by Urchinomics. And while the results appeared promising – at least in producing larger, firmer tissue – the pandemic delayed the final analysis. Additional tests will be conducted later in the year, and Suckling will share her results with the company to assess the marketability of local urchins.
        Assuming the results are positive, how would a local sea urchin industry look? Suckling said it’s still too early to tell. Much would depend on the willingness of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council to support such an endeavor and whether local aquaculturists would be interested in raising urchins. Suckling has already received inquiries from local oyster farmers, so the second question may already be answered.
        Based on how urchin farming works elsewhere, though, hatcheries may be established on land to breed urchins so wild urchins are not depleted from the ocean. And adult urchins may be fed their finishing diet in cages in coastal waters, similar to some existing shellfish aquaculture operations, or in land-based tanks.
        “There are still too many questions to answer before we can get anything started,” said Suckling. “How and where do we get seed [larval urchins], how easy are they to rear, is it cost effective to do it, and most importantly, how long does it take to grow them to market size. If it takes too long, it may not be worth it.
        “For now, though, we’re just taking the first steps to see if it’s worth the effort to answer the rest of these questions,” she added.

This article first appeared in the August 2020 issue of South County Life magazine.