Long Island Sound

Llewellyn King: Our destruction of life in the oceans

Memo to environmental activists: It’s the oceans, stupids.

This summer, hundreds of millions of people in the Northern Hemisphere will flock to beaches to swim, surf, wade, boat, fish, sunbathe, or even fall in love. To these revelers, the oceans are eternal -- as certain as the rising and setting of the sun, and a permanent bounty in an impermanent world.

But there is a rub: The oceans are living entities and they are in trouble. Much more trouble than the sun-seekers of summer can imagine.

Mark Spalding, president of The Ocean Foundation, says, “We are putting too much into the oceans and taking too much out.”

In short, that is what is happening. Whether deliberately or not, we are dumping stuff into the oceans at a horrifying rate and, in places, we are overfishing them.

But the No. 1 enemy of oceans is invisible: carbon.

Carbon is a huge threat, according to ocean champion Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. The oceans are a great carbon sink, he explains, but they are reaching a carbon saturation point, and as so-called “deep carbon” resurfaces, it limits the oxygen in the water and destroys fish and marine life.

There is a 6,474-square-mile “dead zone” -- an area about the size of Connecticut with low to no oxygen -- in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Dead zones are appearing in oceans around the world because of excessive nutrient pollution (especially nitrogen and phosphorous) from agribusiness and sewage. Two great U.S. estuaries are in trouble: the Chesapeake Bay and Long Island Sound.

Warming in the North Atlantic is disturbing fish populations: Maine lobsters are migrating to Canada's cooler waters. Whitehouse and other Atlantic Coast legislators are concerned as they see fish resources disappearing, and other marine life threatened.

Colin Woodard, a reporter at The Portland  (Maine) Press Herald, has detailed the pressures from climate change on fish stocks in the once bountiful Gulf of Maine. He first sounded the alarm 16 years ago in his book, Oceans End: Travels Through Endangered Seas, and now he says that things are worse.

The shallow seas,  such as the Baltic and the Adriatic, are subject to “red tides” -- harmful algal booms, due to nutrient over-enrichment, that kill fish and make shellfish dangerous to consume.

Polluted waterways are a concern for Rio de Janeiro Olympic rowers and other athletes. Apparently, the word is: Don’t follow the girl from Ipanema into the water. The culprit is raw sewage, and the swelling Olympic crowds will only worsen the situation.

My appeal to the environmental community is this: If you are worried about the air, concentrate on the oceans. It is hard to explain greenhouse gases to a public that is distrustful, or fears the economic impact of reducing fossil-fuel consumption. If I lived in a West Virginia hollow, and the only work was coal mining, you bet I would be a climate denier.

The oceans are easier to understand. You can explain that the sea levels are rising; that it is possible for life-sustaining currents, such as the Gulf Stream, to stop or reverse course; and you can point to the ways seemingly innocent actions, or those thought of as virtuous (like hefting around spring water in plastic bottles) have harmful effects.

Plastic is a big problem. Great gyres of plastic, hundreds of miles long, are floating in the Pacific. Flip-flops washed into the ocean in Asia are piling up on beaches in Africa. Fish are ingesting microplastic particles – and you will ingest this plastic when you tuck into your fish and chips. Sea birds and dolphins get tangled in the plastic harnesses we put on six-packs of beer and soft drinks. They die horrible deaths. Sunscreen is lethal to coral.

It is hard to explain how carbon, methane and ozone in the atmosphere cause the Earth to heat up. It is easier, I am telling my environmentalist friends, to understand that we will not be able to swim in the oceans.

I have met climate deniers, but I have never run into an ocean denier. Enjoy the beach this summer. 

Llewellyn King, executive producer and host of White House Chronicle, on PBS, is a longtime publisher, editor, columnist and international business consultant. This piece first ran on InsideSources.

Imperiled little bay with big impact


ABOARD THE ELIZABETH MORRIS — Little Narragansett Bay is quietly tucked away between its noisier neighbors — Narragansett Bay and Long Island Sound. But this watershed on the Rhode Island-Connecticut border plays a vital role in southern New England’s economy. Boats of all sizes, from yachts to canoes, dot the water, especially on summer weekends. Tourist visit the area to swim, fish, observe wildlife, dine and shop.

That that the 317-mile Little Narragansett Bay/Pawcatuck River watershed is stressed and impaired is cause for concern, both economically and environmentally.

“This is our economy,” David Prescott, Save The Bay’s South Country coastkeeper, said shortly into a July 16 tour of the watershed. “We have to make sure we protect it.”

Before the Elizabeth Morris departed Viking Marina in Westerly, R.I., Save The Bay’s executive director, Jonathan Stone, told the 20 or so journalists, elected officials and scientists on board that the watershed needs protection from development, population growth and climate change.

“This is an incredibly beautiful space,” Stone said. “Its habitat and aquatic life is very valuable. The watershed is economically important to the region. It’s one of the gems in this part of the world.”

Little Narragansett Bay doesn’t garner the same attention that Narragansett Bay and Long Island Sound do, but this important economic, environmental and recreational resource is threatened by many of the same concerns —  development pressures, human impacts and a changing climate. Because of its topography and shallow depths, it also faces different challenges.

The Pawcatuck River estuary has been studied for decades by state agencies, universities and environmental groups. While much has been done to clean up the pollution caused by industrial and manufacturing businesses, contaminated runoff from roads, roofs, lawns and farms remains a problem.

Prescott has been monitoring the watershed’s water quality and ecological health for the past seven years. He said Little Narragansett Bay is stressed by elevated bacteria levels, high nutrient loads, large, thick mats of macro-algae, poor flushing in shallow coves, and decreased dissolved oxygen levels. These stressors are threatening water quality, marine and coastal ecosystem health, and the region's recreational value, he noted.

Elevated bacteria readings have been documented in both wet and dry weather conditions in the upper estuary. Near the downtowns of Westerly and Pawcatuck, Conn., a number of outfall pipes directly discharge into the Pawcatuck River.

Save The Bay touted the recent invitation-only outing as a call to action, to urge local communities — and not just Westerly and Stonington, Conn. — and their residents to help mitigate pollution impacts. The Providence-based nonprofit also would like agencies and officials in both states to better enforce the environmental regulations that protect this shared natural resource.

The environmental group is pushing watershed municipalities along the coast and upstream to develop plans to better manage stormwater runoff, ensure septic systems are working properly and to closely monitor the watershed.

Much like the problems facing areas of Narragansett Bay and Long Island Sound, contaminated stormwater and combined sewer overflow washing into Little Narragansett Bay are causing parts of the bay to degrade. This runoff and overflow carries oil, gasoline and grease, lawn fertilizer, pet waste and bacteria. This pollution has closed part of Little Narragansett Bay to shellfishing since 1991.

Since 2007, when Save The Bay opened its South Coast Center in Westerly, it has been testing, in cooperation with the University of Rhode Island’s Watershed Watch program, in six locations in Little Narragansett Bay/Pawcatuck River, documenting water temperature, clarity, salinity, and nutrient, dissolved oxygen and pH levels.

While continued monitoring shows water quality is impaired and problems persist, scientists need more data to fully understand the bay and its watershed, Stone said.

Something stinks Much of the area in the watershed is built up and covered with impervious surfaces, which rushes stormwater pollution into Little Narragansett Bay. In fact, a third of Rhode Island’s runoff drains into the Pawcatuck River watershed, according to Prescott.

Thanks to large amounts of nitrogen, much of it from lawn fertilizers, contained in this runoff, thick mats of macroalgae — called “black ooze” or “black mayonnaise,” depending on whom you are speaking with — cover much of the bottom of Little Narragansett Bay between Watch Hill and Sandy Point.

This patchwork blanket of algae, which gives off a rotten-egg smell when a piece is pulled into a boat or some of it washes into shore, creates low-oxygen zones that suffocate eelgrass and iconic New England marine life such as oysters and scallops. In some places, this decaying organic matter is several feet thick and spreading, according to Prescott.

The University of Connecticut and the University of Rhode Island are both studying this algae formation, which shows no signs of disappearing.

“It’s not quite a dead zone, but it isn’t really what it should be,” Prescott said. “We don’t want to see Little Narragansett Bay any more impaired than it is now.”

Pollution from outfall pipes is helping to create conditions that allow a growing mat of bottom-dwelling macroalgae to snuff out other aquatic life in the watershed.

Royal flush This algae has always been at the bottom, but the amount of it is growing and impacting the natural flushing of the bay.

Exacerbating the bay’s flushing problem is the fact Sandy Point, a narrow island that was cut off from mainland Connecticut by the 1938 hurricane, is slowly moving to the north, creating a barrier that is impairing the bay’s ability to flush excess nutrients.

Erosion and more frequent and severe rains also are changing the currents, leading to poor flushing of the bay’s many shallow coves and the buildup of macroalgae.

A growing amount of the black mayo is washing up on the Borough of Stonington’s shore and having a huge impact on the oldest borough in Connecticut.

“This organic matter is decaying and smells awful,” Prescott said. “Residents have to keep their windows closed.”

Don’t feed the birds Prescott noted, on more than one occasion during the two-hour cruise, the water-quality problems created by the feeding waterfowl such as Canada geese and swans, whose waste contributes to increased bacteria/nutrient levels.

Up until about four years ago, hundreds of swans and Canada geese often congregated at the mouth of the Pawcatuck River, because an elderly Stonington resident was routinely feeding them. After local officials explained the negative impact all these birds were having on the river’s ecosystem, the woman stopped and most of the birds left.

Many of the swans and geese that remain are found on private lawns that stretch to the riverbank. Long, native grasses and other shoreline vegetation would help keep waterfowl from congregating and would better filter runoff pollutants.

In fact, according to Save The Bay, there are a number of individual actions that, combined with state and local programs, would help minimize watershed impacts. Land conservation, salt-marsh protection and pump-out programs are among the measures state agencies and local groups have taken to protect the watershed.

Among some of the environmentally friendly actions individuals can take include: replacing your cesspool, installing a rain garden, using a rain barrel, properly maintaining your septic system and/or fertilizing and mowing your lawn less.

“Having a lush, green lawn is part of our culture and it’s hard to make changes,” said Cindy Sabato, Save The Bay’s director of communications. “If you can’t or don’t want to replace your lawn with a rain garden or native bushes and shrubs, apply less fertilizer and don’t fertilize before it is expected to rain.”