Narragansett Bay

Todd McLeish: Invasive crab is stressing New England lobster populations

Asian shore crab.

Asian shore crab.

Via ecoRI News (

Speculation about the cause of the decline of lobster populations in Narragansett Bay has focused on an increasing number of predatory fish eating young lobsters, warming waters stressing juveniles, and a disease on their shells that is exacerbated by increasing temperatures.

A new study by a scientist at the University of North Carolina points to another contributing factor: Asian shore crabs, which originated on the shores of the Pacific.

The crabs were first observed on the coast of New Jersey in 1988, where they probably arrived in the ballast of cargo ships. They quickly expanded up and down the East Coast — arriving in Rhode Island in 1996 — and they are now found at densities of up to 200 per square meter in the intertidal zones of southern New England.

“If you flip over a rock, it’s like going into an old basement and turning on a light and watching the cockroaches scatter,” said Christopher Baillie, who conducted the study as a doctoral student at Northeastern University. “They’re really abundant.”

The dramatic increase in the density of Asian shore crabs in the region was followed by a massive decline in the density of green crabs. Green crabs are also not native to the region, having been introduced more than 100 years ago, “but it’s an indication of what the Asian shore crab could be doing to native species,” Baillie said.

Adult lobsters live in much deeper water than the shallow intertidal zone inhabited by Asian shore crabs, so the two species seldom interact. But some larval lobsters settle in the intertidal and subtidal zones, which they use as nursery habitat. Prior to the arrival of Asian shore crabs, it was an area that had fewer predators and an abundance of food. But now the young lobsters are finding themselves in competition with the crabs for food and shelter.

When Baillie surveyed the shoreline in Nahant and Swampscott, Mass., over a five-year period, he found a dramatic increase in the density of Asian shore crabs concurrent with a decrease in the density of juvenile lobsters. He then conducted several laboratory experiments that found that smaller juvenile lobsters lost out to the crabs when competing for food and shelter, especially as the crab numbers increased.

“We saw that the presence of Asian shore crabs significantly reduced the amount of time the lobsters were able to spend in the shelter,” Baillie said. “The more crabs we introduced, the more times the lobster was displaced. When the crabs were at higher densities, the lobsters spent the entire time fleeing from predation attempts by the crabs.”

In similar tests, lobsters that were slightly larger than the crabs were able to obtain food and shelter, but the lobsters fed more frequently and ate faster in the presence of the crabs.

“It appeared that they perceived the crabs as a competitor, and sometimes the lobsters even attacked the crab,” Baillie said. “So while that sized lobster was the dominant competitor, there is a potential energetic cost to battling the crab as well as a potential for injury in those battles.”

According to Niels-Viggo Hobbs, a lecturer and researcher at the University of Rhode Island who studies Asian shore crabs, Baillie’s research confirms what many scientists have suspected: the crab has a substantial negative impact on young lobsters.

“There are still a lot of unanswered questions,” he said. “There may also be a positive impact for lobsters. The crabs may provide a food source for adult lobsters. Lobsters love to eat smaller crustaceans. The take-home message for me is that even when we talk about invasive species, we can’t always say they’re 100 percent bad.”

Although the crabs arrived in Rhode Island waters at about the same time that lobster numbers began declining in Narragansett Bay, Hobbs said it’s unclear if the crabs were a major factor in lobster decline.

“The problem is that on top of Asian shore crabs showing up, we also had lobster shell disease, increasing water temperatures, and other factors working to make life for lobsters more difficult,” Hobbs said. “The Asian shore crab certainly didn’t help. It’s difficult to say how bad an impact it had, but it was certainly poor timing if not worse.”

The long-term implications of Baillie’s study are unclear, since most lobster nursery grounds are in deeper waters than where Asian shore crabs are found.

“But as the crabs continue to expand their range into the northern Gulf of Maine, there is potential for further interactions with juvenile lobsters,” Baillie said. “And while there’s a number of things going on with lobster populations, we’ve shown that the Asian shore crabs may be reducing the value of this nursery habitat for lobsters.”

Unfortunately, there is little that can be done about the invasive crabs. They are occasionally used as bait by tautog fishermen, but not enough to affect population numbers. They are too small to be a valuable commercial fishery. A parasite in the crab’s native range in East Asia is believed to castrate the crabs, rendering them unable to reproduce, but releasing the parasite in local waters would likely cause more harm than good.

“It would be incredibly dangerous to go down that rabbit hole,” Baillie said.

“The crabs are established and here to stay,” Hobbs noted. “So the best we can do is keep an eye on how they impact our native species, and then hope that maybe there’s some good that comes out of it.”

Baillie hopes his study will at least draw attention to the effects the crabs have and prompt government leaders to prioritize what he calls “fairly simple changes in policies” — like requiring the discharge of ballast water in the open ocean — that could be implemented to prevent future introductions of invasive species to the local marine environment.

Rhode Island resident and author Todd McLeish runs a wildlife blog.

Tim Faulkner: On the edge in Narragansett Bay

Narragansett Bay.

Narragansett Bay.

Via ecoRI News (

This year’s Watershed Counts report again describes a bay and shoreline under duress and facing an uncertain future. The causes aren't new, but the overarching threat to the Narragansett Bay region is climate change. To illustrate the current and future perils, the report analyzes three topics: oysters, saltwater marshes and waterfront homes. The three make for an ideal summer setting in Rhode Island, but from an ecological perspective they are on the cusp of significant change.

The report's profile of saltwater marshes is compelling for its clear illustrations and concise description of one of Narragansett Bay’s most underappreciated resources. Marshes teem with ecological diversity and provide important functions such as sequestering carbon, filtering pollution, and protecting the shoreline from floods and erosion.

Yet, sea-level rise is submerging these habitats faster than they can naturally elevate themselves. Since 1999, the water level in the bay has risen 3 inches, compared to a 1.125-inch accretion rate for marshes. As water becomes trapped atop marshes, the grasses turn to mudflats and eventually open water. According to the report, if sea-level rise increases 5 feet, as projected, the bay will lose 87 percent of its remaining marshes.

Experimental marsh preservation projects are underway in Middletown, Charlestown and Narragansett, R.I. To elevate marshes, sediment from dredged navigation channels and breachways is sprayed on top of the grasses. But the report acknowledges the it will be a challenge to keep up with the inevitable.

“Even if emissions were halted today, it could be at least a hundred years for ocean temperatures and seal level rise to change course," according to the report.


Oyster farming is a re-emerging industry that reached its peak in 1922, when farms covered 22 percent of Narragansett Bay. Although oyster farming is a fraction of the size today, they are the state’s largest source of shellfishing revenue. The industry is projected to grow, thanks to strong oversight and management plans from state agencies such as the Coastal Resource Management Council (CRMC) and Department of Health. But warming water impacts spawning, alters the taste of oysters and escalates the likelihood for diseases. Climate change also increase stormwater runoff, which pollutes the bay and leads to shellfish closures.

Even with these threats, however, the report concludes that oyster farming can grow and thrive.

“Rhode Island is well positioned to identify and manage current and future impacts of climate change to the oyster aquaculture industry," according to the report.

North Kingstown, for one, has partnered with state institutions to map and assess the town’s vulnerability to projected sea-level rise. (CRMC)

Waterfront homes

The pursuit of waterfront property is coming back to haunt Rhode Islanders. The development of the coast has destroyed marshes and hardened the shoreline with manmade barriers such as seawalls.

Since the 1970s restrictions have slowed building on marshes and construction of artificial barriers. But with 30 percent of the the bay's shoreline “hardened” by development and rising seas there isn’t much room for nature to adapt or help lessen the force of more powerful storms and erosion wrought by climate change.

Waterfront property owners have to make expensive decisions. Retreat, elevate their homes, or install natural buffers to protect against the inevitable damage expected from the encroaching ocean.

CRMC will initiate the transition to these options with its Shoreline Special Area Management Plan, or Beach SAMP. The guide for coastal property owners about hazards is still being written, but the website offers maps and information about at-risk neighborhoods. Other tools and information about coastal climate risks are available for municipal planners, property owners and the public, such as the recently launched PREP-RI learning site.

The Watershed Counts report warns that shoreline property owners should act soon, as the likelihood of a 100-year storm battering Rhode Island increases. Otherwise, 4,853 coastal homes will be underwater by 2100 thanks to sea-level rise, according to projections.

Watershed Counts is facilitated and paid for by the University of Rhode Island Coastal Institute and the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program, with funding from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Tim Faulkner writes for ecoRi News.

Frank Carini: Pushing against southern New England's rising tide of toxic plastic

-- Photo by Frank Carini

-- Photo by Frank Carini


There’s an estimated 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris in the world’s oceans. Some 8 million tons of plastic enter the sea annually. How much is floating in local marine waters remains a mystery. An answer may be forthcoming, though, as researchers will spend five days next week scouring Narragansett Bay for plastic.

The July 18-22 trash trawl is being conducted by the Rhode Island chapter of Clean Water Action (CWA) to raise public awareness about the most invasive “species” in the ocean: plastic.

Johnathan Berard, state director of CWA Rhode Island, was the policy director at Blue Water Baltimore when the organization partnered with Trash Free Maryland a few years ago to conduct a similar trawl of Chesapeake Bay. While the amount of visible plastic collected was “striking,” the four-day effort also captured a “great deal” of micoplastics — likely photodegraded pieces of plastic bags and wrappers — fishing line, and cellophane rip-strips from cigarette packs.

The Chesapeake Bay trawl and a similar one done on the Hudson River were for scientific research. The Narragansett Bay trawl is more of an advocacy project.

“We want to get elected officials, the press and advocates face to face with the problem,” Berard said. “A jar of Narragansett Bay water filled with plastic is a powerful image.”

Next week’s five-day sweep will employ an ultra-fine mesh net designed to capture micorplastics, microbeads and micofibers. These tiny plastic particles represent the planet’s next big environmental and public-health concern.

Microfibers from polyester fleeces and other synthetic clothing are an emerging concern when it comes to the quality of drinking water. Neither washers nor wastewater treatment facilities are designed to remove these accumulating bits of plastic.

“We can’t keep pushing plastic into the economy,” Berard said. “It wreaks havoc once it’s out in the environment. We find this stuff in our water. It’s in the fish we eat. On our beaches. It’s going to get to a point when it will be too gross to go to the beach or eat fish.”

Plastic packaging isn’t well recycled, or reused. (As You Sow)

Throwaway Economy

The United States alone tosses out 25 billion Styrofoam cups annually, more than 300 million straws daily, and some 3 million plastic bottles every hour of every day. Few of these items are recycled or reused.

“The current system pumps tons of plastic into the economy and environment,” said Jamie Rhodes, program director for UPSTREAM. “The scope of the problem is huge. We can’t burn or recycle our way out of this problem.”

Southern New England is certainly home to its share of plastic pollution. But how much? No one ecoRI News spoke with for this story has any idea, and while they all would be interested in finding out, their bigger concern is how to lessen the local impact of a global problem.

But, as Rhodes, former chairman of the Environmental Council of Rhode Island, noted, we can’t simply ban plastic. “Plastic has raised people out of poverty. I, for one, don’t want a computer made of iron,” he said. “But it’s overused. We need to use it more wisely.”

What is considered a “wise use,” however, can be subjective. One person might think wrapping a cucumber or apple in plastic is a ridiculous waste of resources and feeds the growing waste stream. Another person might argue that such a use of plastic prolongs shelf life and reduces organic waste.

What can’t be debated is the amount of plastic litter collected at beach cleanups in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, roadside debris seen through moving windows, and the flotsam and jetsam that bob in the region’s waters.

“Plastics suck in chemicals. That’s what they’re good at,” Rhodes said. “What’s the long-term impact on humans, on the environment?”

Dave McLaughlin, executive director of Middletown, R.I.-based Clean Ocean Access, noted that “we don’t know the implications of the bioaccumulation of plastics in humans.”

“They’re endocrine disruptors and that is some scary stuff,” he said. “It’s important that we understand the severity of the issue.”

Plastic bags float in Buzzards Bay, Long Island Sound and Narragansett Bay like jellyfish. Turtles, whales and other marine animals often mistake them for food, causing many to starve or choke to death. In fact, all of southern New England’s fresh and salt waters, from hidden brooks to popular beaches, are touched by plastic — a toxic problem that threatens wildlife and public health.

Adult seabirds inadvertently feed small pieces of plastic to their chicks, often causing them to die when their stomachs become filled with petroleum byproducts. As plastic breaks down into smaller fragments — microplastics that may contain toxic chemicals as part of their original plastic material or adsorbed environmental contaminants such as PCBs — fish and shellfish become increasingly vulnerable to the toxins these polluted particles collect.

At least two-thirds of the world’s fish stocks are suffering from plastic ingestion, according to estimates, as much of the planet’s plastic pollution eventually makes its way into the ocean. Local seafood favorites such as stripers and quahogs, for example, are vital to southern New England’s marine food web and the region’s economy.

The countless plastic bags, plastic bottles and plastic wrap strewn along southern New England’s coastline, swimming in the region’s rivers, ponds and lakes, waving from trees, and loitering in parks were each likely used only once, and for just a few minutes. These petroleum byproducts, however, don’t biodegrade. They remain in the environment for centuries. Their long-term impact on environmental and public health is not yet fully understood, and barely studied.

“We’ve plasticized the entire biosphere, including our bodies,” Marcus Eriksen, research director and co-founder of the 5 Gyres Institute, said during a March panel discussion at Brown University titled “The Plastic Ocean.” “The impact of plastic is widespread.”

The world’s plastic problem was first acknowledged in the 1970s. A 1973 survey of the plastic materials accumulating on a private beach on Conanicut Island in Narragansett Bay, for instance, found that the plastic pollutants “were mainly a by-product of recreational activities within the bay and not household, industrial or agricultural refuse.”

The study also noted that “plastic objects manufactured from polyethylene made up the bulk of the flotsam on the beach.” Among the plastic items collected were milk-shake tops, beer-can carriers, fish-hook bags, straws, bleach containers and shotgun pellet holders.

In 1987, the United States eventually responded to the growing plastic problem, with the passage of the Marine Plastic Pollution Research and Control Act. The law, which went to effect Dec. 31, 1988, made it illegal for any U.S. vessel or land-based operation to dispose of plastics in the ocean.

However, this act and other laws like it, such as the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, can’t compete with mass consumption in a throwaway society. Their effectiveness is further limited by Washington, D.C.’s relentless assault on environmental protections, and by non-existent or lax waste-management practices in much of Southeast Asia and in developing countries.

Some four decades since the problems associated with plastic manufacturing and use were first identified, apathy, ignorance, convenience and profit have led to an addiction that is trashing the planet and putting human health at risk.

While our plastic reliance, especially for single-use items, grows, the reuse and recycling of this material has essentially flatlined. Waste-management practices can’t keep pace with the volume of production and the relentless tidal wave of new plastic packaging.

Currently, less than 15 percent of plastics packaging is recycled worldwide, according to As You Sow, a nonprofit foundation chartered to promote corporate social responsibility.

As You Sow is one of about 800 organizations worldwide, including UPSTREAM and the Story of Stuff, united in the goal of dramatically reducing the production of single-use plastic packaging, containers and bags. It’s known as the Break Free From Plastic movement.

Since most plastic is made from fossil fuels, the issue of plastic manufacturing, use and waste is also one of climate change.

“It’s fuel early on, a kid’s juice pouch in the middle, and a fuel at the end,” UPSTREAM’s Rhodes said.

Litter, especially of the plastic variety, costs taxpayers plenty. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

Local Impact

Plastic pollution doesn’t just ruin beach getaways and picnics in the park. It also harms the limited exposure many urban children have to nature, according to Leah Bamberger, Providence’s sustainability director.

Last year, the city had a study done to better understand how Providence residents, most notably children, perceive nature and how they use the city’s parks and open spaces. The study found that among the main concerns of children and their parents was the cleanliness of outdoor spaces, particularly litter in parks.

“Litter was the number one barrier that kept kids from enjoying nature and our parks,” Bamberger said. “It debunked the myth that urban kids don’t care about nature.”

Dealing with the region’s litter problem, much of which is some form of plastic, requires taxpayer funding and the ample use of unpaid time.

Staff and volunteers of Clean Ocean Access (COA) have spent the past 11 years cleaning up the Aquidneck Island shoreline. In that time, volunteers have worked nearly 14,000 hours and picked up some 95,000 pounds of debris, much of it plastic, according to McLaughlin, the nonprofit’s executive director.

“There’s litter that’s preventable — the stuff that blows out the back of pickup trucks — and then there’s illegal dumping that’s intentional,” he said. “Most of the plastic we find is from the society of convenience, like packaging and single-use items. A small piece of plastic has a pretty big impact.”

Of the 94,487 pounds of debris collected during 457 cleanups held between 2006 and 2016, much of it was plastic-based, such as bottles, food wrappers, fishing line, straws and cigarette filters, according to the 10-year anniversary report released by COA earlier this year.

All those cigarette butts nonchalantly flicked from car windows and haphazardly dropped on the ground, along with tobacco packaging and plastic lighters, represent one of the main sources of marine debris worldwide. Cigarette butts are made from a plastic called cellulose acetate. It doesn't biodegrade, and can persist in the environment for a long time. This plastic also contains toxins that can leech into water and soil, harming plants and wildlife.

On World Oceans Day, June 8, COA held a coastal cleanup at Easton’s Beach in Newport. Seventy-two volunteers collected 160 pounds of debris, including 1,700 cigarette butts.

Unsurprisingly, plastic bags also make up a good chunk of the organization’s shoreline hauls. Between 2013 and 2016, for example, volunteers picked up 11,874 bags.

The Aquidneck Island coastline, however, isn’t the sole domain for litter. The waters off Newport, Middletown and Portsmouth are also teaming with debris, most notably Newport Harbor. The Rozalia Project has documented a concentration of trash in the historic harbor at 41 million pieces of litter per square kilometer. Trash covers 25.2 percent of the harbor’s seafloor. It’s been dubbed Beer Can Reef, although much of the debris is plastic bottles and cups.

The Long Island Sound Study notes that marine debris is a nuisance and hazard for boaters. For instance, floating lines can foul a boat’s propellers, and chunks of plastic or plastic bags can block an engine’s cooling-water intake.

“While floatable debris in the open waters of Long Island Sound is less concentrated than in the neighboring New York-New Jersey Harbor estuary and in western Long Island Sound embayments, it is present in great enough quantities to mar the aesthetic enjoyment of the Sound,” according to the program that was started in 1985 by the Environmental Protection Agency and the states of New York and Connecticut to improve and protect the water quality of Long Island Sound. “Debris floating in the waters of the Sound can accumulate along with detached seaweed and marsh grass into large surface ‘slicks.’ These slicks can wash ashore fouling beaches and the coastline.”

Plastic caught in fences, lying on beaches, blowing around open spaces and carried by stormwater runoff into the region’s sensitive estuaries is much more than an eyesore. It’s pollution, and it has economic, ecological and public-health impacts. It’s a macro-, micro- and nano-scale problem.

To get a rough idea of the amount of litter accumulating in Rhode Island, McLaughlin did some conservative guesstimating. He figured if 5 percent of the state’s 1 million residents littered once a month, accidental or not, Rhode Island would see 600,000 new pieces of wind-blown trash annually. If 5 percent of the Ocean State’s 3.5 million annual visitors did the same, another 2.1 million pieces would be added to the landscape.

Collectively, southern New England taxpayers spend millions of dollars annually to clean up and prevent litter, much of which is of the plastic variety. Providence and other cities have to spend time and money notifying businesses to keep their Dumpsters closed, so trash doesn’t blow away or get spread about town by animals. DPWs have to clean vacant lots of trash and clear clogged storm drains and catch basins.

It also costs taxpayers when loads of municipal recycling are contaminated — plastic bags are one of the biggest contaminators; biodegradable and compostable plastics are also problem contaminants — and the collected material must then be buried or burned, instead of sold to recyclers.

Despite her relentless efforts organizing cleanups, Massachusetts resident Bonne Combs says, ‘We can’t clean our way out of this problem.’ (Courtesy photo)

No one pays Bonnie Combs to pick up after others. The Blackstone, Mass., resident is a relentless reuser and recycler. She conducts daily one-woman cleanups, at Stump Pond in Smithfield, R.I., up and down the banks of the Blackstone River and in her neighborhood, to name just a few spots. She founded Bird Brain Designs by Bonnie to repurpose animal feed bags into reusable shopping bags.

The marketing director for the Blackstone Heritage Corridor (BHC) manages the organization’s Trash Responsibly program. She also started the BHC’s Fish Responsiblyprogram, which works with businesses, such as Ocean State Tackle in Providence and Barry’s Bait & Tackle in Worcester, and the Audubon Society to make sure monofilament fishing line and spools are recycled properly.

Combs regularly sees firsthand the pervasiveness of southern New England’s plastic problem. She said nips are a “huge problem.” She picks up plenty of iced-coffee cups wrapped in both Styrofoam and plastic, and sees discarded plastic packaging everywhere.

“It’s becoming harder and harder to buy everyday products in recyclable packaging. It’s really frightening,” Combs said. “We have a waste problem. We need to go on a waste diet.”

Since this month is Plastic Free July, perhaps southern New England should start dieting now. But dieting is hard. Much of the world’s food and drink, from coffee to baby food, is now wrapped and shipped in plastic.

Addressing the region’s plastic problem, however, is complicated and will require more than avoiding plastic utensils, plastic bags, plastic water bottles, plastic straws and mylar balloons for a month. McLaughlin, of Clean Ocean Access, said the issue demands a three-pronged approach: policy, which he called “the stick;” technology/innovation, “business taking the lead;” and engagement, “the carrot.”

McLaughlin believes, at this moment at least, all three legs are a little too short.

“It starts with people becoming educated, connected and stewards of the environment,” he said. “We just can’t ban our way to a healthy ocean.”

Policy Improvements

Since the late 1960s, plastic shopping bags have been clogging storm drains, degrading marine ecosystems, choking animals, littering beaches and leaching estrogenic chemicals, but the Ocean State and its two southern New England neighbors lack the political will to enact statewide bans. The American Chemistry Council, the American Petroleum Institute and other lobbyists hold more sway than in-your-face environmental degradation and public-health concerns.

The environmental/public-health impacts associated with plastic manufacturing and disposal include greenhouse-gas emissions, and water and land pollution. For instance, a billion discarded plastic bags is the equivalent of 12 million barrels of oil. These costs are largely ignored.

Lobbyists from D.C. and parts unknown descend whenever a statewide ban or local one is discussed in Connecticut, Massachusetts or Rhode Island. They argue that consumers benefit from the use of plastic bags, because they can easily carry goods without the burden of lugging around reusable bags. They note that plastic bags handed out by retailers are reused as pet-waste containers or to line household trash receptacles. They say properly collected and recycled plastic bags — they shouldn’t be placed in curbside recycling bins and instead be brought back to stores for collection — are made into a composite product used as a wood substitute for decks and stairs.

Unfortunately, only a small percentage of plastic bags are actually recycled. In Rhode Island alone, some 190 million plastic bags are consumed annually, according to a 2006 Brown University study, and only about 9 percent are recycled.

Lobbyists, however, have failed to sway some local municipalities. Three Rhode Island communities — Barrington, Middletown and Newport — have passed bans on plastic retail bags. About 35 municipalities in Massachusetts have similar bans. The first municipality in New England to ban plastic checkout bags was Westport, Conn., in 2008.

While lawmakers in southern New England’s three states have been slow to adequately address the region’s role in the world’s plastic problem, a few western states have attempted to change the paradigm. California enacted a statewide plastic-bag ban last year, despite intense lobbying by plastics manufacturers. A 2013 study of San Jose’s bag ban helped pave the way for California’s statewide ban. The study found that after San Jose enacted its bag ban, there was nearly 90 percent less plastic debris in the city’s storm drains and about 60 percent less plastic street litter.

In Hawaii, all four of the state’s county councils and the city of Honolulu have passed some type of bag ordinance that has effectively banned plastic retail bags in the 50th state.SThis year, Connecticut debated a proposal to put a 5-cent tax on single-use plastic and paper shopping bags. The city of Providence has warned and then fined residents who continue to use their recycling bins for trash. On June 22, for example, the city’s five enforcement officers wrote 50 tickets.

McLaughlin, of Clean Ocean Access, noted that states and municipalities need to support, fund and enforce waste-diversion efforts. In Rhode Island, at least at the state level, resources for such efforts are scarce. In the three decades since the state’s recycling law was enacted, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management has neither warned nor fined any business for noncompliance.

Bag bans, bag taxes, fines and enforcement, while all part of the solution puzzle, aren’t the key pieces. Producer responsibility, also known as product stewardship, enlists manufactures in the disposal and recycling of the hazardous and bulky goods they produce. In southern New England, producer-responsibility programs already exist for mercury thermometers and thermostats, paint, and mattresses.

Bamberger, Providence’s sustainability director, Rhodes, of UPSTREAM, and CWA’s Berard all told ecoRI News that producer responsibility is vital to local, national and global efforts to reduce plastic pollution, minimize packaging and change practices.

“Bans are nice, but they’re not a good solution,” Bamberger said. “Producer responsibility is the most effective way to manage the waste stream.”

Berard said, “Manufacturers can’t just put all this material into the economy and then have no skin in the game post-use.”

One of UPSTREAM’S focus points is helping make producers more responsible, here and across the globe.

“Companies need to be part of the solution,” Rhodes said. “We need policies to stop the flow of single-use plastic. This isn’t the system we’ve always had. We created it; we can change it.”

Innovation and Technology

They look like small, floating Dumpsters. In their first year of use, the two trash skimmers attached to docks at Perrotti Park removed more than 6,000 pounds of debris from Newport Harbor. Much of the litter was of the usual-suspect variety — plastic food wrappers, straws and bags, and fishing line.

COA’s Newport Harbor Trash Skimmer Projectwas implemented last August, and made possible by funding from 11th Hour Racing. Some 30 units, manufactured by Washington-based Marina Trash Skimmers, are in use on the West Coast and Hawaii. The two installed in Newport Harbor are believed to be the first ones in use on the East Coast.

They operate essentially as large pool skimmers, filtering water 24 hours a day and capturing floating debris and absorbing surface oil or other contaminants. The skimmers are powered by a three-fourths-horsepower electric engine that costs $2 a day to run. Hundreds of gallons of water flow through the units every few hours, and the skimmers are minimally invasive to marine life.

COA has since added a trash skimmer at Fort Adams State Park and at New England Boatworks, in Portsmouth.

“These units are highly effective in removing floating marine debris,” COA’s McLaughlin said. “But we can’t put trash skimmers everywhere.”

A similar piece of equipment in use in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor also removes debris, including plastic litter, from the water. The water-powered wheel deposits the scooped-out trash into a Dumpster. When there isn’t enough water current, a solar panel attached to the unit provides additional power.

New technology, whether it’s floating Dumpsters or trashy water wheels, play a role in controlling litter. To better address plastic manufacturing and use, however, advanced packaging innovations will have to play a bigger role.

Public Engagement

Solving the problem of plastic pollution can’t be done by stopping littering and improving recycling rates. Producer responsibility alone won’t end the deluge. The effort must include education and outreach, to curb such issues as “wishful recycling.” It’s also about changing behaviors — something as simple as restaurants asking if you want a straw rather than just giving you one.

According to a study recently done by UPSTREAM for the city of Providence, one way to address the issue at an individual consumer level is to incentivize behavior to reduce single-use items, such as being allowed to cut the line at the coffee shop if you bring your own mug.

Much of the outreach is needed to make people aware that the region’s plastic problem isn’t magically fixed curbside, or at a transfer station, landfill or incinerator.

“We see litter on the streets and plastics in the ocean, but when we put our recycling out at the curb, we don’t care or know what happens next,” Rhodes said. “Much of the this material is shipped to small, developing countries like the Philippines and Malaysia, where poor waste pickers go through it.”

McLaughlin said the overuse of plastic is a solvable problem. He said it starts with individuals taking action.

“We have to take care of each other and the environment. That’s how we are going to make progress,” McLaughlinsaid. “We have to get people involved at the local level to take action."

Frank Carini is editor of ecoRI News.

Narragansett Bay's drug and other problems

By FRANK CARINI for ecoRI News (

The Narragansett Bay Estuary Program has developed a draft report on the status of Narragansett Bay entitled “State of the Bay and its Watershed.” The report assesses 24 indicators throughout the bay and its watershed — some 60 percent of it is in Massachusetts — based on best available science and current research efforts.

Public comments on the draft report will be accepted until the close of business May 22. Comments should be e-mailed to The Narragansett Bay Estuary Program (NBEP) will revise and finalize the report and prepare a summary based on public feedback.

ecoRI News recently went through the report. Numerous factors, beyond climate change, sea-level rise and legacy contaminants, stress Rhode Island’s most significant natural resource. Here is a look at some of the others detailed in the NBEP’s draft report:

The estimated populations in 2014 of the Massachusetts and Rhode Island sections of the Narragansett Bay watershed. (U.S. Census Bureau Block Projections)

Population growth typically leads to increased nutrient loading, more impervious surfaces and habitat fragmentation. From 2000 to 2010, the population living within the Narragansett Bay watershed increased by nearly 8 percent, to 1.95 million people.

Quote: “It is well established that the way human society uses and protects the land within a watershed has critical implications for freshwater streams, estuarine waters, and associated habitats.”

Quote: “To protect the environmental quality of the watershed, effective land use management and regional planning practices must be implemented."

In the Narragansett Bay watershed, the amount of land classified as urban increased from 350,369 acres in 2001 to 379,804 acres in 2011. The increase of 29,435 acres represented a net change of 8.5 percent. During the same time period, forest lands decreased from 443,800 acres to 424,642 acres, a decline of 19,158 acres or 4.3 percent. (NLCD)

Land-use changes in the Narragansett Bay watershed, especially the conversion of natural lands to manmade areas, impacts the resiliency of hydrological functions, alters the delivery of nutrients to rivers and the bay, affects terrestrial, aquatic and estuarine habitat conditions, and contributes to an increase of pathogens into recreational and shellfishing waters.

Quote: “The conversion rate of natural land cover to developed land has outpaced the population growth rate in this region over the last few decades.”

Quote: “In addition, a decline in forest lands indicates habitat fragmentation and less area to protect water resources.”

These subwatersheds have the highest percentage of impervious cover in the Narragansett Bay watershed. The middle column is the number acres, followed by the percentage of impervious surface. The bay's Big River, Scituate Reservoir and Barden Reservoir-Ponaganset River subwatersheds have the lowest percentage of impervious cover, at 3.2 percent. (NBEP)

Impervious surfaces are a known stressor of both water quality and water quantity, as pavement, buildings and concrete impact the natural hydrology and habitat condition of the watershed. Impervious cover promotes above-ground flow of stormwater directly into local waterbodies, rather than infiltration of runoff through the soil. This change results in more nutrients, pathogens and other pollutants entering waterbodies.

Quote: “There are numerous studies suggesting that watershed degradation increases substantially when impervious cover reaches a threshold of 10 to 20 percent of the watershed’s land area.”

Quote: “The amount of impervious cover in Narragansett Bay’s HUC12 subwatersheds demonstrates the considerable extent of urbanization around the Bay. Impervious cover exceeded the 10 percent ecological threshold in 36 of the 52 subwatersheds."

From 2013-2015, the 37 wastewater treatment facilities in the Narragansett Bay watershed discharged nearly 5.4 million pounds of nitrogen annually. (NPEP)

Nutrient loading refers to the input of nutrients into the ecosystem from numerous human sources, including centralized and on-site wastewater treatment facilities, stormwater runoff and air pollution. Phosphorus and nitrogen are naturally occurring nutrients in sewage. Such loading within the Narragansett Bay watershed has cascading negative impacts through the physical, biological and human-health indicators.

Quote: “The downward trend in total nutrient loading will likely improve the physical and biological health of ecosystems in the Narragansett Bay watershed.”

Quote: “The largest threat that nutrient loading (nitrogen and phosphorous) poses for a watershed is the potential for eutrophication.”

Spatial and temporal concentrations of metoprolol throughout Narragansett Bay. A recent study conducted over the course of a year showed elevated levels of numerous pharmaceuticals in the bay’s water column. Various pharmaceuticals, such as metoprolol, a beta-blocker used to treat high blood pressure, were present at all sites and sampling periods, confirming their widespread spatial and temporal distribution. (Cantwell et al. 2017)

Chemical contaminants of emerging concern (CECs) refers to chemicals that have been identified recently in natural waters that have no regulatory standards associated with them and can potentially cause adverse effects to aquatic life.

They include but aren’t limited to nonprescription and prescription pharmaceuticals, personal-care products, and industrial chemicals used in a wide range of consumer, commercial and industrial products. Some examples: antidepressants, antihypertensives, antibiotics, painkillers and synthetic hormones; antimicrobials such as Triclosan; UV blockers in sunscreens such as oxybenzone; DEET, a pesticide which is applied to human skin; fragrances such as synthetic musks; flame retardants such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers; additives to plastics; and synthetic materials such as bisphenol A, commonly referred to as BPA.

Wastewater treatment facilities were never designed to treat or remove CECs.

Quote: “The behavior and fate of CECs in aquatic systems are not well understood; consequently, the knowledge about the exposure risk from CECs to aquatic life and human populations is limited.”

Quote: “The Providence River, in particular, is an area of concern due to the daily volume of wastewater effluent entering this sub-embayment. This is also critical for other locations in Narragansett Bay, particularly where commercial, wild seafood harvesting, aquaculture activities, and human recreation are occurring.”

Frank Carini is editor of ecoRI News.


Tropical fish are arriving earlier in the summer in Narragansett Bay

A crevalle jack. 

By TODD McLEISH, for ecoRI News (

When a tropical fish called a crevalle jack turned up this summer in the Narragansett Bay trawl survey, which the University of Rhode Island conducts weekly, it was the first time the species was detected in the more than 50 years that the survey has taken place.

The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s (DEM) seine survey of fish in Rhode Island waters also captured a crevalle jack this year for the first time.

While it’s unusual that both institutions would capture a fish they had never recorded in the bay before, it’s not unusual that fish from the tropics are finding their way to the Ocean State. In fact, fish from Florida, the Bahamas and the Caribbean have been known to turn up in local waters in late summer every year for decades. But lately they’ve been showing up earlier in the season and in larger numbers, which is raising questions among those who pay attention to such things.

“There’s been a lot of speculation about how they get here,” said Jeremy Collie, the URI oceanography professor who manages the weekly trawl survey. “Most of them aren’t particularly good swimmers, so they probably didn’t swim here. They don’t say, ‘It’s August, so let’s go on vacation to New England.’ They’re not capable of long migrations.”

Instead, fish eggs and larvae and occasionally adult fish are believed to arrive in late summer on eddies of warm water that break from the Gulf Stream. Collie said they “probably hitch a ride” on sargassum weed or other bits of seaweed that the currents carry toward Narragansett Bay.

Most of these tropical species, including spotfin butterflyfish, damselfish, short bigeye, burrfish and several varieties of grouper, don’t survive long in the region. When the water begins to get cold in November, almost all perish.

“There’s no transport system to carry them back south, which is the reason they can’t get back where they came from,” Collie said.

While climate change and the warming of the oceans has been responsible for many unusual marine observations in recent years, that doesn’t appear to be the case with the annual arrival of tropical fish in local waters.

“Warming doesn’t really have an effect on it,” said Mark Hall, owner of Biomes Marine Biology Center in North Kingstown, which has been exhibiting locally caught tropical fish since it opened in 1989. “It’s just the way the Gulf Stream meanders and carries these fish our way.”

Ocean warming does appear to be affecting the timing of the arrival of the fish, however.

“Twenty years ago I wouldn’t bother trying to find tropicals until mid-August, but now we’re seeing them in July,” Hall said.

The good news is that none of these tropical species appear to be harming or out-competing the native marine life in Narragansett Bay.

“They arrive in July or August and are dead by November, so they’re just not here long enough to have an impact,” Hall said. “I can’t think of a single animal that’s having a negative effect.”

Collie agrees. “These strays are small and appear here in small numbers. The threat would come from wholesale movements of new species that can stay here for long periods. Tropicals aren’t a threat.”

For those interested in seeing some of the tropical species that are making their way to Rhode Island, visit Biomes in North Kingstown or Save The Bay’s Exploration Center and Aquarium at Easton’s Beach in Newport. Save The Bay just opened a new exhibit this month featuring tropical fish species collected locally by its staff, volunteers and partner organizations, including the Norman Bird Sanctuary and DEM. The exhibit, called The Bay of the Future, features a variety of what manager Adam Kovarsky calls Gulf Stream orphans.

“We want to spark people’s thought processes about the things that can happen from climate change,” he said. “While tropical strays have been showing up here forever and ever, there’s evidence that now they’re showing up in larger numbers and arriving earlier and surviving later. It’s not a problem now, but eventually they may stay year-round, and that could stress our local species.”

Rhode Island resident and author Todd McLeish runs a wildlife blog.

Coastal treasure in steel

eelgrass_dancing "Eelgrass Dancing'' (steel and lacquer), by K. GRETCHEN GREENE, in her show at Artisan's Asylum, Somerville,  Mass., May 21-June 4.

Eelgrass, by the way, is a salt-water plant essential for the survival of many coastal  animal species -- including many that we eat -- in New England. Far too much of it has been destroyed by man-made pollution and coastal development.  Public and private groups have made efforts to restore eelgrass beds in some places, such as Narragansett and Buzzards bays.



Frank Carini: Rising waters threaten region's cultural treasures

Rising sea levels and increased flooding are problems for communities and historic districts along the southern New England coast, which has some thinking of turning Boston into a city of canals, much like Amsterdam and Venice. (Urban Land Institute)
Welcome to Boston

(FRANK CARINI is editor of ecoRI News )

Sea-level rise, more frequent and intense storms, and the subsequent flooding being caused by these climate-change impacts are putting U.S. historic sites at risk. The Cambridge-based Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) lists Boston’s historic districts among the country’s most endangered.

History-rich and waterlogged southern New England needs to develop a plan on how to adequately protect the region’s many cultural resources and historic buildings from a rising tide of sea and flood waters.

The May 2014 UCS report that lists Boston among the 30 most at-risk historic areas across the country notes that the city is one of several along the East Coast experiencing more frequent and severe coastal flooding and more intense storm surges.

“You can almost trace the history of the United States through these sites,” said Adam Markham, director of climate impacts at UCS and the report’s co-author. “The imminent risks to these sites and the artifacts they contain threaten to pull apart the quilt that tells the story of the nation’s heritage and history.”

The 84-page report claims rising waters are a threat to Boston’s historic Long Wharf and to Blackstone Block — a compact district of narrow, winding streets and alleys dating to the 17th century.

Ten of the 20 highest tides in Boston during the past hundred years have occurred in the past decade, according to the report. Since 1921, when such record keeping began, the city has experienced waves 3.5 feet taller than normal 20 times, and half of those instances have occurred in the past 10 years.

In fact, high tides along the East Coast are getting, well, higher, largely because sea levels are increasing. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists have said these increases are the result of shifts in climate — the seas, on average, are 8 inches higher than a century ago. The result is the growing occurrence of flooding in coastal communities.

Had Sandy, the October 2012 superstorm that wreaked havoc on New York and New Jersey and damaged historic buildings and landscapes up and down the Mid-Atlantic coast, hit Boston about five hours earlier, at high tide, the damage to some of the city’s historic sites would have been severe.

The Blackstone Block of Colonial streets, for one, would have flooded, according to the Boston Harbor Association. An association report claims that nearly 7 percent of the city would have been flooded, with floodwaters reaching City Hall, had Sandy arrived earlier.

The additional destruction under this scenario would have significantly damaged Boston’s economy. Some 12 million tourists visit the city annually, generating about $8 billion for the local economy. Many visit to walk the Freedom Trail, browse Faneuil Hall, a U.S. National Historic Landmark, and dine in some of the country’s oldest restaurants.

In fact, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development ranks Boston the eighth-highest metropolitan area worldwide in expected economic losses, estimated at $237 million annually, on average, between now and 2050, because of coastal flooding.

Boston, however, is hardly the only seaside southern New England community with a fine collection of historic attractions. Rising tides also threaten historical properties in Fall River, New Bedford, Providence, Wickford Village in North Kingstown, R.I., and Groton, Conn., among other places.

Cultural resources — i.e., libraries, archives, historical societies, museums, city/town halls and historic farms— are an important part of southern New England’s unique heritage. Their significance also includes the literary works, rare collections, manuscripts, historical archives, municipal records and artifacts they hold.

The Massachusetts seaside towns of Duxbury, Marshfield and Scituate are rich in New England history, and they’re also prone to flooding because of rising tides and heavier storm surges. In fact, the three South Shore communities in the past 35 years are collectively responsible for nearly $80 million in FEMA Flood Insurance claims — nearly a quarter of the state’s total, according to a recent study.

From 1978 to 2013, the three towns received a total of $78.3 million in flood-related claims, as compared to the total of $337.8 million for all of Massachusetts.

These communities are particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise because of their extensive floodplains and estuaries that reach into inland areas. In addition, their densely populated shorelines are fronted by narrow and fragile coastal and barrier beaches that are exposed to high-energy surf from Massachusetts and Cape Cod bays.

They have all experienced extensive damage over the years from storm-related flooding, which is predicted to worsen in the years ahead.

The Brown Street Bridge and much of historic Wickford Village in North Kingstown, R.I., was inundated during Superstorm Sandy’s visit in 2012. (Coastal Resources Center at URI)

The Brown Street Bridge and much of historic Wickford Village in North Kingstown, R.I., was inundated during Superstorm Sandy’s visit in 2012. (Photo from Coastal Resources Center at University of Rhode Island.)

The threat of rising seas, worsening storm surges and more frequent downpours arguably concerns Wickford more than any other historic district in southern New England.This small village on the west side of Narragansett Bay features one of the largest collections of 18th-century dwellings in the Northeast. Most of the village's historic homes and buildings — the majority privately owned — remain largely intact upon their original foundations.But rising waters are beginning to routinely lap against many of these old structures. A mid-August tidal surge, for instance, flooded a parking lot across the way from Gardner’s Wharf Seafood, turning the popular local business into a harbor island.

Grover Fugate, executive director of Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), has warned that some projections show sea levels rising as much as 6 feet in the next 100 years. If that happens, he says much of Wickford Village would be lost.

A 6-foot rise would flood about 150 parcels of land in Wickford, as much as 5 percent of the town, according to a Rhode Island Sea Grant analysis. The value of the land that would be lost is some $80 million.

Wickford’s municipal parking lot already floods regularly at moon tides. During Sandy, the iconic village lost power, basements were flooded and septic systems overwhelmed. Street flooding turned some properties nearest Wickford Harbor into small islands.

With this historic village — regarded by many as the town’s heart and soul — so vulnerable to flooding, Rhode Island selected North Kingstown for a pilot project in a statewide effort to develop climate-change adaptation measures. One of the project’s first tasks was to map areas of North Kingstown vulnerable to sea-level rise and flooding and then identify priority at-risk infrastructure, buildings and assets in those areas.

It likely would take a massive engineering project to properly protect this harborside village. This prospect begs the same question municipal officials, historical societies and homeowners across southern New England are grappling with: “How do we protect our properties and these districts from climate change without sacrificing their cultural integrity?”

“How do we balance preserving the historical integrity of these homes and also get them out of the way?” Teresa Crean, a community planner and coastal management extension specialist with the Coastal Resources Center and Rhode Island Sea Grant, said during a “resiliency walk” she led along Wickford Harbor in October. “There’s little guidance currently that addresses how to deal with historic districts when it comes to climate change.”

Complex problem The complexities of coastal adaptation combined with little guidance from the federal government makes the problem of protecting historic districts from climate change all the more difficult.

To slow the rate of change and give archaeologists, historic preservationists and land managers more time to protect historic sites, carbon emissions must be reduced, according to last year’s UCS report. But even if we manage to reduce our carbon emissions, much of the change is already locked in, according to accepted science.

In Boston, where many properties are close to sea level and many areas were originally wetlands filled for development, the Harbor Association has suggested, among other things, that the city consider making room for the encroaching waters with canals and/or lagoons.

A 117-page study released in July 2013 entitled “Building Resilience in Boston: Best Practices for Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience for Existing Buildings” offers experts’ recommendations for property owners in preparing for emergencies related to climate change.

Many of the techniques that are available to protect properties and/or districts are costly and/or don’t mesh with historic-district rules. Elevating a home, for example, can cost upwards of $150,000, according to Crean. She noted that in The Point neighborhood of Newport, R.I., which has one of the highest concentrations of Colonial homes in the United States, some homeowners have elevated their property to get out of the flood zone.

“But then there’s the ongoing discussion on consistency and what historic district commissions will allow,” Crean said.

Across southern New England such discussions have already become heated. Like most issues related to climate change, it’s difficult for some to even admit there’s a problem. Add historic district to the equation, and the issue becomes even more complicated.

Two years ago, Newport banned wind turbines from most of the city. Local officials were particularly concerned about property owners erecting small turbines anywhere in the city’s historic neighborhoods.

That same City Council concern, however, didn’t transfer to the power lines that connect the old homes in these neighborhoods to utility poles, or to satellite-TV dishes.

Just like the debate, often heated, that surrounds what is allowed in these historic neighborhoods, the conversation about how to protect them from climate change will likely be even more contentious.

Among the issues that will likely be hotly debated will be septic systems. To see how divisive the issue of cesspool phaseout and connection to municipal sewer can be, look no further than Warwick, R.I.

Much of the public opposition there comes from homeowners who are concerned about cost. Others have said, incorrectly, that if a cesspool — which is nothing more than a perforated steel bucket buried in a shallow pit or a covered pit lined with unmortared brick or stone — is properly maintained it will last forever. Some opponents against having to connect to the city’s sewer system have called the idea a tax; others have called it extortion.

Similar opposition has been heard in other communities in the region, such as Portsmouth, R.I.

In North Kingstown, however, most of the town is scheduled to be sewered by 2017, but Wickford will not be, and property owners there will be required to upgrade failing septic systems, which are typically expensive projects.

“At what point do you allow properties to be occupied when you can’t flush a toilet?” Crean asked. “It’s another tough question we’re struggling with, to honor property rights and investments made and to protect public safety and health.”

There are homes in historic districts in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, such as Wickford, and Connecticut that can’t flush their toilets now after heavy rains, for fear of popping the caps off their inundated cesspools or septic tanks.

In fact, climate-change impacts will likely increase groundwater elevations in southern New England’s coastal areas, which could potentially impact underground infrastructure, such as septic tanks and cesspools, commonly found in historic districts.

Protecting the region’s historic properties from the rising waters of climate change will take planning, funding, compromise and sacrifice. It will be considerably more difficult than simply enacting a plastic shopping bag ban, and we’ve seen how punishing that endeavor has become.

Impacts to historical/cultural resources from climate change range from coastal erosion and storm damage to the effects of increased flooding, melting permafrost and more rapid deterioration because of changing rain and temperature patterns, according to the National Park Service.

To properly protect the country’s inventory of these resources, the federal agency has noted:

Cultural resources can’t be managed in isolation; natural resources and the surrounding landscape must be taken into account.

A national inventory and prioritization of vulnerable sites is needed to assess the uniqueness of these sites.

A time frame for adaptation strategies needs to established.

A resource in poor condition due to deferred maintenance or insufficient funding has a different kind of vulnerability.

There is no natural hierarchy or sequence for the criteria; they should be assessed as more of a matrix that will vary site to site.

To incorporate many of the possible solutions will likely require zoning changes and embracing best technologies. For instance, would municipal zoning and/or historic-district guidelines allow for the use of composting toilets? Would home owners be interested in installing them?

Also, utilities in most historic homes are in the basement and vulnerable to flooding. Where can they be moved to better withstand increased flooding that climate change is expected to cause?

Can solar panels and wind turbines be tastefully incorporated onto historic buildings? Will green roofs be allowed in historic districts?

“Zoning needs to catch up with new technologies and best practices,” Crean said. “But a lot of agencies aren’t even on the same page.”

As Crean noted during the October tour of Wickford Village, one thing is for sure, “The longer we wait to address this problem, the more expensive the solutions become.”

Both financially and culturally.