ecoRI News

Todd McLeish: Improved outlook for endangered coastal bird

Roseate terns

Roseate terns

From ecoRI News (

The North American population of an endangered seabird, most of which nest on a few small islands in Buzzards Bay, is higher than at any time since 1987, providing scientists with a feeling of optimism following a period of decline in the 2000s that had them worried about the birds’ future.

Yet the roseate tern — a gull-like bird with a black cap, pointed wings, and a sharp beak — still faces threats from predators and climate change that require constant vigilance so the recent gains aren’t lost.

Ninety percent of the population nests on three islands: Bird Island and Ram Island in Buzzards Bay, each of which are home to about 1,100 nesting pairs; and Great Gull Island off the eastern end of Long Island, where 1,800 pairs nest. The remaining 400 pairs nest on a dozen islands scattered from Nova Scotia to New York.

“We don’t know what caused the decline, just as we don’t know what’s causing the increase,” said Carolyn Mostello, a coastal waterbird biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, who has monitored the terns in Buzzards Bay for more than 20 years. “That makes it really hard to have confidence that the gains are going to be permanent. It doesn’t allow us to relax anything we’re doing.”

Mostello and a team of eight biologists and students are spending almost every day of the breeding season — May through mid-July — monitoring the roseate terns on Bird and Ram islands, as well as on Penikese Island, another island in Buzzards Bay that has a small nesting population. They count and monitor every nest, assess the growth rate of every chick, band as many of the birds as possible, and conduct a variety of research studies. This year they are evaluating whether the banding process impacts the health and breeding success of the birds.

Gulls, which eat the eggs and chicks, are the terns’ primary predator, so the research team does its best to keep gulls from nesting on the islands and discourage them from getting close to the tern nests. Peregrine falcons are also an occasional concern, since they will eat the adult birds, as are any mammals such as mink, raccoons, or rats that somehow find their way to the breeding islands.

Climate change is a growing concern, according to Mostello. Because the islands are very low-lying — for example, Bird Island’s maximum elevation is just 10 feet — erosion and sea-level rise could reduce nesting habitat, and major storms could flood active nests.

Offshore wind turbines are also an increasing threat, especially with hundreds of turbines proposed for the waters just south of the breeding islands.

“Those are areas that the roseates fly through, so we’re really concerned about those projects,” Mostello said. “Even if each turbine doesn’t kill a lot of birds per year, they’ll be operational for a lot of years, and when you have a rare species that’s long-lived and produces few young per year, it starts to knock down the survival rate and could have an impact on the population. Hundreds of turbines could be a big risk to the terns.”

Biologist Carolyn Mostello and her team have been monitoring the terns on Buzzards Bay islands for two decades.

In an effort to boost the birds’ population, MassWildlife teamed with the Army Corps of Engineers and a number of other partners to restore habitat at Bird Island. By filling in some low-lying areas, planting native vegetation, and increasing the height of the seawall, the project has doubled the amount of potential nesting habitat on the 2-acre island.

“Before the restoration, the birds were very crowded, and that resulted in a lot of agonistic interactions,” Mostello said. “Their territories were small, so neighboring adults were attacking other adults and chicks, resulting in lower productivity. Now they can spread out a bit, they’re less aggressive towards each other, and the substrate is better for them. We have more habitat and it’s better habitat.”

A similar habitat-restoration project is in the planning stages for Ram Island.

Despite the improved habitat and recent population increase, Mostello isn’t ready to claim victory for the birds.

“If you have a population that fluctuates a lot — we went from 2,900 pairs to 4,400 pairs in six years — you would want to wait a while to make sure the population was actually stable before you considered them recovered,” she said. “They could be headed for a downturn. The rate of increase has slowed. It could be that we’re headed for a leveling off and a decline. Only time will tell.”

In the meantime, Mostello and her team will continue to spend almost every day of the breeding season keeping an eye on the roseate terns in Buzzards Bay, knowing that their progress could easily be reversed without a regular human presence.

“If we didn’t show up, we might get away with it for a year, but by the second year you’d have predators that knew they could feed uninhibited on the terns, you’d see declines in productivity, and partial or full abandonment of the colony,” Mostello said. “Having a human presence is non-negotiable.

“While we need to continue to shepherd them through the world, we’ll do it with the hope that someday they’ll be self-sufficient and won’t need this level of effort. We’ve been committed to this species for a long time; we have a huge responsibility here in Massachusetts with 50 percent of the continental population here, so we’re not about to slack off and lose the gains that we’ve made.”

Todd McLeish runs a wildlife blog.

Frank Carini: The uncertain future of 'the Yellowstone of the North Atlantic'

Kelp forest on Cashes Ledge    — Conservation Law Foundation photo

Kelp forest on Cashes Ledge

— Conservation Law Foundation photo

From ecoRI News (

Robert Lamb, as a Ph.D. student at Brown University, saw firsthand the “incredible diversity, breathtaking plant life, and healthy fish populations” that call Cashes Ledge home.

Lamb recently told ecoRI News that this pristine ecosystem is unlike anything else in the Gulf of Maine. That’s why he was part of a team that worked to permanently protect the 550-square-mile area that is 80 miles off the coast of Gloucester, Mass.

Led by Brown University Prof. Jon Witman, a team of divers from the Providence university, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the University of New Hampshire, and the National Park Service worked with the Conservation Law Foundation to document the bounty of marine life that exists at Cashes Ledge — a 22-mile-long underwater mountain range with average depths of 90 to 130 feet — and assess its vulnerability. This 4-minute video highlights some of that work.

The team’s efforts of four years ago, including holding roundtables and giving talks across the region, were undertaken in hopes that Cashes Ledge would be awarded a monument designation. The effort failed, but it did play a part in the creation, three years ago, of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, the only national monument in the Atlantic Ocean.

Lamb, who now works with the Witman Lab and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on various marine issues, believes that Cashes Ledge deserves the same protection, especially since the Gulf of Maine is one of the fastest-warming bodies of salt water in the world. He said the destruction of such an important underwater habitat would be devastating.

During the many dives the researchers and scientists took, censuses they conducted, and comparisons they made between Cashes Ledge and exploited coastal areas, such as the Isles of Shoals and Star Island, they found that fish biomass was about 500 times greater there than anywhere in the near shore and kelp biomass was also significantly greater, according to Lamb.

He noted that Cashes Ledge’s dense kelp forest is the most productive one in the North Atlantic.

The peaks and canyons of Cashes Ledge create nutrient- and oxygen-rich currents that support diverse habitats. The area is home to Atlantic wolffish, cod, cusk, sea stars, sea squirts, sea pens, horse mussels, anemones, rare sponges, and the largest continuous kelp forest along the Atlantic Seaboard. It also acts as a migratory pass for blue and porbeagle sharks, humpback and right whales, and bluefin tuna.

The value of Cashes Ledge has been recognized by the New England Fishery Management Council, as it has designated a large swath of the area as “essential fish habitat” for American plaice, Atlantic cod, haddock, halibut, monkfish, pollock, white hake, and witch flounder. The area is currently restricted, meaning most forms of fishing are prohibited.

Those protections, however, are “too little,” according to Lamb.

“It’s one of those places that is so unique and so beautiful … a treasure,” he said. “It merits protection for that reason alone, if not for the fisheries benefits. If you have a place where fish are allowed to grow unchecked and unimpeded by fishing, that creates a surplus of individuals that will swim, or disperses larvae, to other places that then can he caught, so it indirectly benefits fisheries.”

The partially protected area is also home to Ammen Rock, a peak so tall that it disrupts the Gulf of Maine current and creates upwellings of cold, nutrient-rich water which sustains the ledge’s vast variety of life.

Noted marine biologist Sylvia Earle has called Cashes Ledge “the Yellowstone of the North Atlantic.”

Modern commercial fishing technologies, however, make Cashes Ledge susceptible to damage. A bottom trawl, for example, could strip clear the kelp forest on Ammen Rock and completely alter the ecosystem, according to the Conservation Law Foundation. The Boston-based environmental advocacy organization has noted that some anemone populations could take up to 230 years to recover from a single drag of a bottom trawl.

Protected areas also have been shown to be more resilient to climate change, and provide sea life places to adapt to warming and acidifying waters.

See this video about Cashes Ledge.

Frank Carini is editor of ecoRI News.

Tim Faulkner: Providence's stunning new food-distribution center

Artist’s rendition of Farm Fresh Rhode Island’s coming food-distribution center in Providence.

Artist’s rendition of Farm Fresh Rhode Island’s coming food-distribution center in Providence.

Via ecoRI News (


This city recently celebrated its designation as a food capital by recognizing three new food ventures and a book touting its success at making food a cultural, educational, and economic engine.

The businesses — all under different stages of construction — include the relocation of Farm Fresh Rhode Island’s food distribution center to a 60,000-square-foot building on a 3.2-acre site off Valley Road, the 110,000-square-foot greenhouse for Gotham Greens on Harris Avenue, and the Urban Greens Co-op, a tenant in a new commercial and residential space on Cranston Street.

All of the projects are being built on remediated brownfield sites. The three organizations use food to bring together culture, arts, and economic growth for a “a new green future,” Mayor Jorge Elorza said at the May 30 “Edible Providence” event. “It’s just a way to bring us together as a community.”

The mayor spoke of celebrating his Guatemalan heritage through traditional foods such as tortillas, black beans, carne asada, and guacamole — all of which have been enjoyed and adopted by other cultures.

“Food has such a transformative quality to it in Guatemalan culture and in every culture throughout the world,” Elorza said.

Providence also was profiled in a chapter of the United Nations book Integrating Food Into Urban Planning. The planning guide looks at food systems in 20 cities, including Toronto, New York, Bangkok, and Tokyo.

The book shows how food is used across municipal agencies to address a range of issues such as health, diet, recreation, education, planning, and waste management.

Providence was singled out for having the forethought to increase food security and nutrition through collaboration between businesses, residents, and government.

Bonnie Nickerson, director of the city’s Department of Planning and Development, said the creation of the Office of Sustainability brought together several independent initiatives and policies. Changes to zoning regulations advanced programs for beekeeping, urban farming, and backyard chickens.

Nellie de Goguel, of the city’s Office of Sustainability, said the city is in the early stages of launching a curbside food-scrap collection service within a single neighborhood. The city has a goal of having 100 restaurants divert their food scrap for compost by 2020. So far, 12 restaurants are onboard through the city’s composting program.

Ellen Cynar, director of the city’s Healthy Communities Office, said new programs such as Lots of Hope created access to vacant land for neighborhood gardens and urban farmers. The city has a goal of hiring a farmer to manage the public farming and garden areas at city parks. Thanks to a federal grant the city is developing a farm-to-school program.

Cynar said the program will help students learn about the relationships between the environment and food.

Tim Faulkner is an eco RI News journalist.

Frank Carini: N.E. coastal-property values don't reflect threat of rising waters

Coastal flooding in Marblehead, Mass., on Oct. 29, 2012 during Superstorm Sandy.

Coastal flooding in Marblehead, Mass., on Oct. 29, 2012 during Superstorm Sandy.

From ecoRI News (

Along the nearly 13,000 miles of coastline of the contiguous United States, hundreds of thousands of buildings lie in the path of rising waters. Long before these properties and accompanying infrastructure are underwater, though, millions living in coastal communities will face more frequent flooding, as the tides inch higher and reach further inland.

Property values in most coastal real-estate markets, including in southern New England, however, don’t reflect this risk. These properties are routinely more expensive, even though their future is likely to be wet.

Accelerating sea-level rise, primarily driven by human activity, is projected to worsen tidal flooding in the United States, putting as many as 311,000 coastal homes in the lower 48 states, with a collective market value of nearly $118 billion, at risk of chronic flooding within the length of a typical mortgage, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Those 300,000-plus homes generate some $1.5 billion annually in property-tax revenue.

Another 14,000 or so coastal commercial properties assessed at a value of nearly $18.5 billion also are at risk during the next 30 years.

Although the Industrial Revolution began more than two and a half centuries ago, some 60 percent of industrial carbon dioxide emissions have been released since 1980, according to the Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit. Emissions from the extraction, manufacturing, and burning of products produced by 90 corporate cement manufacturers and fossil-fuel goliaths, such as Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell, contributed to nearly half of the global rise in surface temperature and about 30 percent of the rise in global sea level between 1880 and 2010.

By the end of this century, thanks in large part to decades of unrelenting climate emissions, 2.4 million homes and 107,000 commercial properties currently worth more than a combined $1 trillion could be underwater, according to UCS projections.

Many of the at-risk waterfront communities in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, most notably underserved and marginalized communities — the South Providence and Washington Park neighborhoods in Providence, for example — are underprepared to deal with the many challenges climate change presents.

Currently, according to a 2018 UCS report, 940 properties in Connecticut, 2,405 in Massachusetts, and 278 in Rhode Island are at risk. By 2030, under the organization’s high scenario, those numbers jump to 2,540, 3,303, and 419. The high scenario is where climate change is trending.

The UCS analysis combined property data from the online real-estate company Zillow with peer-reviewed methodology developed by the nonprofit for assessing areas at risk of frequent flooding. Using three sea-level-rise scenarios developed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and localized for this analysis, UCS determined how many residential and commercial properties along the entire lower 48 coastline are at risk of becoming chronically inundated from high tides — flooding on average 26 times annually or more, or the equivalent of once every other week — in the coming decades even in the absence of major storms.

Shana Udvardy, a climate resilience analyst with the UCS who co-authored last year’s report, recently spoke with ecoRI News about sea-level rise and the growing risks of chronic inundation.

“We put this together because a lot of potential homebuyers don’t necessarily know that their home is at risk of tidal flooding,” she said. “Or that things like home insurance doesn’t cover flooding, so you need flood insurance.”

The core results in the 2018 report are from the high sea-level-rise scenario — an appropriately conservative projection to use when estimating risk to homes, according to Udvardy. This scenario projects an average of 1.9 feet of sea-level rise for Massachusetts in 2045 and 6.9 feet in 2100. The analysis also projects how many properties might avoid such flooding if sea-level rise is constrained through the achievement of the long-term temperature goals of the Paris Agreement and if ice loss is limited.

The results for Massachusetts, in particular, are sobering. The analysis found that without additional measures to adapt to rising seas that:

By 2045, about 7,000 of today’s residential properties, currently home to roughly 14,000 people, are at risk of chronic inundation. The total number of at-risk residential properties jumps to nearly 90,000 — home to about 178,000 people — by 2100. While Massachusetts has a network of shoreline stabilization structures along its coast, few of these are designed to keep out higher tides.

By 2045, more than $4 billion worth of residential property — based on today’s values — is at risk of chronic flooding. The homes that would face this flooding at the end of the century are currently worth roughly $63 billion — an amount that would rank the state fifth nationally in 2100 for value of residential properties at risk.

The Massachusetts homes at risk in 2045 currently contribute about $37 million in annual property-tax revenue. The homes at risk by 2100 currently contribute roughly $413 million collectively in annual property-tax revenue.

By 2045, five Massachusetts communities are projected to have 600 or more at-risk homes: Revere, Marshfield, Quincy, Hull, and Salisbury. In Salisbury and Hull, these homes represent more than 10 percent of the local property-tax base.

Homes valued below the state median are disproportionately at risk of chronic inundation in the next 30 years. Revere, Saugus, and Winthrop — all working-class suburbs of Boston — have large clusters of at-risk homes.

Massachusetts ranks fourth in the nation for the most commercial properties at risk by the end of the century. By 2045, nearly 500 of today’s commercial properties in Massachusetts, currently assessed at more than $1 billion, would experience chronic inundation. In 2100, this number jumps to roughly 8,000 properties — assessed at about $35 billion today.

Coastal flooding, as seen here in March 2014 on Main Street in Warren, R.I., is being caused by more frequent and intense rains and storms. (ecoRI News)

Market crash

Once market risk perceptions catch up with reality, the potential drop in coastal property values could have reverberations throughout the economy, according to the UCS, and could potentially trigger regional housing market crises.

Homeowners whose properties become chronically inundated may find themselves with mortgages that exceed the value of their homes, or face steeply rising flood insurance premiums. Lenders carrying large numbers of these risky mortgages could lose money or even become insolvent, with smaller banks concentrated in areas with high-flood risk being especially exposed. Coastal real-estate investors and developers may similarly experience financial losses in some coastal areas.

Udvardy noted that there are many federal, state, and local policies that, while originally well intentioned, mask risk and create incentives that reinforce the status quo or expose more people and property to risk. The market’s bias toward short-term decision-making and profits can also perpetuate risky development and investment choices. These flawed policies and incentives include incomplete or outdated flood-risk information, subsidized insurance, lax zoning and building codes, and incentives for business-as-usual development and rebuilding.

Identifying and improving the best policies and market drivers of risky coastal development is necessary to better protect communities, Udvardy said. She noted the importance of “climate-safe infrastructure.”

To use the UCS’s interactive mapping tool, click here. The map allows you to learn more about the impact of chronic inundation on properties, people, home values, and the tax base in specific states, communities, or ZIP codes. When you zoom in, the maps become more detailed. You can also click on a specific state or community for more details about it.

Udvardy encouraged municipal and state officials to use the report and UCS website as a climate-change tool.

“The need for action is now,” she said.

Frank Carini is ecoRI News's editor. Joanna Detz, an ecoRI journalist, contributed to this report.

Todd McLeish: Rare Northeast turtles under threat

Diamondback terrapin

Diamondback terrapin

From ecoRI News (

Diamondback terrapins are among the rarest turtles in the Northeast, and the only ones that spend most of their lives in salt marshes and other quiet brackish waters. While populations are holding their own in many locations, nest predators are an increasingly serious threat.

Three researchers speaking at last month’s Northeast Natural History Conference in Springfield, Mass., said that in almost every year the eggs in most of the terrapin nests they monitor are consumed by predators.

“Raccoons are the most important predator,” said Russell Burke, a Hofstra University biology professor who has studied diamondback terrapins at the Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge in New York City for 20 years. “Everyone who works on terrapins has had the experience of watching a terrapin put a nest in the ground, and you come back the next day and find a collapsed nest hole and broken eggs.”

Danielle Marston, a volunteer terrapin monitor with the New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance, said raccoons destroy most of the nests she has observed in Buzzard’s Bay, Mass. George Bancroft, who monitors terrapins in the lower Taunton River watershed, also indicated that nest predation rates are very high.

Burke worried that the tiny survey flags he placed to mark the locations of the nests he monitored could be a roadmap for raccoons to follow to terrapin nests, so he conducted a study to learn what method the raccoons use to find the nests. He placed survey flags of various colors where there were no nests, applied a human scent to other sites, dug artificial nests, and experimented with numerous other factors.

The raccoons ignored most of the sites.

“They seemed to be cued more into a disturbance of the sand than the flags,” he said. “Wherever we dug a hole, the raccoons were interested. If you dig any kind of hole in the nesting area, the raccoons were likely to dig it up.”

Burke believes that microbes in the sand become active and release a detectable odor when the sand becomes aerated by digging a hole. But the smell dissipates within about a day or two.

“We get essentially no predation after the second day after nesting,” he said. “If the nests make it through 48 hours, they make it all the way to hatching, and that’s probably due to olfaction.”

Burke noted that there is often increased nesting activity and decreased nest predation when it rains, perhaps because the rain hides the microbe odor.

“It seems to be one of the strategies that terrapins have evolved to minimize raccoon predation,” he said.

Those who monitor diamondback terrapin nests in Rhode Island have also found high rates of nest predation, but some are succeeding in combatting it.

At Hundred Acre Cove in Barrington, where Charlotte Sornborger has been monitoring the terrapins for nearly 30 years, between 200 and 300 nests were destroyed by predators each year during the first 15 years of her studies. In addition to raccoons, Sornborger confirmed that foxes, skunks, and coyotes also predated the nests. But when she began using wire mesh “excluders,” which prohibit scavengers from digging below the surface to reach the eggs, predation rates declined significantly.

Predation at a recently discovered terrapin nesting site at the mouth of the Hunt River in Warwick was very high during the first year of monitoring in 2015 — just three of 87 nests survived to hatch — with dogs being among the chief culprits. But recent surveys have indicated that predation may not be as high as originally thought, according to University of Rhode Island professor Laura Meyerson.

Two surprising new predators, however, have been added to the list of threats to diamondback terrapins: bald eagles and osprey. Neither disturbs the terrapin nests, but the birds have been found to prey on juvenile terrapins in Buzzard’s Bay and in the Palmer River near the Barrington population. According to Sornborger, a hunter reported empty terrapin shells under an osprey platform used by bald eagles along the Palmer River, and two nearby homeowners also observed empty terrapin shells on their lawns.

Another new threat to diamondback terrapin populations is also emerging: rising sea levels.

“For Rhode Island’s terrapins, sea-level rise is really worrisome,” said Scott Buchanan, a herpetologist for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. “They live right at the margins of the coastal zone, and their habitat type is going to experience dramatic alterations and impacts from sea-level rise. We don’t know what that’s going to mean for terrapins.”

“The biggest issue for us in Buzzard’s Bay,” Marston said, “is that we’re losing ground to the big surge in tidal action at our nesting locations. The nesting area is going to disappear with the projected sea-level rise. Already we’re seeing that the nests that don’t fail from predation fail from an intrusion of water into the nests. The terrapins keep trying to nest where they used to, and the nests keep getting flooded.”

With little nesting habitat available inland of their present nesting sites, the combination of predators and rising seas makes the long-term outlook for the species uncertain.

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

Todd McLeish: The bizarre (to us) ocean sunfish washes up in New England

Ocean sunfish

Ocean sunfish

A tank at the    Monterey Bay Aquarium   , in California, provides a size comparison between an ocean sunfish and humans.

A tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, in California, provides a size comparison between an ocean sunfish and humans.

From ecoRI News (

The ocean sunfish earned its moment in the spotlight in 2015, when a viral video surfaced of a foul-mouthed recreational fisherman who observed a specimen along the Massachusetts coastline and excitedly tried to guess what it was as the fish calmly rested at the surface.

The largest bony fish, the pie-shaped creature is certainly an oddity to those who are unfamiliar with it — they bask on their side on the water’s surface and can grow to nearly 11 feet and weigh up to 5,000 pounds by eating almost exclusively jellyfish.

Like whales, however, they also sometimes become stranded on beaches or in shallow tidal areas, where they are unable to extricate themselves and die. Almost 350 of them have stranded along the New England coast since 2008, according to Michael Rizzo of the New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance, who studies the species.

Rizzo presented the results of his analysis of ocean sunfish strandings April 13 at the Northeast Natural History Conference in Springfield, Mass.

Also called mola mola — a name derived from the Latin for millstone, a reference to the massive animal’s circular shape — ocean sunfish are found in New England waters each summer and are observed wintering off the coast of the southern United States.

“A lot of them wind up stranding in New England every year, starting in August and continuing through early January, but the busiest months are October to December,” Rizzo said. “When they get into shallow areas, they get stuck and can’t get out. Once the tide goes out and they’re in the mud, you can’t move them.”

A record 81 ocean sunfish were reported stranded in New England in 2017, with an additional 60 stranding in 2018. Staff and volunteers from the alliance attempt to rescue those that are still alive, though few survive. In one case, an ocean sunfish that stranded in a shallow tidal area was towed into open water, only to have it strand again and die a short time later less than a mile away.

The alliance also collects sighting data of live ocean sunfish to better understand their abundance and activities while in New England.

Many ocean sunfish are killed or become stranded as a result of fishing gear entanglements and injuries from boat propellers, but the most common cause is cold stunning.

“That’s a physiological condition an animal can experience due to prolonged exposure to cold water,” Rizzo said. “They become hypothermic and can’t move any more. It’s very similar to what happens to sea turtles.”

Most of ocean sunfish strandings occur along the coast of Cape Cod Bay, though some have stranded as far north as Portsmouth, N.H. Others have stranded on Nantucket, but none were reported to have stranded along the Rhode Island or Connecticut coast in the past decade.

“It seems that most of them are going south and get caught up in the fishhook of Cape Cod and they wander around and can’t get out,” Rizzo said. “Once they get around Cape Cod, it seems as if they take a straight shot south and avoid the southern New England coast.”

Little is known about the population or distribution of ocean sunfish in the area.

“From what we can tell and from what we have read, the mola population is robust but decreasing, which is why they are listed as vulnerable,” said Carol “Krill” Carson, a marine biologist and president of the alliance. “With many threats to the marine environment, including climate change and marine debris, we are afraid that this species will see continued loss in population numbers.”

Since so little is known about them, the alliance conducts a necropsy (animal autopsy) on as many of the dead ocean sunfish as it can, and samples of numerous tissues are collected for scientists to study. Research is being conducted on their diet and toxicity, as well as on the more than 40 species of parasites that have been found infesting various parts of their body. Efforts are also underway to learn how to determine their age and how best to rescue them from beaches.

Scientists hope that additional data on ocean sunfish strandings will help to identify why so many are stranding in certain years. Since cold stunning is the primary cause of most strandings, Rizzo and Carson speculate that warming waters due to climate change may be having an effect on the fish by delaying their southbound migration until it’s too late.

If that were true, Rizzo said, then the number of sea turtles found stranded should correlate with ocean sunfish strandings, and that isn’t always the case.

“It was a big year for sea turtle strandings in 2014, for example, but that was a low year for ocean sunfish,” he said. “We’re going to try to do a water temperature analysis to see if that tells us anything.”

Rhode Island resident and author Todd McLeish is an ecoRI News contributor who also runs a wildlife blog.

Todd McLeish: And now, the sea potatoes invasion

Not very inviting sea potatoes.

Not very inviting sea potatoes.

From ecoRI News (

During a class field trip to Mackerel Cove, in Jamestown, R.I., in 2017, University of Rhode Island student Jacob Reilly picked up an unusual brown seaweed that looked like a hollow ball and asked his professor what it was. The answer was a surprise.

Reilly had stumble Mcd upon the first appearance in Rhode Island of what has come to be called sea potatoes (Colpomenia peregrina), an invasive seaweed native to the coast of Korea and Japan that grows on top of other seaweeds.

“It’s not a parasite; it just settles and grows on top of other algae,” said Lindsay Green-Gavrielidis, a marine ecologist and URI postdoctoral researcher who teaches the class. “We don’t know what impact it’s having on native seaweeds, though we hypothesize that it may be in direct competition for nutrients and light. But nobody has done any research to quantify its impact.”

Green-Gavrielidis has a history with the invader. Sea potatoes had been unintentionally introduced to Europe sometime in the early 1900s, probably in ship ballast, and from there it made its way to Nova Scotia in the 1960s. It took until 2010 for it to be discovered in the Gulf of Maine, when Green-Gavrielidis found it while conducting research for her doctorate at the University of New Hampshire.

In addition to the ball-shaped form it typically takes, the seaweed also forms a crust that grows on rocks that easily goes unnoticed, so Green-Gavrielidis speculated that it may have been “hiding out for a long time like that, and then when the conditions were right the ball form started appearing.”

The appearance of sea potatoes along the Rhode Island coast is significant because it has crossed what Green-Gavrielidis calls a major biogeography boundary: Cape Cod. The waters to the north of Cape Cod are dominated by the Labrador Current from Greenland, which makes for colder, more nutrient-rich waters. South of the Cape is dominated by the warm Gulf Stream.

“What it says about sea potatoes is that it has a really broad tolerance for a variety of conditions, and not many species can do that,” she said. “Most species don’t have the ability to move to such very different places. Species that are successful invaders do. We were hoping it wouldn’t be able to cross into this geographic region because of the different conditions.”

To determine how common sea potatoes are in Rhode Island waters, Green-Gavrielidis conducted a methodical search for it at 13 sites along the state’s coastline last year and conducted several quantitative surveys to compare its abundance to a similar native species called sea cauliflower.

The research was published last month in the journal BioInvasions Records.

In addition to Mackerel Cove, sea potatoes were also found at East Beach and Ninigret Pond in Charlestown and South Ferry Beach in Narragansett. It wasn’t found any further north in Narragansett Bay than South Ferry Beach, perhaps because the native seaweed it is most commonly associated with, rockweed, is not found in abundance in the upper bay. No sea potatoes were found in Westerly or eastern Connecticut, either, so it hasn’t likely found its way into Long Island Sound yet.

“The biomass we found in Rhode Island is much lower than what we found in the Gulf of Maine, so maybe it hasn’t been here as long,” Green-Gavrielidis said. “That might also be because the environmental conditions are such that it’s not doing so well here. We do have some preliminary data that shows that there are herbivores — snails primarily — that eat it, so that’s good.

“Often you think that when a new species comes on the block, there isn’t something that consumes it. But we’ve done studies that show that the common periwinkle will readily and happily pursue it.”

That’s a good sign, since there is little that can be done to stop it.

“We need to continue monitoring it to see if its going to increase in abundance,” she said. “We expect it to continue spreading. Whether it moves up into the bay or west to Long Island Sound is unknown. And whether it’s a good thing, a bad thing, or neither, only continued research can tell us.”

Green-Gavrielidis and URI colleague Niels-Viggo Hobbs will be conducting a new research project this summer and fall that involves sampling rockweed habitats — the native seaweed most closely associated with the sea potato invasion — so they will be keeping an eye out for the newly arrived seaweed. Their students are also conducting laboratory studies to determine whether native seaweed-eating marine life will eat it and if it is preferred over native seaweeds.

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

Todd McLeish: Threats remain to National Monument off the Northeast coast


From ecoRI News (

The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, the only national monument in the Atlantic Ocean, remains controversial more than two years after it was designated by President Obama in September 2016.

Fishermen brought suit to overturn the designation — the suit was dismissed last October, but it’s being appealed — President Trump has threatened to use his executive authority to revoke the designation, despite uncertainties as to whether he can legally do so, and the Interior Department has recommended that the Trump administration reopen the monument to commercial fishing.

Peter Auster, however, argued in a lecture at Providence’s Roger Williams Park Zoo on Feb. 28 that the 4,900-square-mile area about 150 miles off Cape Cod is deserving of protection because of its high species diversity, wide variety of habitats, and its numerous creatures that are sensitive to disturbance.

A senior research scientist at Connecticut’s Mystic Aquarium, Auster was a key player in building the scientific case for why the area should be designated a national monument. He has led multiple research projects to explore the area using submersible vessels, remotely operated vehicles, and autonomous vehicles, all of which have revealed an unusual array of marine life, from “Dr. Seussian species” of fish to dozens of kinds of deep-sea corals.

“A dive into the canyons and seamounts demonstrates the magic of the ocean,” he said. “There’s a whole garden of organisms that live there.”

About the size of Connecticut, the monument includes two distinct areas, one that covers three canyons and one that covers four seamounts. (NOAA)

The monument includes a portion of the edge of the continental shelf, where the seafloor drops sharply from a depth of about 600 feet down to 3,000, and where four extinct underwater volcanoes jut upward from the seafloor. The monument got its name from those underwater volcanoes — called seamounts — and a number of canyons carved into the shelf edge by ancient rivers.

“Those canyons and seamounts create varied ecotones in the deep ocean with wide depth ranges, a range of sediment types, steep gradients, complex topography, and currents that produce upwelling, which creates unique feeding opportunities for animals feeding in the water column,” Auster said.

Using colorful photographs of rarely seen creatures to illustrate his presentation, Auster called the area a “biodiversity hot spot,” noting that at least 73 species of deep-sea corals live in the area, including 24 that were found there for the first time during a research expedition in 2013. Many of those corals serve as hosts to other creatures — crabs, shrimp, and starfish, for instance — that are only found on those particular corals.

New England Aquarium researchers have found that the monument’s surface waters serve as feeding grounds for an abundance of whales, sea turtles, sharks, and seabirds, as well as fish that migrate from the deep water to the surface every day to feed.

In addition, Maine Audubon recently discovered that the monument area is where many of the region’s Atlantic puffins spend the winter. And researchers from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, in Woods Hole, Mass., found that significant numbers of the extremely rare True’s beaked whale, one of the deepest diving marine mammals in the world, spends the summer in monument waters.

Despite these recent discoveries, scientists say there is still a great deal to be learned about the area.

“We don’t yet know everything we need to know to manage the monument,” Auster said.

At least 73 species of deep-sea corals live in the area, including bamboo coral. (NOAA)

On his scientific to-do list is an assessment of the biological diversity of the area and how it’s distributed in the monument; an assessment of ecological change over time; a better understanding of species interactions; and an assessment of how the region has recovered from natural and human-caused disturbances.

While the status of the monument remains in limbo, a number of additional threats may be lurking. So far, commercial fishing has only impacted the shallow areas of the monument on the continental shelf, but Auster said there are increasing efforts to fish in the deeper waters. In addition, the Trump administration is advocating for expanded oil and gas exploration in the waters off the East Coast, and the growing seabed mining industry may see the seamounts as potentially valuable sites for methane hydrate mining or manganese crust mining.

While Auster seems somewhat confident that the monument designation will hold, and he’s already working on making the case for a second marine national monument in the Atlantic — this one at Cashes Ledge in the middle of the Gulf of Maine — he acknowledged that there are influential political forces at work that could derail the monument designation.

“Like every monument, there are people who suggest that it isn’t a good thing to conserve examples of our natural heritage for future generations,” Auster said. “The end of this story remains to be written.”

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

Tim Faulkner: Business opposition to R.I. ban on plastic bags is fading


From ecoRI News (

Several opponents of a statewide ban on plastic retail bags in Rhode Island are now backing, or at least remaining silent on the issue, legislation to make the ban a reality.

In previous years, the Rhode Island Hospitality Association (RIHA), the Rhode Island Food Dealers Association, and the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce were staunch critics of plastic bag prohibitions. The business groups had argued the virtues of plastic bags, such as their low cost, light weight, durability, and versatility. They railed against what they deemed overregulation by the state and the burden on retailers.

The RIHA said it had a change of heart, in part, because of the 11 cities and towns that have passed municipal bans. Although the bans are similar if not identical in each community, RIHA wrote in a letter that “businesses have been left scrambling to implement a patchwork of laws, all of which have different requirements.”

At a March 6 Senate hearing, business groups praised Gov. Gina Raimondo for inviting them to join the Task Force to Tackle Plastics. RIHA’s president and CEO Dale Venturini served as the task force’s co-chair.

“As soon as the business community was engaged, we came to the table in good faith and now we have a bill in front of us that pretty much every major business association is in support of,” said Sarah Brakto, RIHA’s legislative liaison.

One of the most persistent opponents of a statewide bag ban had been Tony Fonseca, co-owner of the food packaging distribution company Packaging & More Inc. of Central Falls. Fonseca also served on the plastics task force and applauded the 22-member committee for its diversity.

He was swayed by a latest bag ban bill (S410) because it includes a mandatory 5-cent fee on paper bags. The fee, he said, will improve the environmental benefits by encouraging shoppers to use reusable bags instead of paper bags, which have their own environmental drawbacks.

“I want (the fee) to be there to change consumer behavior,” Fonseca said.

He also liked that the fee goes to the retailer, allowing them to recoup the higher costs for paper bags.

The American Chemistry Council (ACC) didn’t support the bill, but didn’t object either. The ACC, which represents the largest fossil-fuel and chemical companies in the world, has fought bans on plastics and chemicals in Rhode Island and across the country. Its lobbyists also pushed for preemption laws that prevent municipal bans.

The ACC did speak against a similar bill (S268) that includes a ban on polystyrene foam containers.

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, D-North Providence, sponsored the stand-alone bag ban bill at the request of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.

There was only one objection to the mandatory 5-cent fee, which killed a Providence bag ban in 2018. The American Forest & Paper Association submitted a letter saying the fee wrongly penalizes paper bags — “a commodity that is recyclable, compostable, made of recycled material, and reusable.”

Several reusable bag supporters, including Raimondo, want to start a program to issue reusable bags to low-income residents.

“I will commit to implement a State-led program to distribute reusable bags to Rhode Islanders — with a focus on vulnerable populations — prior to a prohibition going into effect,” Raimondo wrote in a letter to the Senate committee.

If approved, the bag ban begins Jan. 1, 2021, or a year from passage.

Environmental groups uniformly backed the bill. A few asked that the definition of reusable bags include stitched handles, so that thicker plastic bags aren’t offered by retailers.

The bill was held for further study. A House version of the bill has yet to have a hearing.

Tim Faulkner is a journalist with ecoRI News.

Tim Faulkner: Deal between fishermen and Vineyard Wind nears completion


From ecoRI News (

A deal between fishermen and Vineyard Wind is nearly approved, but the revised agreement won’t give fishermen much more than what was originally offered by the developer.

Lanny Dellinger, chairman of the Fishermen’s Advisory Board (FAB), and Grover Fugate, executive director of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), admitted that Vineyard Wind had the leverage in negotiations and that agreeing to a slightly improved compensation offer is better than no deal at all.

“Just open your eyes and see what you are up against,” Dellinger told the fishermen crowded in a hotel banquet hall on Feb. 23. “That’s the bottom line. That's what we had to weigh and look at as a group. There is no choice here.”

Dellinger explained that federal agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, nongovernmental organizations, and environmental groups were pushing for the approval of the Vineyard Wind project.

“It’s this (fishing) industry against the world,” Dellinger said.

Fugate elaborated, saying that President Trump accelerated the approval process for energy development so that decisions on proposals must be reached within a year of the filling of an environmental impact statement. All other permits must be issued within two years.

“Never been done before, but we are all scrambling to try to do this at this point,” Fugate said. “So these are the limitations that we’re operating under and why the process has not been able to go in a much more relaxed and thoughtful process. We’re under these time constraints where if we don't make these decisions they escape us.”

FAB member Chris Brown blamed the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM).

“We have so much invested in our fisheries and none of that matters to BOEM,” Brown said. “They are in an inexhaustible search for the next energy source. Years ago it was ‘drill baby drill.’ Now it’s ‘spin baby spin.’ It’s the same thing. They value nothing and we have no way to rein them in.”

FAB member Mike Marchetti said much more research is needed on fisheries impacts caused by the proposed 92-square-mile wind project other planned offshore wind facilities.

“We have five more projects coming at us, at least,” Marchetti said. “You wanna talk squid? You wanna talk scallop? You wanna talk ocean quahog? We have a lot coming at us. So I think, unfortunately, this is the best we are gong to get, and we worked hard on your behalf. I have zero self-interest in this other than to keep the ship afloat for all of us.”

In the end, the six-member FAB unanimously approved a financial package that is about the same as the original $30 million offer made Jan. 16. In the new agreement some of the money will be dispersed upfront. Instead of $6.2 million paid over 30 years, a fishermen’s compensation fund will receive $2.3 million over 30 years but with a $1 million initial payout.

A second payment stream goes to a new RI Fishermen’s Future Viability Trust. In the first offer, this fund was controlled by the state and paid for fisheries-related research. The new fund will receive $2.5 million annually for five years and will be controlled by an independent board of trustees. The board and CRMC staff will determine how the money will be spent.

FAB member Rick Bellevance noted that giving the fishermen control over the money instead of the state was a big benefit, even though the amount of money might be inadequate.

“The FAB feels strongly that this agreement is not precedent setting in the way that we determine the value of the fisheries in this area,” he said.

Many of the commercial fishermen gathered at the Holiday Inn on Route 1 were displeased with the agreement. Dockside buyers of seafood felt excluded from the process and wanted compensation for the loss of squid and other seafood moving through their fish houses.

Meghan Lapp, fisheries liaison for Seafreeze Ltd., which owns four fishing boats and two processors at Davisville Pier, in North Kingstown, said the new offer was only made known two days earlier and the fishing industry needs to comment.

“There has been no public meeting that has heard public comment on the proposal that is before the FAB today,” Lapp said before Dellinger cut her off.

Dellinger told her the meeting was public but that comments would only be taken at the CRMC meeting on Feb. 26.

At that meeting, the agreement will go before the CRMC board as it decides whether the proposed 84-turbine offshore wind project is consistent with regulations. The meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. at the University of Rhode Island Bay Campus in Narragansett.

Tim Faulkner is a journalist with ecoRI News.

Todd McLeish: He caught the bug bug

David Gregg at work.

David Gregg at work.

From ecoRI News (


The artifacts scattered around David Gregg’s office provide a good idea of what he does for a living. Among the items are a crayfish preserved in a jar of alcohol, two coyote skulls, numerous large dead moths awaiting identification in a plastic container, framed invasive insects, a deer head hanging on a wall, illustrations of butterflies, and a foot-long, 8-inch diameter tree stump he quizzes visitors to identify. (Spoiler alert: the stump is bittersweet, an invasive vine that apparently grows much larger than most people think it does.)

Gregg is the executive director of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, and what he calls his “cabinet of curiosities” represents many of the issues, programs and challenges he regularly addresses as one of the Ocean State’s leading voices for the study and conservation of Rhode Island’s wildlife and other natural resources.

He describes the Natural History Survey as somewhat of a social organization where “people who have been bitten by the bug of natural history” can connect with like-minded individuals.

“There are many ways to discover things about the world around you, but for people who are oriented toward identifying animals and plants and learning about them, the survey is an excuse to get together,” he said. “And that makes it valuable, because otherwise we would never get together and talk about what we know.”

The organization was founded following a 1994 ecological research conference at the University of Rhode Island, when many of those in attendance recognized how productive a gathering it had been and wanted to keep the exchange of information going. Based at URI’s East Farm, the survey is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year with a fall conference on “Climate Change and Rhode Island’s Natural History Future” and monthly citizen science events.

Gregg caught the natural history bug — literally – as a young teenager in Falmouth, Mass., when he tried to capture a butterfly that had landed on his shoe. He had already been somewhat interested in nature, but that moment led him to start a butterfly collection using a net he made out of cheesecloth.

David Gregg has been interested in studying and protecting the natural world since he was a kid. (Courtesy photo)

After collecting as many butterfly species as he could find around town, he switched to moths.

“I got all the colorful moths in my collection, and all the rest were brown and I couldn’t make heads or tails of them,” he recalled. “So then I switched to beetles, then to grasshoppers.”

The lure of insects was their endless variety and interesting physiological adaptations, Gregg said.

But he also had a curiosity about archaeology, and when he was considering a career, archaeology eventually won out. He said archaeology “is about discovering a mystery and finding out what it means. I also liked the outdoors-ness of it, the expedition aspect, the cadre of people thrown together in remote locations and having to stay focused on what they do. It’s the same thing in natural history.”

Gregg ended up earning graduate degrees in archaeology at Oxford University and Brown University, then worked at Brown’s Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology before becoming director of the Spellman Museum of Stamps and Postal History.

By then he had rekindled his interest in entomology and joined the survey’s board. He accepted the leadership post at the survey in 2004.

He described the job as a balancing act between gathering information about rare and invasive species to support conservationists’ need for scientific information — a mission “that doesn’t pay very well,” he noted — and administering complex ecological monitoring projects involving multiple partners and numerous funding agencies.

“The state can build a highway or an airport, but it can’t do a project with six funders and lots of partners,” Gregg said. “We can do that.”

For instance, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management used federal money to hire the survey to implement a project to assess the health of salt marshes and freshwater wetlands around the state. The survey is also leading a coyote-ecology research project with numerous partners and funding from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

“These are the kind of projects that wouldn’t get done unless we did them,” Gregg said. “These are the projects that are every other organization’s fourth priority.”

Along the way, Gregg still finds time for insects. He has shifted his attention during the past two years to ants, as a leader of a statewide effort to document all of the species of ants found in Rhode Island.

“I’ve been working on moths since I was 14, and I think I have a better understanding of ants after two years than I do of moths after 40,” he said.

In the coming year or two, Gregg’s focus at the survey will be on the establishment of a new database of everything known about the biodiversity of Rhode Island, preparing an updated publication of the state’s vascular plants, and ensuring the group’s finances are stable.

But his favorite activity is the survey’s annual BioBlitz, which brings together as many as 200 biologists, naturalists, and volunteers for a 24-hour period to document every living organism at a particular property. This year’s event is a return to Roger Williams Park, where the first BioBlitz was held 20 years ago.

“BioBlitz is an expedition to discover things in a particular place, and you bring together people with all of the different skills and talents you need to look at all of the different aspects,” Gregg said. “But they’re not just random people. They’re really nice people having a great time because this is what they love. BioBlitz is social — it’s not just science — and that’s the key. You get to meet people that can show you the cool things you don’t notice the rest of the year.”

Todd McLeish is an ecoRI News contributor.

Todd McLeish: Hawks feasting on songbirds at your feeders

Cooper’s hawk.

Cooper’s hawk.

From ecoRI News (

For at least two decades, many people who provide seed to feed the songbirds in their backyard have provided anecdotal evidence of an increase in the number of bird-eating hawks that visit their feeders. Now, an analysis of 21 years of data collected by Cornell University has confirmed those observations by noting that Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks, which prey primarily on songbirds, have been colonizing urban and suburban areas during winter because of the availability of prey at bird feeders.

According to Jennifer McCabe, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison whose study focused on birds in the Chicago area, many hawk species had declined significantly by the middle of the 20th Century because of hunting and pesticide use. Populations of most hawks, including the Cooper’s and sharp-shinned, have rebounded since then — largely because of legal protections and the banning of particularly harmful pesticides — enabling the birds to colonize areas that they had previously ignored.

In a research paper published in November in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, McCabe found that the two hawk species, which look similar and are collectively called accipiters for their genus name, occupied about 26 percent of the area in and around Chicago in the 1990s. Two decades later they were found in nearly 67 percent of the area.

Birders in Rhode Island have also reported anecdotal evidence of an increase in accipiter numbers in recent decades, especially Cooper’s hawks. Rachel Farrell, a member of the Rhode Island Avian Records Committee, has noted several Cooper’s hawks nesting in Providence in recent years, and she calls their presence at feeders in winter “commonplace, unremarkable, and therefore not generally reported [any more] from suburban areas.”

“In the beginning years of our study, sites were occupied around the fringe of the city, and through time they moved into the inner city,” said McCabe of her study site in Chicago. “The main driver for this colonization is prey abundance. They seem to be cuing in on feeders that have a lot of birds. That’s the driver that keeps the hawks there: prey abundance at feeders.”

Her findings were initially counterintuitive, because accipiters nest in forested habitats. Their narrow wings and long tail enable them to maneuver quickly through densely forested landscapes and chase down small birds, a behavior the larger soaring hawks such as the common red-tailed hawk can’t do. The soaring hawks typically feed on slower-moving rodents.

“We did our study in winter, so the birds weren’t concerned about finding the perfect tree for nesting,” McCabe said. “They were more concerned about survival.”

The relative absence of tree cover in urban areas and the abundance of pavement and other impervious surfaces didn’t seem to discourage the hawks from colonizing cities, she said. In fact, the more tree cover a site had, the less likely it was to attract accipiters in winter. The key factor was prey availability. As long as there were bird feeders attracting an abundance of small songbirds to the area, the hawks moved in.

The data for the study comes from Project FeederWatch, a citizen science project in which participants periodically count the birds and bird species at their feeders. Sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada, the program began in 1987 and now includes more than 20,000 volunteers from across North America.

Since bird feeding is among the most popular pastimes in the United States, with some surveys finding that more than 40 percent of households participate, it’s likely that the accipiters that have colonized urban and suburban areas will not go hungry.

The impact the hawks are having on the population of common feeder birds such as sparrows, chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches hasn’t been measured, but it’s unlikely they will be impacted in the long term. They may even receive a boost, since other studies have found that urban accipiters primarily target invasive birds such as pigeons, starlings, and house sparrows, potentially easing competitive pressures on native species.

A study of the recolonization of Britain by sparrowhawks, which also feed on birds, provides additional insights. When sparrowhawks were extirpated from Britain, it became less necessary for their primary prey, house sparrows, to be vigilant for the predators.

“Over 30 years, they lost this anti-predator behavior,” McCabe said, “and when the hawks came back, they ended up decimating the house sparrow population.”

Whether North American feeder birds’ vigilance for predators declined following the eradication of hawk populations half a century ago is uncertain. But even if they did, it’s not likely to last long.

“If the birds lost their anti-predator behavior, they’ll regain it pretty quickly now that the hawks are back,” McCabe said. “People’s backyards won’t be picked clean by hawks.”

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

Tim Faulkner: Activist decries dark history of farming in America

The Wampanoag chief Squanto helped teach the Plymouth Colony how to grow corn.

The Wampanoag chief Squanto helped teach the Plymouth Colony how to grow corn.

Via ecoRI News (

Current news about oppressive conditions and discriminatory practices at farms and slaughterhouses stem from centuries of institutionalized farming and land-ownership practices.

It started with a papal decry in 1455 that sanctioned land taking by white Europeans and endures in the United States and elsewhere through laws that restrict wages and protections for agricultural workers.

Southern New England isn’t exempt from this troubled history and is complicit in land and food problems that exist today, according to a farmer, educator, and reformer who spoke Nov. 16 at the Rhode Island Department of Health.

“We are on stolen land of the Narragansett and Wampanoag people,” Leah Penniman said. “It’s important to name, but it’s also important to think, ‘What are we all doing about that?’”

Penniman explained these conclusions to an audience of mostly young people that included African-American and Latinx men and women, many of whom are involved with the local farm and food movement and all shared an appreciation for environmental and social justice causes.

At a farm Penniman co-founded outside Albany, N.Y., she and her team of farmers and social reformers remedy these injustices through advocacy, policy work, education, and farming.

This work at Soul Fire Farm includes advancing programs that repatriate land to indigenous and black people. The nine farmers change policies around food access, such as restricting junk-food marketing. They advocate for food-stamp funding and laws that improve workers’ rights. They support native sovereignty initiatives and show up at protests.

“Giving back land, if we have land, is very important,” said Penniman, who is the author of Farming While Black.

Among its many initiatives, Soul Fire Farm teaches culturally appropriate growing practices to at-risk youth and offers boxes of food to nearby low-income residents.

History also is important to its mission. Penniman explained how Pope Nicholas’s Doctrine of Discovery in 1455 gave Europeans the right to colonize America. Sanctioned by god and justified through manifest destiny, whites appropriated new lands and enslaved and slaughtered native peoples.

This entitlement for white Europeans endured through the doctrine of manifest destiny and the expansion across North America. These beliefs were affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1823, when treaties with Native Americans were abandoned and indigenous groups lost their right to sovereignty.

Efforts to allow blacks to own land after slavery were undermined by white land owners. In 1910, blacks owned 14 percent of farmland, but new laws, racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, and favorable lending programs for whites forced most black farmers from their land. Today less than 2 percent of U.S. farmers are black.

“This is not old history,” said Penniman, a Massachusetts native. “We are still on stolen land. We still haven't really reckoned with that. Most of our food is still grown on that land and we have to consider that very carefully anytime we talk about the food system.”

Today, minimum-wage laws and guest-worker programs institutionalized exploitation of farm workers, exposing them to harmful pesticides, wage theft, and harassment.

“The food system is not really broken. It was designed to concentrate power and resource in the hands of a few people,” Penniman said. “And it’s doing that very, very well. And the food system, its DNA, is stolen land and stolen labor.”

Soul Fire farmers not only teach history and lesser-known facts about pioneering African-American farmers, they also practice indigenous farming and grow culturally appropriate food. But their mission goes beyond the farm.

“We’re not obligated to fix the whole world, but we are obligated to take a step in that direction,” Penniman said. “We need to find that intersection of what the world needs and what really makes us come alive. Cause otherwise we are just complicit.”

Tim Faulkner writes for ecoRI News (

Tim Faulkner: Sport and commercial fishermen at odds over offshore wind


Via ecoRI News (

NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — Commercial fishermen and sport fishermen are split over the benefits of offshore wind facilities.

Commercial fishermen, primarily from eastern Long Island, N.Y., say the wind-energy projects planned for southern New England, such as the South Fork Wind Farm, are the latest threats to their income after decades of quotas and regulations.

“I don't like the idea of the ocean being taken away from me after I’ve thrown so many big-dollar fish back in the water for the last 30 years, praying I’d get it back in the end,” said Dave Aripotch, owner of a 75-foot trawl-fishing boat based in Montauk, N.Y.

In the summer, Aripotch patrols for squid and weakfish in the area where the 15 South Fork wind turbines and others wind projects are planned. He expects the wind facilities and undersea cables will shrink fishing grounds along the Eastern Seaboard.

“If you put 2,000 wind turbines from the Nantucket Shoals to New York City, I’m losing 50 to 60 percent of my fishing grounds,” Aripotch said during a Nov. 8 public hearing at the Narragansett Community Center.

Dave Monti of the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association said the submerged turbine foundations at the Block Island Wind Farm created artificial reefs, boosting fish populations and attracting charter boats like his.

“It’s a very positive thing for recreational fishing,” Monti said. “The Block Island Wind Farm has acted like a fish magnet.”

Offshore wind development also has the support of environmental groups such as the National Wildlife Federation and the Conservation Law Foundation, which view renewable energy as an answer to climate change.

“Offshore wind power really is the kind of game-changing large-scale solution that we need to see move forward, particularly along along the East Coast,” said Amber Hewett, manager of the Atlantic offshore wind energy campaign for the National Wildlife Federation.

Aripotch and fellow commercial fisherman Donald Fox urged the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to study the cumulative effects of the four other wind projects planned for the Rhode Island/Massachusetts wind-energy area. They want to know how catches and quotas will be calculated if fishing nets run through multiple wind facilities.

“God bless you if you figure that one out,” Fox said.

Commercial fisherman David Aripotch said offshore wind turbines and the accompanying infrastructure will shrink fishing grounds along the Eastern Seaboard. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News photos)

The comments were made at the last of three public hearing held by BOEM for the South Fork Wind Farm’s environmental impact statement (EIS). A 30-day public comment period on the environmental impacts ends Nov. 19. BOEM has held a total of eight public meetings for the South Fork project.

After the current comment period, a second 45-day comment period will follow BOEM’s release of a draft IES. BOEM then has three months to issue a decision, which is expected in early 2020. If approved, construction on the South Fork Wind Farm would begin in 2021. Pending other permits, the wind facility would then be expected to be operating by the end of 2022.

BOEM is reviewing the engineering plans for the wind turbines, an offshore substation, and the 30-mile power cable that will run to East Hampton, N.Y. The federal agency also is reviewing the effects of the transmission line, such as the impacts of electromagnetic fields on sea life.

The substation would be above the water on its own platform or share a platform with a wind turbine. It will have a height of up to 200 feet to support a high-voltage power transformer, reactor, and ventilation and air-conditioning systems. The substation may also include a 400-horse-power diesel generator and a 500-gallon diesel fuel tank.

Sportfisherman Dave Monti said the submerged turbine foundations at the Block Island Wind Farm created artificial reefs, boosting fish populations and attracting charter boats like his.

The designated wind area between Block Island and Martha’s Vineyard has already restricted wind-energy development in portions of prime fishing grounds such as Cox Ledge.

Bonnie Brady of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association called Deepwater Wind “the not ready for primetime players” because of technical problems with the Block Island Wind Farm, such as exposed undersea cables.

Brady noted that Deepwater Wind, now called Ørsted U.S. Offshore Wind, increased the capacity of the proposed South Fork Wind Farm from 90 to 130 megawatts. Each turbine can have an electricity output of 12 megawatts, or twice the power output of the Block Island turbines. The maximum height of the new turbines is 840 feet. The Block Island turbines are about 580 feet tall.

Brady wants BOEM to study of the effects of the larger turbines and increase the space between each turbine to 2 miles. Deepwater Wind has offered to separate the turbines by a mile. She said studies are needed of the noise and particle pressure from the larger turbines and the impacts of jet plowing and pile driving on fish and shellfish.

Brady is advocating for BOEM and New York regulators to afford fishermen the same protections that Rhode Island fishermen receive, such payment for lost revenue, as defined by the Ocean Special Area Management Plan.

“There needs to be long-term mitigation, long-term compensation at fair values, without signing a nondisclosure agreement,” she said.

Tim Faulkner, nature writer, is a reporter and writer for ecoRI News

Frank Carini: On the path to a great beech

Rhode Island arborist Matt Largess recently led a tour of Wingover Farm’s forest. He was impressed with what he saw.    — Frank Carini/ecoRI News photos

Rhode Island arborist Matt Largess recently led a tour of Wingover Farm’s forest. He was impressed with what he saw.

— Frank Carini/ecoRI News photos

From ecoRI News (

To see the video and more photos with this article, please hit this link.


The “oohs and aahs” and “oh my gods” were followed immediately by one or more superlatives from among “amazing,” “cool,” “awesome,” “incredible” and “wow.”

“If you could leave this for 100 years people would come from around the world to see it because everything else is going be gone. Just think of it that way,” Matt Largess, a respected Rhode Island arborist who has studied East Coast forests from Maine to the Florida Keys, said near the end of an hourlong walk in the woods on a 72-acre farm not far from the coast. “If Rhode Island could start to think that way, if they saved their places where people come as ecotourists to see the forest. I know its sounds farfetched but in 100 years it’s going to be that crucial, not only to see our leaf colors but just come to be in a forest near our ocean. Rhode Island is one of the great environments. We have these beautiful forests right up to the ocean, but they’re diminishing rapidly.”

During an Oct. 18 tour of Wingover Farm’s “unique” forestland, the leaves of Rhode Island’s state tree, the red maple, were turning color and Largess and two colleagues, Daryl Ward and Kara Discenza, were constantly pointing out trees of all shapes, sizes, and ages.

During the 60-minute tour, they counted nearly two dozen different types of trees, including American beech, American holly, black and white oaks, yellow and white pines, black tupelo, yellow and paper birches, sassafras, black cherry, and bigtooth aspen.

And not just individual trees, but stands of black birch, groups of teenage and adult red maple growing together, and baby holly trees sprouting from the forest floor. Largess said having birch, holly, and beech together in one place was special. He used the word “special” a lot. He said the forest has an “impressive understory.” He noted that some of the tallest hollies documented in North America are in Tiverton and Little Compton. He said native forests of American beech are shrinking rapidly, especially in Connecticut and Rhode Island.

With the population of the region’s American beech decreasing, Largess was thrilled to discover a large beech tree he repeatedly called “the mother tree.” He said the tree must be 300-400 years old and was surrounded by younger beeches, 150 or so years old, waiting to be the next mother. He pointed out beechdrops, a wildflower that lacks chlorophyll and produces brown stems on which small white and purple flowers appear July through October, growing under the forest’s majestic beech tree.

The property’s other vegetation included, among many others, mountain laurel, a broadleaf evergreen shrub; sweet pepperbush, a shrub with fragrant white or pink terminal flower spikes in late summer; and winterberry holly, a shrub with copious amounts of bright-red berries that shine in the fall and winter landscape.

Largess called the layered and biodiverse property, which includes a pond alive with frogs and fish, “a balanced ecosystem.” He said it would be an excellent location for the Rhode Island Natural History Survey to hold a BioBlitz, would make a wonderful outdoor classroom for local students, and could be a great future ecotourism site, as it could be tied into nearby Weetamoo Woods.

Julie Munafo invited the Largess Forestry professionals on the tour to better understand what could be lost should the property be developed into an 11-megawatt solar facility.

Munafo’s family has owned the Crandall Road property since the 1970s, but a pending sale could lead to some 40 acres of solar panels. The buyer’s proposed project would inevitably decimate forestland, ruin farmland, and destroy wildlife habitat.

The family is torn by the pending sale of the property — Munafo, for one, doesn’t want to see the farm reduced to acres of solar panels. But the family was unable to come to an agreement with the local land trust or find a buyer interested in farming and/or preservation, according to Munafo. She said she believes the property is selling for about a million dollars.

Largess, who has become a leading spokesmen for the preservation of trees and old-growth forests, said the farm’s open space is unique, as it features, in this order, open fields, young woodlands, and a mature forest. He was impressed with the property’s mix of vegetation, most notably its diverse collection of tree species. He noted that forestland like this “needs to be protected,” not turned into an energy facility, subdivision, or an office park.

In fact, the staunch conservationist believes that trees deserve more respect, which is why his company is “dedicated to the preservation, restoration, and education of the the Earth’s forests while enhancing awareness and knowledge of the natural world.”

“Trees are the No. 1 tool to battle climate change,” Largess said. “But my work as an arborist is less about planting trees and more about cutting them down, because cars are getting dirty or someone wants to see the water.”



Like many following the ongoing debates across Rhode Island on where to site solar projects, Largess doesn’t understand why so many are gung-ho to clear-cut forests. Like others who have weighed in on the controversial topic, he believes Rhode Island can deal with the issues of interconnection, infrastructure, incentives, property rights, and economics without sacrificing priceless open space. (A city in eastern China is building the world’s first photovoltaic highway.)

The will, both public and political, however, needs to be there. The state, its 39 municipalities, its 1.06 million people, and a host of nonprofit organizations have been grappling with the issue for two years. The town of Tiverton, for instance, is pondering a solar moratorium until it can craft an ordinance that better addresses the siting of utility-scale solar energy.

Munafo, who, like Largess, supports renewable energy, at least those projects sited responsibly, has been a vocal proponent of the moratorium. She believes the project proposed for her family’s property doesn’t mesh with the town’s comprehensive plan or even Tiverton’s current solar ordinance. In a letter to the editor recently published in the Sakonnet Times, the Jamestown resident asks: “How is wiping out a historic farmhouse, prime farmland and a special forest for a massive solar plant consistent with the comprehensive plan?”

Site work in the woods of Wingover Farm, likely done to determine the property’s ability to host an industrial-scale solar project, has already claimed a number of trees, including a small stand of American holly.

Once the trees are cut down and the solar panels installed, Largess said the development will clear a path for Russian olive, oriental bittersweet, and other invasive species to take root.

“All these trees will be gone and the whole ecosystem will change,” Largess said. “This place is special. It’s hard to find green spaces like this anymore. This property is a classic example of the problems we are having.”

Frank Carini is editor of


Frank Carini: 2 bills could help the rich wall off the R.I. coastline

The maximum building height in Charlestown is 35 feet, plus up to 5 feet of freeboard in flood hazard areas. If Rhode Island Builders Association-supported bills are passed, coastal structures in Charlestown and along the entire coast could get a lot taller    -- Charlestown Building Department

The maximum building height in Charlestown is 35 feet, plus up to 5 feet of freeboard in flood hazard areas. If Rhode Island Builders Association-supported bills are passed, coastal structures in Charlestown and along the entire coast could get a lot taller

-- Charlestown Building Department

Via ecoRI News (

CHARLESTOWN, R.I. — Two bills recently approved by the Rhode Island General Assembly support the construction of taller buildings along the Ocean State’s shoreline, which, according to some municipal planners and building officials, would essentially result in the walling off of the coast.

The bills passed in the House and Senate on June 23, the last day of the 2018 legislative session. The bills now await the governor's signature. If signed by the governor, the new law would go into effect March 1, 2019.

The Rhode Island Builders Association is using the state’s desire to replace Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood maps with more detailed Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) maps as a way to “dramatically increase building height along the coast,” Charlestown town planner Jane Weidman said.

She noted that the bills would essentially increase structure size in coastal areas that are increasingly susceptible to sea-level rise, more frequent and intense storms, and other climate-change impacts.

“It’s not good planning practice in general to build homes that block the shore and obstruct the view,” Weidman said. “We should be retreating or moving away, not promoting larger structures in flood zones. Why do we want to be massing up the most sensitive areas we have?”

The Charlestown Town Council adopted a resolution opposing Senate bill S2413 and its companion House bill H7741. The council, along with Weidman and Joe Warner, the town’s building/zoning official and its floodplain manager, are against altering the state definition of “building height” to allow measurement from base flood elevation instead of existing-grade elevation.

Rhode Island building height has for years been measured from the average natural grade, or from the ground itself, according to Weidman. Under the proposed bills, that way of measuring would stay in the state Zoning Enabling Act of 1991 for all new structures except those being built in flood hazard areas, which would automatically be allowed to go to an elevation equal to base flood elevation as the measuring starting point, she said.

“This new bill would allow for three to three and a half floors instead of two,” Warner said. “We promote elevating above base flood elevation and the changes we made two years ago are working well. This bill isn’t adding any incentive or benefit for flood protection or protection against extreme weather. It does nothing to protect buildings from damage. We’d be building elevated mansions.”

Building and planning officials in South Kingstown, Westerly and Narragansett share similar concerns.

ecoRI News reached out to both CRMC and the Coastal Resources Center at the University of Rhode Island to get their take on the two bills. The Coastal Resources Center said it didn’t have anyone who could speak in depth about the bills. CRMC acknowledged the request, but didn’t supply a response.

The Conservation Law Foundation testified in April in support of the House bill.

Having the state go from using FEMA maps to CRMC maps to identify flood zones isn’t the problem the Rhode Island chapterof the American Planning Association (APARI) and others have with the bills. The concern is with other wording that has been slipped in and what that could mean for both the look and vulnerability of Rhode Island’s coast.

“This is a lousy bill that will give wealthy land owners the right to block off the shore,” said Weidman, co-chair of the APARI’s Legislative Committee. “Municipalities, and neighbors on the land side, are either going to face higher structures within flood hazard areas or are going to have to amend their zoning codes to reduce total heights in these areas.”

During the 2016 General Assembly session, the state’s definition of building height was debated by planners and builders and eventually amended. Among the major changes made was to allow any property in a flood hazard area to have its building height measured in a way that excludes up to 5 feet of freeboard. Measured in feet, freeboard compensates for flood heights and wave action by raising a building.

This change provided an incentive for property owners in flood hazard areas to go higher than 1 foot above base flood elevation, which is the current requirement in the state building code. It’s a good law and it’s working, Warner said.

The so-called “freeboard bill” passed without noticeable opposition from the Rhode Island planning community. Developers were happy, because, as freeboard height requirements increased in recent years, they said local height restrictions were limiting building.

The 2016 bill that was adopted, however, was much different than the original ask. Builders wanted more, Weidman said, and these two current bills resurrect some of that old language, including “for any property located in a flood hazard area, the building height shall be measured from the base flood elevation.”

Both Weidman and Warner recently told ecoRI News that the bills’ provision requiring that building height in flood hazard areas be measured from base flood elevation should be removed, as it was two years ago.

“This bill tells us how to measure height,” Warner said. “Each community should be free to decide what works best for it. This bill would increase the risk of wind damage to the larger buildings it would allow."

They both agreed that the current definition doesn’t need to be changed, and if it were to be by these bills, it would result in a dramatic change in how building height is defined and, without corresponding changes to a municipality’s building-height limits in coastal zones, would result in buildings with excessive height and bulk along Rhode Island’s coast.

Weidman is worried that the concerns of planners and builders will again be ignored by those on Smith Hill.

“There’s no pushback against the builders. We don’t have that standing in the General Assembly like they do,” she said. “We can’t get our bills out of committee. These bills are a complete giveaway to builders.”

Warner is concerned too few people, most notably municipal planners and building officials, understand the true impact these bills will have if they pass.

“There has been no real thought of the bills’ consequences,” he said. “There will be plenty of uproar when building permits are pulled and neighbors see the size of beachfront homes to be built.”

For instance, Warner noted that the maximum building height in Charlestown is 35 feet, plus up to 5 feet of freeboard in flood hazard areas. If the Rhode Island Builders Association-supported bills are passed, he said Charlestown could see buildings as high as 56 feet along the shore.

“It’s about economic development,” Weidman said. “It’s not about good growth, good land use, or good environmental practices. It’s all about economic development. Our land use needs to be done in a comprehensive manner, not caving to what builders want.”

Frank Carini is editor of ecoRI News.



Tim Faulkner: More hurdles for plans to import Quebec electricity

Proposed New England Clean Energy Connect project.

Proposed New England Clean Energy Connect project.

Via ecoRI News (

News continues to get worse for the Northern Pass project and efforts to deliver Canadian hydropower to southern New England.

On May 24, the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee denied an appeal by Northern Pass to overturn the decision that rejected the 192-mile-long high-voltage transmission line though the state.

The siting committee initially rejected the $1.6 billion project on Feb. 1 because of concern that the network of unsightly power lines and towers would harm tourism, local businesses and the environment.

According to the siting board, the appeal failed because there was no new information to review. And despite objections by Northern Pass, the positive elements of the application had been considered in the initial decision, committee members said.

"If there were conditions they could meet to approve it, we would have approved it with those conditions," said Bill Oldenburg of the Site Evaluation Committee in a video of the meeting taken by WMUR-TV, of Manchester, N.H.

In an online statement, Northern Pass, a joint venture between Eversource and Hydro-Québec, said it remains committed to the project and is considering taking the siting committee’s decision to court.

“We intend to pursue all options for making this critical clean energy project a reality, along with the many economic and environmental benefits for New Hampshire and the region. This opportunity to significantly lower energy costs for customers should be given great weight,” said Eversource New Hampshire president Bill Quinlan. “Large infrastructure projects of this scale often face challenges during the siting process, and we will continue to work with all of the stakeholders to present a project that receives New Hampshire’s approval.”

Meanwhile, Massachusetts, which has agreed to a 20-year power-purchase agreement for Northern Pass energy, has shifted its focus from Northern Pass to New England Clean Energy Connect (NECEC), a power-line transmission project that delivers Québec hydropower through western Maine to Lewiston, Maine, and on to Massachusetts.

The 145-mile project has broad community support, including from Maine Gov. Paul LePage.

The transmission system is opposed by the environmental group  (NRCM), which says the project will damage 53 miles of forest. The conservation group worries that NECEC won’t receive the same vetting as Northern Pass.

“Rather than allowing Maine regulators to go through the same thoughtful process that led New Hampshire to reject that project, Gov. Paul LePage, through a spokesperson, has vowed to ram the project through Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection,” according to a March 19 NRCM statement.

The Boston Globe editorial board criticized opponents of NECEC for overlooking the 1,200 megawatts of low-emission-creating electricity and the tax revenue it will bring to communities along the route.

The financial benefits are far less than the $200 million in tourism funding and $30 million in annual tax revenue promised by Northern Pass. So far, local taxes are the only revenue promised by NECEC.

State and local lawmakers are now rethinking their initial support for the project, in hopes of increasing the financial benefits to the state. There is also concern over the fact that none of the hydropower will be available for in-state use. Local renewable-energy projects will also be unable to connect to the power lines.

NECEC is being developed by Hydro-Québec and the utility Central Maine Power, a subsidiary of the multinational corporation Avangrid.

The Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources and state utilities are negotiating a power-purchase contract with Central Maine Power for the project. The agreement must be approved by the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities. State permits are expected by the end of 2018. Federal permits are expected in 2019.

Tim Faulkner is a journalist with ecoRI News.

Cape fishermen worry about midwater trawling catching everything

A large trawler.

A large trawler.

From ecoRI News (


Ted Ligenza, captain of the Reine Marie, has known for more than two decades that big changes are needed, ever since he first saw the impact of big midwater trawls working off the Cape Cod coast.

That day, according to the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, he figured he would just wait on his boat until the trawls pulled out, and then he would drop his hooks and lines on the bottom to pick up where he had left off. After all, midwater trawls are supposed to fish in the middle of the water column.

“I was soon to learn that if they are towing, nothing would be left there. They are basically catching everything,” he told the fishermen’s alliance. “We didn't realize how bad it was going to be.”

On June 19, Ligenza and others across Cape Cod are expected to testify to federal fisheries managers about how the local ecosystem has suffered from the prolonged presence of these industrial-scaled boats. They will be advocating for a buffer zone off the coast that protects the trawlers’ target, ocean herring, as well as river herring and other forage fish that are caught and discarded as bycatch.

The New England Fishery Management Council has scheduled the hearing at the Chatham Community Center, only a few miles from several herring runs that have seen populations decline. Industrial trawlers, often seen from Nauset Beach, are a familiar sight off the Cape Cod coast. Those concerned about the trawlers’ presence have noted how these ships break the local food web and remove so many baitfish that other species — cod, haddock, tuna and whales — also disappear.

Fishermen with the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance first started speaking out against midwater trawling near shore more than a decade ago, and have been joined by a growing coalition in recent years. Public officials from every Cape Cod town, Barnstable County and the region’s Statehouse delegation all support a year-round buffer, as do many environmental, scientific and civic organizations.

Rhode Island fishermen have also been outspoken about out-of-state trawlers, about 150 feet long, fishing close to the Narragansett and Charlestown shoreline.

“Of all the issues facing us as a fishing community, protecting herring and forage fish might be the most important step we could take to rebuild our fishery and revitalize our waters,” said John Pappalardo, CEO of the fishermen's alliance. “A strong call to action would be an important message for federal managers to hear.”

The public hearing is scheduled for June 19, at the Chatham Community Center, 702 Main St., from 6-8 p.m. Public testimony is welcome.

Barry Schiller: A vision for better commuter rail service and links in southern New England

Via ecoRI News (

MBTA locomotives in South Station, the inbound terminus of commuter  rail lines from the south of Boston.

MBTA locomotives in South Station, the inbound terminus of commuter  rail lines from the south of Boston.

We all know Rhode Island benefits from its proximity to Boston, which provides our residents and businesses access to markets, jobs, entertainment, medical services and schools. But we are held back by problems related to getting there and back.

The roads are increasingly congested, and that slows buses too. There are accidents, and parking can be tough. Highway improvements are sometimes environmentally destructive and very expensive. For example, the Rhode Island Department of Transportation may spend about $300 million just to redo less than a mile of I-95 in central Providence. And we know we should reduce gasoline consumption, which drains money out of the local economy and contributes so much to greenhouse-gas emissions.

Amtrak Acelas are quick, but also expensive. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) commuter trains provide access and we are “on track” to add a Pawtucket-Central Falls station so that those communities can better access Boston and the rest of the state. The MBTA also brings Massachusetts folks to Rhode Island, including a significant number of “reverse commuters” without clogging our roads and Massachusetts folks also use it to get to our airport.

But the trains are relatively slow, often taking about 70 minutes to go the 44 miles from Providence to Boston. Though there are 20 trains each way weekdays, and there can be inconvenient gaps between trains, more than 2 hours apart at times. And the service isn’t very reliable about being on time.

So a regional group called Transit Matters has developed a vision for how the commuter rail could better serve the region’s economy and environment. After looking at best practices elsewhere, notably Philadelphia and Paris, its main recommendations include: electrification; high-level platforms at all stations; more frequent service; free transfers to local buses and subways; infrastructure improvements at a few bottlenecks.

On the Providence line, where there already are electric wires used by Amtrak, we would need additional wires in just a few stretches, notably the Pawtucket layover yard. That would make those nearby happy not to have diesel-engine pollution or noise. Electric engines are quieter and cleaner, and accelerate quicker, speeding up trips. They are more reliable and last longer than diesel. After startup capital costs they have lower operating costs.

High-level platforms, missing in eight of the current 15 stations on our line, also speed trips by quicker boarding at stations, especially for those with disabilities. The time to get to Boston could be reduced to about 46 minutes. Speedier trips use equipment and labor more efficiently and would also generate more revenue by attracting more passengers.

Long term, Transit Matters recommends a rail tunnel connecting North and South stations in Boston. This would have many operational advantages, avoid the need for an expensive expansion of South Station, and connect Rhode Island to the North Shore and northern New England, and connect them to us!

There are obstacles, including finding the capital funds to do all this, harder with the Trump administration hostility to both our region for not voting for him and to trains with their highly unionized workforce.

The environmental community, though interested in promoting electric cars, has mostly ignored electrifying our commuter rail. It’s also a challenge to get two states, the MBTA and the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) to all work together and coordinate. But, there are a lot of benefits.

Barry Schiller, a transit rider and longtime transit advocate, is a former board member of the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority.

Tim Faulkner: Mass. may get electricity from Hydro-Quebec another way

The spillway at Hydro-Quebec's   Robert-Bourassa generating station  can deal with a water flow twice as large as the Saint Lawrence River.

The spillway at Hydro-Quebec's  Robert-Bourassa generating station can deal with a water flow twice as large as the Saint Lawrence River.

Via ecoRI News (

The Northern Pass power-line project may be on life support, but controversial Canadian hydropower might yet reach southern New England if Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker gets his way.

The New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee rejected the 192-mil-long Northern Pass project on Feb. 1. While Eversource Energy has until March 27 to salvage its $1.6 billion transmission plan, Massachusetts has announced negotiations with a Maine utility for a backup plan to deliver imported hydropower to the Bay State.

The New England Clean Energy Connect, developed by the Central Maine Power Co., proposes a 145-mile power-line network to transmit 1,200 megawatts of hydropower from the Canadian border to Lewiston, Maine, where it will connect to the New England power grid. The $950 million cost for the project would be spilt by ratepayers and Hydro-Québec, an energy company run by the Canadian government.

Baker is banking on Canadian hydropower to fulfill his goal of 1,200 megawatts of new renewable energy under contract by April 1. The terms of the deal, as set by state law, have been criticized for excessively benefiting the utility, which in this case is Eversource or Central Maine Power. The terms for a hydropower-transmission project allows the utility to collect an annual payment, as well as receive a fully funded, high-voltage transmission system.

New Hampshire Republican Gov. Chris Sununu supports the Northern Pass proposal, but there was overwhelming opposition from local politicians, environmentalists and the public. In a unanimous vote, the state siting board ultimately rejected the proposal 7-0 because of concern that it would damage scenic areas, tourism and local businesses.

In Massachusetts, the bidding process has been accused of favoring the utilities, who make up a majority of the selection committee. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey is reviewing the bidding process for any violations.

Less publicized is the threat hydropower inflicts on the environment and indigenous communities in Québec. Hydro dams require massive reservoirs that swamp dry land and low-lying wetlands while distressing fish and their habitat.

Indigenous groups such as the Pessamit Innu, Cree and Inuit claim that hydropower causes permanent damage to their land, food supply and the salmon population, one of the primary sources of revenue in the Betsiamites River. The Pessamit Innu tribe says exporting additional Hydro-Quebec electricity would cause greater changes in the water level of the reservoirs and further damage the environment.

The New Hampshire energy siting board denied the Pessamit Innu a request to intervene in the Northern Pass application review. The Pessamit grievances date back to the 1950s, when the first dams were built on their tribal land without approval, by Hydro-Quebec, which runs 62 hydro projects in the region. The company maintains that it has worked with the indigenous groups to protect and restore the salmon population while paying the Pessamit $80 million over 20 years. Hydro-Quebec notes that the company has signed 30 agreements with indigenous groups, known as first nations, since 1975.

Hydro-Quebec chasticed the Pessamit for partnering with Sierra Club to advance its opposition to exporting hydropower. The power company also criticized the environmental group for arguing that hydropower doesn't reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

Yet, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, large-scale hydropower contributes to global warming, as flooded land releases carbon dioxide and methane from decaying vegetation and erosion caused by runoff.

A 2016 study by Washington State University suggests that methane and CO2 emissions released as the water level fluctuates in hydropower reservoirs should be considered in the lifecycle emissions of an energy facility. A 2016 study published by PLOS One reaches a similar conclusion, but suggests that the emissions can be offset by generating biogas electricity and timely management of power generation.

Tim Faulkner is a reporter and writer for ecoRI News, where this article first appeared.