ecoRI News

Grace Kelly: Batten down hatches for Hurricane Rhody

— Isaac Ginis/University of Rhode Island

— Isaac Ginis/University of Rhode Island

From ecoRI News (

When fall is just around the corner, and the summer heat is lingering like a bad hangover, it will come.

Hundreds of miles across, Hurricane Rhody, a Category 3 storm, will make its way from the Bahamas at a clip of about 60 mph. In this time of climate disruption, New England is overdue for a 100-year storm, and Hurricane Rhody doesn’t want to be late. The storm slams into Long Island, N.Y., then continues its upward push into Connecticut and Rhode Island. Six hours later, after 18 feet of storm surge wreaks havoc on coastal and bayside towns, and 127-mph winds rip the Ocean State to shreds, it slows down.

But Hurricane Rhody isn’t finished. It’s waited a long time, came a long way, and it wants to put on a show. So it starts to move south, creeping downward before changing course and hitting Rhode Island with a well-placed uppercut.

It has weakened to a Category 2 hurricane, but it doesn’t need extreme wind and bluster to have a grand finale; it just needs water. It dumps a foot or more of rain and, coupled with storm surge, sea-level rise, a moister climate, and narrow rivers, waterways begin to swell.

The Pawtuxet River in Warwick breaches its banks, and the Woonasquatucket and Mosshasuck rivers follow suit. And since Hurricane Rhody knocked out the electric grid for the entire state, including many backup generators, the Army Corps of Engineers watches helplessly as the hurricane barrier in Providence, which was closed to protect the capital from storm surge, begins to trap the rain as it falls into the Providence River.

Two days later, Providence is flooded. The statue of a soldier at Kennedy Plaza peers out above 10 feet of water, as if surveying the damage.

Hurricane Carol, in 1954, as did the hurricane of 1938, left downtown Providence flooded.

It’s only a matter of time

The above scenario is a worst-case outcome, and while everything might not happen exactly as such, it’s likely that a major hurricane will hit Rhode Island in the next 80 years. The quote that is standard across the local disaster preparedness landscape is that “it’s not a matter of if, but when.”

“I think we’re way overdue,” said Isaac Ginis, a professor at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography, who developed the model for this worst-case scenario hurricane. “The last big one was in 1954, so it’s not something that you should just think about happening in the future. It could happen anytime.”

Ginis took components of past hurricanes, such as Hurricane Esther, in 1961, to create a model of Hurricane Rhody. Esther made her way up toward New England and just narrowly missed a direct hit to Rhode Island.

“You see the track of that storm, and though it never made landfall in Rhode Island, it made a loop very close to it, straight over the border of the state,” Ginis said. “But what we did was we slightly shifted the track of Esther to the west, and made the same trail, and in that case, that storm would come to Rhode Island twice.”

In this double-punch scenario, Rhody’s first hit would be as a Category 3 hurricane. It would have severe impacts on coastal communities, like the 1938 hurricane — nicknamed the “Long Island Express” — that obliterated Westerly and left 20 feet of water in downtown Providence. Eyewitness accounts of that storm report a sunny, quiet day before the hurricane hit, and since weather prediction technology was virtually nonexistent, few saw it coming.

A few hours later, the Long Island Express had left the area, leaving some 700 people dead, another 700 injured, and total damages of $306 million, which today would be in the billions.

Superstorm Sandy lingered in southern New England. Hurricane Rhody is likely to do the same. (NASA)

Westerly plans for major hit

Eight decades later, Westerly, which is at the forefront of the region’s hurricane strike zone, is taking its history, and the potential for a massive storm, seriously.

On a warm August evening, some 150 people donning pastel polos and clutching wine-filled biodegradable cups gather in the Chaplin B. Barnes Reading Room at the Lanphear Livery, in Watch Hill. They’re here for a talk on storm surge and sea-level rise, as part of a series of lectures hosted by The Watch Hill Conservancy.

They listen to Bryan Oakley, assistant professor of environmental geoscience at Eastern Connecticut State University, and Teresa Crean, a community planner and coastal management specialist with URI’s Coastal Resources Center, speak about how rising seas — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has projected sea-level rise to increase in Rhode Island by up to 9 feet, 10 inches by 2100 — combined with a Category 1 hurricane would bring unprecedented destruction.

Some attendees murmur, “Wow, I remember Hurricane Carol, and I can’t imagine what would happen today.” Others grunt and comment, “I’ll be dead by then.” But the overall vibe is one of concern.

“I think a lot of people are noticing that, within the past few years, certain areas are flooding regularly and impacting the way they go to a certain destination,” said Janice Sassi, manager of the Napatree Point Conservation Area. “People are concerned. So, this past winter, the [The Watch Hill] Conservancy spearheaded a project that is getting the community thinking about the changing climate and what that means for us.”

This planning for a resilient future project addresses coastal erosion, flooding, sea-level rise, and what would happen if a massive hurricane hit and what the community can do to prepare itself.

Part of this community initiative was the Lanphear LIVE! lecture series that brought in speakers such as Crean and Oakley and hosted workshops that taught residents how to use the Coastal Resources Management Council’s STORMTOOLS program to see if their properties are in danger from sea-level rise and/or a 100-year storm.

The Watch Hill Conservancy and Westerly residents are taking a grassroots approach to learning about the danger of a hurricane coupled with sea-level rise.

“We’re all seeing the effects of these things,” Sassi said. “I think that a lot of people feel helpless, but knowledge is power, and I think it helps if you know you’re not in this alone.”

While Westerly is educating itself about the climate crisis and preparing itself for sea-level rise and hurricane-fueled storm surge, there is another important issue to worry about if and when Hurricane Rhody hits: rain.

In 2017, Hurricane Harvey hit Houston and overstayed its welcome for three days, during which it dumped 32 inches of rain. Levees broke, dams were breached, and cars floated down streets. The same thing could happen here when Hurricane Rhody makes its second landfall and deposits 15-20 inches of rain.

“In New England, our rivers are relatively short and shallow, so they can fill up very quickly,” URI’s Ginis said. “It’s not like a wide river that can take a lot of rain, even an insignificant amount of rain can cause flooding.”

Ginis noted that recent research has shown that the climate crisis could be causing hurricanes to slow down, becoming less like the racehorse that was the 1938 hurricane and more like a slow Harvey that just won’t go away.

Just recently, the very-wet Hurricane Dorian moved at a snail’s pace of 2 mph during its devastating hit on the Bahamas.

Plus, as hydrologist-in-charge David Vallee of the National Weather Service’s Northeast River Forecast Center noted, with a warming atmosphere comes more moisture.

“We’re in a very-moist, wet regime,” he said. “And when there’s more moisture in the air, that means more rain.”

Vallee also noted that New England storms tend to come in pairs: Carol and Edna in ’54; Cindy in ’59 and Donna in ’60; Irene in 2011 and Sandy in 2012. He said one could come as a “milder” tropical storm and deposit a good amount of rain.

“Rivers become swollen, the ground saturated, and if the Scituate reservoir starts its overflow release, as it was designed to do, come that second storm and more rain,” he said, shaking his head. “We could be at full capacity.”

Rhode Island could see a repeat of the March 2010 floods that wreaked havoc statewide.

The floods of March 2010 left much of Warwick and West Warwick underwater. This problem will happen again when a major storm hits Rhode Island.

Warwick knows there will be flooding

Crean, of URI’s Coastal Resources Center who works with communities facing potential climate impacts, is particularly concerned, in the face of a Hurricane Rhody scenario, about Warwick, what with its history of flooding.

“Just to the east of the airport, but just north of Warwick Neck, is a whole system of wetlands and streams and tributaries into [Narragansett] bay,” Crean said. “If storm surge and rain hit, that creates a swath of flooding that cuts Warwick Neck off. There’s an emergency facility just north of Warwick Neck that would be physically cut off, so it’s important for the Warwick EMA [Emergency Management Agency] to know, first of all, to evacuate Warwick Neck. And if we want to be able to put out fires or whatever, they have to stage equipment in accessible locations because the area could be impassable.”

Part of Warwick’s problem also lies with its considerable collection of impervious surfaces, according to Peter August, a URI professor and former director of the university’s Coastal Institute.

“It's all the roads and parking lots, and when the rain falls, it can’t soak into the ground. It has to run off someplace,” he said. “Plus, they put the mall in the exact spot you would never want to put a mall; it's an oxbow, a bow-shaped bend in a river that floods easily, and so that's gonna be tough.”

The Warwick Mall was flooded by several feet of water during the late-March floods of nine years ago. A mall security guard had to be rescued by boat. Most stores had to be gutted and all inventory was declared a loss. The mall was allowed to reopen without having to do anything to address any future climate impacts.

To prepare for future flooding, the city of Warwick is revamping its hazard mitigation plan, as is required every five years. The purpose of the plan is to “reduce overall risk to the population and structures from future hazard events, while also reducing reliance on Federal funding in future disasters.”

The plan, which needs to be approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, paints a picture of what would happen if a hurricane, like Carol, hit today. Some of the numbers are overwhelming: 28,486 tons of debris, nearly $12 million in damage to commercial and industrial property, and $120,548,000 in residential property damage.

“Oakland Beach would be almost completely washed out, and Warwick Neck would become inaccessible until the waters recede,” Vallee said.

Five percent of Warwick’s population is older than 65, and the city’s hazard-mitigation plan notes that “residents in group homes, nursing homes, assisted living, or subsidized housing may not have the resources to shelter in place or evacuate.”

Warwick’s EMA director and chief of police, Col. Rick Rathbun, believes that any hurricane would hurt the entire city, both coastal and inland.

“Because of the size of the city and our proximity to the bay, I think a hurricane will impact the entire city, whether you’re living along the coast in Oakland Beach and Warwick Neck, or if you’re in the western part of the city near the West Warwick line,” he said. “I think the biggest challenge is having people take the threat seriously early on. But I think it’s human nature to wait and hope, and we see things like Hurricane Dorian and how it stayed offshore of our coast, and that brings a false sense of security. These storms are unpredictable and they can move rapidly.”

One sentence in the hazard mitigation plan sums up Rathbun’s concern: “A powerful storm can significantly cripple Warwick.”

Superstorm Sandy, in 2012, pummeled Misquamicut State Beach in Westerly. Hurricane Rhody likely will be less forgiving.

Climate impacts have already arrived

So Hurricane Rhody arrives. It punishes Westerly. Slams Narragansett Bay. Overwhelms Warwick’s bay-connected rivers and tributaries with 3-4 feet of storm surge. Houses are swept off their foundations, debris smashes into buildings, trees fall, and power lines snap.

Then, Hurricane Rhody loops back around and dumps some 15 inches of rain for good measure. Coupled with rising seas, warming waters spawning more hurricanes, coastal erosion, and overdevelopment, the question is: Are we ready for this?

National Weather Service’s Vallee believes that state and local government are doing a lot to prepare, but he worries about the greater public.

“Rhode Island was the first state to have all of its municipalities be recognized as StormReady by the National Weather Service, which requires each town to undertake certain measures to be prepared,” he said.

This effort entails a few actions on the part of the community, ranging from establishing a 24-hour warning point and emergency operations center, to hosting community seminars, to creating a system to monitor weather conditions locally. And while towns are preparing for the worst, Vallee worries that people won’t take their local government’s preparations seriously.

“But the people … the only ones left who remember a massive hurricane and what it can do, well, there’s not many left,” he said.

Crean shares Vallee’s concerns.

“What is the tipping point for making that meaningful change?” Crean asked. “I would still say it’s an education process and conversation that we’re all having to try to figure out where the will is to make change.”

Some change comes in the form of adaptation. For example, the Misquamicut area along Atlantic Avenue in Westerly, one of the neighborhoods that was devastated by both the ’38 hurricane and more recently by Superstorm Sandy in 2012, some businesses have changed their entire model to account for future storms.

“Sam’s Snack Bar and the Little Mermaids lost everything during Sandy,” said Lisa Konicki, president of the Westerly-based Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce. “There was literally nothing left of Sam’s building, you couldn’t even tell that a building had been there. And Little Mermaids, there were a few pieces of the foundation wood that was sticking out of the sand, but the building, the roof, the walls, all that was gone. So those two businesses, rather than rebuild, opted to get concession trailers. So now their space is all mobile, and if there was a weather prediction similar to Sandy, they would simply unplug and drive away. They don’t want to go through it again.”

But while adapting your business and home might be the best option now, Crean said there may come a time when managed retreat is the only option.

“The sort of holy grail of all this is the idea of managed retreat,” she said. “At what point do you have to tell somebody you can’t live here anymore? That you can’t operate your business anymore? Wickford [a village in North Kingstown] may have to move or become a more water dependent village, because there won’t be a parking lot for visitors to use.”

The climate-related changes that are possible in Rhode Island are not just a futuristic doomsday warning; some of them have already happened or are happening.

“There’s a great image of downtown Wickford and once upon a time there was a store called Ryan’s Market. Now it’s The Kayak Centre,” Crean said.

Superstorm Sandy left Napatree Point battered. Hurricane Rhody likely will cause more damage. (Janice Sassi)

Natural defenses matter

Sassi and August walk up one of the larger dunes at Napatree Point in Watch Hill. The sun beats down on visitors eager to soak up the last rays of summer, and piping plovers scatter across the sand.

“What’s amazing is that the during Superstorm Sandy ocean water crossed the dune in eight spots,” said August, a member of The Watch Hill Conservancy board of directors, pointing to the paths that twine down the swirling dunes. “On the bay side of the dune, in those breach sites, you had a classic washover fan, a big V shape path of pure white sand, not a leaf popping through it.”

He then gestured to the clusters of beach plum and waving fronds of beach grass.

“But the most striking thing to me was that three months later, you would have no way of knowing where that washover fan was, because the plants just shot up new stems from their roots and rhizomes, and it was business as usual,” August continued. “And the dunes just rolled over on themselves. It was pretty spectacular. There’s a theme of resilience here.”

Grace Kelly is an ecoRI News journalist.

Todd McLeish: Looking at sea life's sensitivity to underwater electric cables

Skates apparently move differently than they usually do near electromagnetic fields.

Skates apparently move differently than they usually do near electromagnetic fields.

From ecoRI News (

Little is known about how marine life will respond to the electromagnetic fields emanating from the spiderweb of cables carrying electricity from the Block Island Wind Farm and the many other offshore wind-power installations planned for the East Coast. But a new series of studies by a team of oceanographers at the University of Rhode Island suggests that some organisms will definitely be impacted.

“The concern is that DC [direct] currents generate permanent electromagnetic fields, and we don’t really know how organisms will relate to them,” said John King, a professor at URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography. “We know that some organisms, like sharks and skates, are sensitive to these things. So the question becomes, if you build offshore power facilities, will migratory organisms cross the cables or not. Will it affect eels that migrate to the Sargasso Sea or lobsters that have an onshore-offshore annual migration?”

To find out, King and postdoctoral research fellow Zoe Hutchison conducted a series of field experiments around the Cross Sound Cable that carries electricity from New Haven, Conn., to Long Island, N.Y. They attached acoustic tags to skates and lobsters and placed them in an enclosure around the cable. An array of hydrophones in the enclosure detected the animals’ movements. Additional animals were placed in a second enclosure farther from the cable to compare the results.

“We definitely saw effects in behavior in both lobsters and skates, though it was more dramatic in the skates,” said King, who serves on the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council’s Habitat Advisory Board for offshore wind development. “The skates liked to spend time in the areas that had the highest EMFs. Their swimming behavior was definitely altered as they approached the cable. We didn’t see any evidence that a single cable is a migratory barrier, but they could definitely detect it and reacted to it.”

“The skates moved slower around the cable but also moved more often and covered a longer distance,” Hutchison said. “They did a lot more turning, like an exploratory behavior, as if they were looking for food.”

Sharks and skates have a sensory ability to detect the electromagnetic fields (EMF) generated by the circulatory system of their prey, according to King, and they may also use it to find mates.

“They might think the cable indicates a food source, so they spent time around the cable thinking they’re going to get fed,” he said.

The experiment found that lobsters moved less freely around the cable, but the electromagnetic fields didn’t prevent them from crossing it.

“The lobster response was much more subtle than the skates,” Hutchison said. “They had an increased exploratory behavior, too, but it wasn’t as pronounced as the skates. We know that spiny lobsters in the Caribbean use the Earth’s magnetic field to orient themselves and to figure out where to go, so we postulate that American lobsters may have a similar ability to detect magnetic fields.”

King and Hutchison will conduct a similar study with migratory eels this fall, to assess how they are affected by the cables. (They attempted it last year, but little electricity was traveling through the cable at the time.)

Rather than placing the eels in an enclosure around the cable like they did with the skates and lobsters, they will release tagged eels to see how they behave as they cross the cable on their way to the Sargasso Sea, where they spawn.

“Previous studies have shown that eels slow down and investigate every cable they cross,” King said. “One study found that when eels had to cross multiple cables, they slowed down every time. So we wonder if they have a whole bunch of cables to cross, does it slow them down enough that they never get to the Sargasso Sea.”

The researchers noted that just because the behavior of the animals they tested was affected by the cables, it doesn’t necessarily mean they were negatively impacted by them. They are, however, worried about the cumulative impacts of the electromagnetic fields from the numerous cables that will likely be installed for many offshore wind turbines in the future.

“There’s going to be hundreds or thousands of turbines off the East Coast, so it would be nice to understand these effects and how it translates into impacts before they get built,” King said. “Right now the government is pushing full speed ahead to get these things built, and I don’t think they really care that much about their impacts. The environmental reviews are being done really fast.”

King is also worried that the results of his studies are being downplayed by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which funded the research, because of political pressure.

“They hired a consulting company to produce a public document about our studies, and they minimized EMF as a concern and misinterpreted our study,” he said. “We didn’t say that we saw something that needed to be addressed immediately, but we also didn’t say that what we saw is OK and not to worry about it.”

King believes more studies need to be done before any conclusions can be drawn about the effect of electromagnetic fields from power cables on marine life.

“From a marine spatial planning context, it probably makes sense to have cable corridors rather than randomly distribute the cables all over, and that would probably have different results than studies of just a single cable. So we still have some questions to answer.”

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

Tim Faulkner: Vineyard Wind delay holds up similar projects

The federal wind lease area for the first phase of the 84-turbine Vineyard Wind project.     — Vineyard Wind graphic

The federal wind lease area for the first phase of the 84-turbine Vineyard Wind project.

— Vineyard Wind graphic

From ecoRI News (

The Vineyard Wind project is a major test of the offshore wind industry. The 84-turbine project is hailed as the first large utility-scale power source, after the five-turbine Block Island Wind Farm went on-line in December 2016.

As a pilot project, Block Island showed that the United States can profitably produce and deliver offshore wind energy, and create jobs. More than a dozen other proposals have followed, and new federal wind-lease areas are expected along the East Coast.

Vineyard Wind, with 800 megawatts of electric capacity, is presumed to clear the way for more than 10 gigawatts of power coming from the waters off southern New England.

The $2.8 billion project, backed by the Danish investment fund Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners and Avangrid Renewables of Portland Ore., has received most of the needed permits, including a power-purchase agreement from the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities.

In Rhode Island, the project went through a bruising review to secure an agreement with commercial fishermen and seafood processors. In February, the state’s Coastal Resources Management Council approved a consistency certification.

The latest impasse, however, may be more difficult than reducing the number of turbines and bargaining over compensation, as Vineyard Wind did with the fishing industry. The delay issued by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) on Aug. 9 presents a more formidable hurdle.

In its announcement, BOEM said it will take more time to review Vineyard Wind’s environmental impact statement (EIS), in part because of the influx of offshore wind proposals and state mandates for offshore wind energy.

Additional hearings will be held and public comment will be reopened to include input from federal, state, and local agencies, elected officials, and fishing communities. No dates have yet been announced.

BOEM expects to complete the supplemental EIS by the end of this year or in early 2020. Once the EIS is issued, permits can move forward from the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Vineyard Wind said it was surprised and disappointed by BOEM’s announcement.

“Even though today’s decision will delay development of American offshore wind projects, Vineyard Wind remains deeply committed to the emerging industry’s success,” according to Vineyard Wind statement.

Vineyard Wind noted that it worked closely with BOEM to have the EIS completed by Aug. 16 and issued by Sept. 6, so that construction can begin by the end of the year. Further delay reduces a key federal investment tax credit the project is relying on.

BOEM has a reputation for rubber-stamping commercial projects. Some elected officials, however, have accuse the agency of thumbing its nose at renewable energy and favoring a fossil-fuel industry that wants to keep New England reliant on natural gas and oil.

BOEM, a division of the Department of Interior, is lead by David Bernhardt, a former lobbyist for the mining and fossil-fuel extraction industry. President Trump, meanwhile, has repeatedly besmirched the wind-energy industry despite its rapid growth and a trend of lower costs.

U.S. Rep. William Keating, a Democrat representing Martha’s Vineyard, said, “the Trump Administration has not dealt fairly with Vineyard Wind.”

“Taking this action, at this late stage, is another example of this Administration’s hostility toward those seeking to combat climate change, as well as its overall rejection of basic environmental values,” Keating is quoted in a statement.

Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said BOEM’s delay “sends a clear and chilling message across this nascent industry that the Trump Administration will do everything in its power to cut corners for oil and gas projects while cutting the chord on the next frontier of clean energy deployment.”

Despite the setback, shareholders still back the project, according to Vineyard Wind.

Vineyard Wind, based in New Bedford, said the project is the lynchpin to the construction of thousands of offshore wind turbines.

“The project is poised to kickstart a new offshore wind industry that promises industrial growth along with new manufacturing and blue-collar employment across the United States from New England to Louisiana to Colorado and beyond,” according to project officials.

The BOEM setback hasn’t deterred Vineyard Wind from proposing up to two additional offshore wind facilities: a 400-megawatt proposal and an 800-megawatt project called Vineyard Wind 2, south of the first Vineyard Wind proposal and in the same federal wind-lease area located 15 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard.

The first Vineyard Wind is also appealing a decision by the Edgartown Conservation Commission to deny a permit to run power cables through the Muskeget Channel. The commission rejected the proposal in July for lacking a decommissioning plan, an absence of environmental research, and concern about the impact of future wind projects.

The Vineyard Wind project and perhaps the future of the offshore wind industry could face another potential obstacle: radar interference. An Aug. 21 story by the MV Times reported that offshore turbines potentially distort marine radar, thereby impairing boat navigation.

The Coast Guard raised the issue in a letter to BOEM in March and suggested that Vineyard Wind research the radar problem and pay for any remedies. The Coast Guard recently joined a federal task force that has been reviewing the issue since 2014. Earlier federal reports showed that wind turbines can interfere with military radar and weather instruments. Various technologies that reduce the problem are being researched.

Vineyard Wind said it answered the radar issue in the EIS and intends to work with the Coast Guard to address any problems. Vineyard Wind said it also will consider “mitigation measures” to compensate fishermen and other stakeholders if needed.

The target completion date for Vineyard Wind is 2022. If built, it will generate enough electricity to power 400,000 homes. According to the Department of Energy the offshore wind industry is expected to create 600,000 jobs by 2050.

Tim Faulkner is an ecoRI News journalist.

Tim Faulkner: Searching for support for tidal and wave power

From ecoRI News (

Efforts to generate electricity from waves and tidal currents have slowed in southern New England, as offshore wind power takes a commanding lead in the renewable-energy portion of the so-called “blue economy.”

In recent years, tidal- and wave-energy programs at Brown University, University of Massachusetts atm Dartmouth and the University of Rhode Island have curtailed their research and commercial collaborations.

At Brown, the Leading Edge project has shifted from an academic and commercial venture to a school-based laboratory-research project. Engineering students designed oscillating hydrofoils that generate electricity from rectangular blades that lift and rotate in strong currents. Faculty leaders, however, have gone to other schools or are on sabbatical, thereby halting commercial partnerships.

The program was funded by the federal Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (APRA-E) program, which supports energy initiatives that private investors consider too risky.

Leading Edge partnered with Portsmouth, R.I.-based BluSource Energy Inc. to build and test underwater turbines in the Taunton River and at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy at the entrance of the Cape Cod Canal.

Tom Derecktor, CEO of BluSource, said the turbine succeeded in producing uninterrupted electricity, something wind and solar can’t promise. But he noted the challenges of scaling hydrokinetic power for commercial production. Large energy systems require open water or a river with a strong current, free from ship traffic and debris, conditions hard to find in the Northeast. Most currents with the desired speed of 4 knots or more are too far from population centers to host a permanent power system.

Still, Derekotor believes that tidal energy can achieve scale in other parts of the country.

“There’s a lot of potential there, but it requires a lot funding to take it to the next level,” he said.

Congress may help by increasing funding for the APRA-E program, but President Trump opposes the program and has tried, unsuccessfully, to eliminate its funding.

Offshore wind-energy development by state. (U.S. Department of Energy)

Offshore wind-energy development by state. (U.S. Department of Energy)

Meanwhile, offshore wind power is taking off, with some 25 gigawatts of projects proposed across the country, much of it in the Northeast, according to the Department of Energy. More then 10 gigawatts is planned for Massachusetts and Rhode Island waters, thanks to southern New England's large, windy, and relatively shallow offshore regions — all within range of millions of energy customers.

There is still hope for harnessing energy from currents and waves. In 2014, UMass-Dartmouth closed its Marine Renewable Energy Center, prompting the energy program to reorganize as the Marine Renewable Energy Collaborative (MRECo). The nonprofit switched from its academic initiative to focus on public outreach, promotion, and equipment testing.

MRECo’s executive director, John Miller, said there isn’t adequate financial support to make tidal and wave projects financially viable, especially as federal dollars have shifted to wave-energy testing on the West Coast, such as the PacWave project off the coast of Oregon.

“It’s a tough business,” Miller said. “The whole business is 10 to 15 years behind where offshore wind is.

Nevertheless, MRECo is testing a range of marine-industry products. The organization recently concluded a study that determined that current for the proposed Muskeget Channel tidal installation between Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard lacks the velocity to support the latest tidal-energy systems.

In 2017, MRECo installed the Bourne Tidal Test Site (BTTS),. in the Cape Cod Canal. Miller noted that the $300,000 steel platform was a bargain to build compared to more elaborate facilities off the coast of Scotland and in the Bay of Fundy in Canada that cost $30 million apiece

Within a year, BTTS expects to test its first underwater turbine, a device for the start-up company Littoral Power Systems of Fall River, Mass. BTTS has hosted other marine equipment, including commercial fishing nets and soon will gather data for aquatic sensors that monitor microplastics and algae linked to toxic blooms.

MRECo is seeking $200,000 to upgrade the power and Internet capability of BTTS to accommodate testing of additional marine sensors and instruments.

At URI, the ocean-energy research labs and indoor wave tank have broadened their study areas to include the offshore wind industry.

Prof. M. Reza Hashemi said wave and tidal power are some of the oldest forms of energy but have yet to be proven commercially viable in New England, primarily because water currents aren’t strong enough.

“There is hope, but it needs a lot help,” Hashemi said.

Wave and tidal energy are more promising on the West Coast and in the United Kingdom, where the currents are much stronger, he said.

But local tidal- and wave-energy efforts haven’t stopped. The massive tides in the Gulf of Maine are drawing demonstration projects supported by research from URI and the University of New Hampshire, among others.

Hashemi also co-authored a textbook about wind, tidal, and wave energy. For now, he is conducting research on the impacts of hurricanes on wind turbines. But Hashemi and URI remain dedicated to hydrokinetic energy. The university recently received $148,000 from The Champlin Foundation for a new ocean-energy flume, a type of indoor wave tank designed for testing small-scale wave- and tidal-energy devices

“Wave and tidal energy are still at the early stages of development,” Hashemi said. “They are not yet at the commercial stage.

Tim Faulkner is an ecoRI News journalist.

Frank Carini: Restoration plan for species hurt by 2003 Buzzards Bay oil spill

Common Loon

Common Loon

From ecoRI News (

State and federal environmental agencies have released a draft plan to help common loons and other birds in the wake of the 2003 Bouchard Barge No. 120 oil spill in Buzzards Bay, in both Rhode Island and Massachusetts waters.

The draft plan is available for public comment through Oct. 31. Written comments can be sent via email to The agencies are scheduled to hold an information meeting and webinar Sept. 12 at 1 p.m. at the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife office at 1 Rabbit Hill Rd, Westboro.

The plan is the first of two documents to address birds injured by the spill, both of which will be funded by a 2017 $13.3 million natural resource damages settlement from Bouchard Transportation Co. Inc. Of this total, $7.3 million is designated to plan, implement, oversee and monitor common loon restoration, while another $1 million will go toward other birds impacted by the spill. Another $5 million from the settlement will address injuries to common and roseate terns through a separate future plan

This plan describes the injuries resulting from the 98,000-gallon spill that oiled 100 miles of shoreline, including coastal habitats where birds feed, nest, and in some cases overwinter. An estimated 531 common loons and more than 500 other birds, including common eiders, black scoters, red-throated loons, grebes, cormorants, and gulls, were killed either through direct or indirect effects of the spill.

Common loons winter in large numbers in Buzzards Bay. Common eiders experienced the highest mortality of all other bird species, with 83 birds killed by the oiling. The ultimate goal of the damage assessment and restoration process is to replace, rehabilitate, or acquire the equivalent of injured natural resources and resource services lost because of the release of hazardous substances, at no cost to taxpayers.

“The trustees have carefully considered a number of options to restore birds killed by the 2003 oil spill, especially the common loons that are icons of our northern lakes,” said Tom Chapman, supervisor of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s New England office. “We invite people to learn about and provide feedback on these ideas, in hopes of soon starting restoration efforts benefiting birds throughout New England.”

The draft plan evaluates multiple restoration alternatives that were developed in coordination with loon and other bird experts. Based on factors to ensure successful restoration, as well as criteria established by federal regulations, the trustees recommend the following projects:

Release 63-84 common loon chicks from Maine and New York in historic Massachusetts breeding sites in Assawompset Pond Complex and the October Mountain Reservoir, in hopes of returning this species to more areas in the state ($3,185,000). In Massachusetts, common loons disappeared for decades until 1975, and have since primarily returned to breed in Quabbin and Wachusetts reservoirs, migrating offshore to winter.

Increase survival of nesting loons at breeding sites across New England ($3,185,000) through: creating artificial nesting sites on rafts that withstand fluctuating water levels and reduce disturbance from predators and people; adding signs and wardens to watch over nests to reduce disturbance; preserving land to protect breeding habitat; and reducing exposure to lead tackle through outreach and tackle exchange programs

The trustees’ preferred alternatives to restore other bird species are:

Permanently protect more than 300 acres of high-quality coastal habitats on Cuttyhunk Island off the coast of Massachusetts ($500,000).

Identify a similar habitat protection project in Rhode Island through a competitive grant process ($1,274,000)

Use signage, nest monitoring, and wardens to protect common eider nests in the Boston Harbor Islands and Cuttyhunk Island ($100,000).

Frank Carini is editor of ecoRI News.

Grace Kelly: Bluefish -- sustainable and delicious



Via ecoRI News (

According to a recent report released by the United Nations, our meat-forward eating habits are having a big impact on the environment — and not in a good way.

Farm animals produce 25 percent to 30 percent of greenhouse gases, particularly methane, which traps heat 25 times more effectively than carbon dioxide. One small step we can take to reduce climate emissions is to eat less meat, and perhaps fill that protein void by eating more sustainably caught local fish.=

As New Englanders with access to plenty of ocean, our seafood options are vast and varied. But not all options are created equal. Some fish, like the local cod, are in dangerous waters (pun intended) when it comes to population decline. But fear not, there’s plenty of sustainable options that are just as, and arguably more, tasty. We’re going to highlight these choices in a new monthly feature called Go Fish.

To do so, ecoRI News is partnering with Kate Masury of Eating with the Ecosystem, a local organization dedicated to promoting a “place-based approach to sustaining New England’s wild seafood,” and Stuart Meltzer of the Fearless Fish Market in Providence.

The first time I had bluefish was at a local restaurant where it was basted in a pool of nutty brown butter and served with an herb-onion salad and fresh-made tortillas. Its signature purplish-blue flesh had tempered to white during cooking, and each bite was silky and rich.

Bluefish is a sustainable delight that is readily available in the summer, when it migrates to the New England coast after spending the colder months in the South Atlantic Bight. It’s a hardy predator whose active lifestyle requires more oxygen than most fish, turning its flesh the purplish-blue color that gives the species its name. Its great seared in a pan until the skin gets crispy and golden, or as the recipe below suggests, soaked in a soy-sauce citrus marinade and grilled until charred and smok

According to Seafood Watch, bluefish caught in the North Atlantic is a “best choice.” This means “the stock is healthy, and management is effective. In addition, bycatch and habitat impacts are a low concern.” When buying, look for fish that has been caught by handline or hand-operated pole and line.

Grace Kelly is a journalist with ecoRI News (

“Trolling for blue fish’’ (   lithograph    by    Currier & Ives   , 1866)

“Trolling for blue fish’’ (lithograph by Currier & Ives, 1866)

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