Clear Water Raises Concerns for Fishermen

If attendees at the Ronald C. Baird Sea Grant Science Symposium were united by a concern about the health of Narragansett Bay, some were divided about what exactly is happening and why. That was evident in the stakeholder segment of the program. The five-member panel of commercial fishermen in the lobster, crab, and shellfishing industries, as well as aquaculturists, boasted a range of experience from 10 to over 40 years on the water, and each held views of the bay that were as passionate as they were different.

If the water is that clear, it means it’s dead; there’s no life in it …. A lot of our fishermen say when they’re going to fish in the bay, that they’re going to fish in Chernobyl. That’s a terrible thing to say.

Most of the wild harvesters seemed to feel a reduction in nitrogen being released into the bay— due to wastewater treatment investments that reduced the amount of untreated sewage that overflows into the bay after storms—was at least partly to blame for perceived losses in their fisheries. Some of the direst concerns were expressed by Al Eagles of the Rhode Island Lobstermen’s Association. Unlike his fellow panelists who were University of Rhode Island graduates, “I got my education on Narragansett Bay,” Eagles said of his career that has spanned 45 years.

“We had a resilient Narragansett Bay back in the ’90s,” he said, even as the water temperature was rising due to climate change. “Everything was flourishing, but today we as fishermen and observers of the bay do not see that same thing.”

He cited the rise in lobster shell disease in the bay as a growing problem. He said that shell disease appeared in the late 1990s. “And it’s getting worse by the year, believe it or not. I did a study last year, and there was a 67 percent incidence of shell disease in lobsters taken by the Newport Bridge, and when you go out front [closer to the mouth of the bay], there’s very little shell disease, and the further offshore you go, there’s no shell disease.

Lanny Dellinger, a board member of the Rhode Island Lobstermen’s Association, sees the absence of kelp in the bay as another indicator of trouble. “Ten or 15 years ago, we would have balls of kelp as big as a pickup truck along the shores. You just can’t find that anymore. In the upper bay, you can’t buy a piece of kelp.”

Eagles agreed: “There used to be plenty of rockweed in Jamestown, off Rose Island, but that’s gone. Yet if you go off Newport, the lobster is plentiful and so is the kelp. There is a disconnect between the bay and the open ocean.”


 
 
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                               Fishermen and aquaculturists report different perceptions of changes in Narragansett Bay.

HOW CLEAN IS TOO CLEAN?

Mike McGiveney, President of the Rhode Island Shellfisherman’s Association, traces his shellfishing heritage back 130 years, to the era of Scallop Town, a 19th-century nickname for a section of the East Greenwich waterfront that was a hub for scalloping.

He too voiced concern about nitrogen reduction.

“Are there enough nutrients to feed the shellfish? Is clean water healthy water? There are 5 tons less nitrogen going into the bay today. That has to have an impact.”

Eagles pointed to what many would consider a positive indicator as a source of concern: the clarity of the bay’s water.

“If you go out there right now, as we did in the past couple of summers, and scoop up a bucket of water, there’s nothing swimming in it. Narragansett Bay has turned into a swimming pool. If you look into a swimming pool, because of the chemicals you can see right to the bottom. If you go down to my dock right now or in the summertime, you can see the same thing,” he said. “Everybody is saying what a great job they did in cleaning up Narragansett Bay, and the one thing everybody points to is how clear the water column is. To me, that’s the worst thing anybody can say. If the water is that clear, it means it’s dead; there’s no life in it. It used to be that in the summer if you scooped a bucket of water, the water would be brown. It would be full of life, full of zooplankton.”

“As observers, as fishermen, we’re not seeing the plankton, and that’s why we’re trying to bring this to the symposium today. The bay is swimmable, but not fishable. We have to ask ourselves, ‘What has changed in the bay to turn it from a resilient bay to what I call a dead bay?’ It really seems to have taken place in the last three years. Barnacles stopped growing on our traps in the bay. After a year, they still looked like they just came off the delivery trucks, whereas the ones in the open ocean had plenty of barnacles. A lot of our fishermen say when they’re going to fish in the bay, that they’re going to fish in Chernobyl. That’s a terrible thing to say.”

Oysters in the bay Mason Silkes, co-owner of Saltwater Farms, which operates farms in the bay and in Rhode Island Sound, offered a different perspective, saying that during the summer when he puts out his cages and lines, they’re covered with growths of all kinds, and his oysters are thriving.

“One of our main jobs in the middle of the summer is spending the better part of each day power washing the lines and cages. Everything grows like crazy. On the other hand, when we farm offshore, the growth rate of the oysters is not nearly as good.”

Matt Griffin with students in the in the field measuring mussel size and monitoring for parasites in Narragansett Bay.

Matt Griffin, a researcher and shellfish farmer, says the oyster growth in the upper bay is actually better than in the lower. “I’ve personally not been concerned yet with the nitrogen inputs, but there may be a concern about a tipping point with multiple farms operating on top of each other. I am also concerned about the possible increase in diseases that appear in warmer water. We must maintain a robust monitoring program to keep an eye on the pathways of these diseases to ensure that our product gets to market.”

Griffin did express concern that reduction in winter phytoplankton blooms may reduce the nutrients available to immature shellfish that they need to survive the spring increases in predation and other stressors. He added that the closing of shellfishing that occurred last year as a result of a harmful algal bloom that shut down the sale of shellfish for both farmers and wild harvesters for a couple of weeks caused some economic loss, and may result in a negative public perception of unhealthy shellfish coming out of state waters.

“How the reduction in nitrogen and climate change affect these things is a concern. I can’t put my finger on one cause of the changes or one solution, and I’m not sure any of us can, but it’s important that we’re all sitting here with an open mind. It’s important that we nail down the uses of the bay, both recreational and commercial. Hopefully, the Bay SAMP (Special Area Management Plan) that’s coming up provides the aquaculture industry an opportunity to grow, while giving the other industries a voice to be heard as well.”

Dellinger worries that the traditions of Rhode Island itself may change. “I’m afraid we’re going to lose our fishing heritage. A few years ago, there was probably around 1,000 people who made their living on Narragansett Bay, and if you look around now, the numbers are probably 10 percent of that. The fishing docks that the tourists like to come down and see, they’re going to be gone in a few years.”

– Hugh Markey | Ronald C. Baird Sea Grant 2017 proceedings

More information about the Baird Symposium, including links to videos of the morning and afternoon sessions and the PowerPoint presentations, is available online. Results will be used to inform the upcoming Rhode Island Sea Grant research request for proposals and the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council’s Narragansett Bay Special Area Management Plan.

The symposium was sponsored by GSO, Rhode Island Sea Grant, the URI Coastal Resources Center, and the van Beuren Charitable Foundation. 

 

+ Read full proceedings

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