Coastal State Series
Photo ©Jesse Burke
The Coastal State Discussion Series is a forum dedicated to highlighting current scientific research focused on marine issues impacting Rhode Island coastal communities and environments.
All events are free and all are encouraged to join!
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Scientists have been studying changes to Narragansett Bay in nutrient inputs and warming waters and will discuss their latest findings.
Narragansett Bay has been touted by scientists to be the cleanest it has ever been in 150 years – a long journey to restoration from its history as a dumping ground for toxic metals, sewage, and other pollutants since the Industrial Revolution.
With improvements in wastewater treatment facilities and controlling storm runoff, Rhode Island has been able to exceed its goal of a 50% reduction in nitrogen. Nitrogen reduction has been a steadfast focus for the state in cleaning up the Bay to reduce harmful algal blooms that lead to low dissolved oxygen levels, which can lead to fish kills, such as occurred in 2003 in Greenwich Bay. And while there are many sources of nitrogen, wastewater facilities have been identified as the primary source in Narragansett Bay.
Fishermen have complained that such a reduction in nitrogen has made the bay “too clean” by reducing the amount of an important food source to phytoplankton that support local fisheries.
How the Bay will fully respond to reduced levels of nitrogen with the addition of warming waters is still unknown. “We need to watch trends of [secondary impacts],” says Dr. Candace Oviatt, a professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography.
These changes in nitrogen loading into the bay and the secondary impacts of warming waters are what Oviatt and her colleagues have been exploring over the last several years in an effort to provide managers a clearer picture on the changing trends in the timing and availability of nitrogen in Narragansett Bay. This will help resource managers with forecasting and understanding changes in the bay, such as harmful algal bloom dynamics or fisheries resources (e.g. shellfish).
Oviatt will be joined by URI Masters student Michael Potter II and Dr. Robinson Fulweiler from Boston University on May 11 as part of the Coastal State Discussion webinar series to share current research findings and plans for ongoing research.
Dr. Candace Oviatt
Marine Ecologist and Professor of Oceanography
University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography, University of Rhode Island
Dr. Robinson Fulweiler
Ecologist and Biogeochemist & Professor of Biology
Michael S. Potter II
University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography
April 21, 2022
“Understanding the distribution and eventual fate of plastics as they travel from source to sink is a vital part of understanding probable environmental impacts in marine systems.”
– Dr. Andrew Daviees, associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Rhode Island’s College of Environment and Life Sciences
Today, almost everyone in the world comes into contact with plastics every single day. These plastics are light-weight, durable, inexpensive, and easily modified, making it the ubiquitous material of the modern economy. However, in 2017 alone, ~348 million tons of plastics were produced worldwide, and production is expected to triple by 2050. The U.S. recovers less than 10% of its annual plastic production and it is the fastest growing component of municipal waste.
Nearly 85% of all marine debris is plastic and all studied ecosystems on earth have been found to contain plastics. With a growing demand for plastics, there remain simple questions:
What do we do with this waste?
What can we replace it with?
What impacts do plastics have on human and environmental health?
Over the last several years, researchers at the University of Rhode Island have been characterizing marine plastic pollution in a variety of habitats.
Speakers Dr. Andrew Davies and Dr. Coleen Suckling, along with Ph.D. candidate Sara Davis, discussed their work exploring the distribution of plastics, including microplastics within the surface waters of Narragansett Bay. They shared the challenges in characterizing microplastics within complex marine habitats and show early research findings as they aim to produce the first robust estimates of microplastics within Rhode Island’s coastal waters.
Dr. Andrew Davies
Marine Ecologist and Associate Professor of Biological Sciences
University of Rhode Island College of Environment and Life Sciences & the Graduate School of Oceanography, University of Rhode Island
Dr. Coleen Suckling
Eco-physiologist and Assistant Professor of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Veterinary Sciences
University of Rhode Island College of Environment and Life Sciences
Ph.D. Candidate Sarah Davis
Biological and Ecosystem Sciences program
University of Rhode Island College of Environment and Life Sciences
IN THE MEDIA
Detecting the Next Harmful Algal Bloom
Alfred Hitchcock’s famous film, The Birds, was inspired by a bizarre event in Monterey Bay in 1961 where crazed birds were seen crashing into buildings, cars, and street signs. The culprit: domoic acid, a neurotoxin produced by a specific species of phytoplankton that, if ingested, can cause animals to become disoriented or have seizures. In humans, it can also cause seizures as well as short-term memory loss or worse in severe cases.
In 2016, an unprecedented harmful algal bloom with detectable levels of domoic acid spanned across New England, prompting a recall of over 5 tons of potentially infected shellfish in Maine and the first-ever bay-wide closure for shellfishing in Rhode Island as a precaution although toxicity never reach harmful levels. The presence of domoic acid also led to another closure of shellfish harvesting in Narragansett Bay the following year. The cause of these events remains unknown, and the implications for local economies and human health prompted research to better understand and monitor Pseudo-nitzschia, the genus of plankton responsible for producing domoic acid.
“Pseudo-nitzschia have been detected for over 50 years in the Narragansett Bay Long-Term Plankton Time Series but have only been a problem recently,” says Dr. Bethany Jenkins, associate professor of cellular and molecular biology at the University of Rhode Island. “What caused these events is unknown: whether an environmental factor altered the physiology of endemic Pseudo-nitzschia or new toxin-producing strain(s) were introduced.”
Speakers, Dr. Bethany Jenkins, associate professor and marine microbial ecologist, and Ph.D. candidate Alexa Sterling from the University of Rhode Island, as well as Dr. Colleen Mouw, associate professor at URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography, will discuss their research investigating the various strains of Pseudo-nitzschia and real-time characterization of phytoplankton communities in Narragansett Bay that allows for a rapid field response to target harmful algal bloom events as they occur.
This free webinar is part of the annual Coastal State Discussion Series hosted by Rhode Island Sea Grant and co-sponsored by the Rhode Island EPSCoR C-AIM Consortium, the University of Rhode Island’s College of Environment and Life Science, and University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography.
Rhode Island is long overdue for a major hurricane. Even a brush with Superstorm Sandy in 2012, which caused $11.2 million in damages and left 122,000 Rhode Islanders without power, was not a worst-case scenario, but a reminder of our exposure and vulnerability. And a record-setting hurricane season in 2020 with 30 named storms, 12 of which made landfall in the U.S., was another reminder of how a changing climate makes rising seas and storm-flooding more devastating.
Storm surge barriers, levees, and other coastal flood protection megaprojects are being investigated as strategies to protect U.S. cities against devastating coastal storms and rising sea levels. But these projects are large-scale and complex, often taking years to decades to complete and costing billions of dollars with long-lasting impacts on the economy, environment, and society. Additional layers of social conflict and other political factors also cast doubt on their status as practical climate adaptation options.
Dr. Paul Kirshen, professor of climate adaptation at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and Dr. D.J. Rasmussen, an engineer and climate scientist who recently graduated from Princeton University’s School of Public Policy & International Affairs, will discuss the technical, environmental, economic, and political factors of why some coastal flood protection megastructures break ground in the U.S. while others do not, using Boston Harbor and Rhode Island’s Fox Point Hurricane Barrier in Providence–the first gated hurricane-protection structure in the U.S.– as case studies.
This free webinar is part of the annual Coastal State Discussion Series hosted by Rhode Island Sea Grant and co-sponsored by the University of Rhode Island’s Coastal Institute, Marine Affairs Department, and The Policy Lab at Brown University.
Harmful Algal Blooms May Lead to New Drug Discoveries
An unprecedented harmful algal bloom that spanned from Long Island to Maine in 2016 prompted a recall of over 5 tons of potentially infected shellfish in Maine and the first-ever bay-wide closure for shellfishing in Rhode Island.
Researchers across the region have since been focused on better understanding the species that drive harmful blooms and the types of toxins they produce, such as domoic acid, which is a that can infect shellfish and be harmful to consumers.
Rhode Island Sea Grant hosted a virtual Coastal State Discussion led by Dr. Matthew Bertin, an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Rhode Island, who discussed ongoing work investigating why these organisms produce harmful toxins and how these compounds can be leveraged into potential drug leads for either treatment of the disease or new drugs.
“The 2016 event and the continued detection of domoic acid in the bay suggest that either species composition has shifted to more toxic strains of these species, or environmental conditions have made resident species more toxic,” says Bertin. “An increase in bloom events and domoic acid production represents a significant risk to the state’s shellfish industry and local populations as domoic acid is responsible for amnesic shellfish poisoning.”
In addition to studying the human and environmental impact of toxins such as domoic acid, Bertin and his colleagues have also been studying two cyanobacterial communities, Microcystis and Trichodesmium, in a search for new therapeutic lead molecules that could treat neuroinflammation, which is a driver in diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
“In four years, we have discovered over 30 new-to-science molecules, many with promising biological activities,” he says.
Recreational and Tourism Impacts of the Block Island Wind Farm
The Block Island Wind Farm tested the feasibility of offshore renewable energy in the United States. Since it became operational in 2016 with five turbines producing 125,000 megawatt-hours of electricity annually, proposals for the development of other wind farms at two or three times the capacity have cropped up along the eastern seaboard.
And while offshore wind farms harness renewable energy, there are still questions about the environmental and social impacts of such wind farms, including on recreation and tourism.
“There are very different ideas of how the wind farm works, the politics that are behind it,” said Amelia Moore, assistant professor of marine affairs at the University of Rhode Island, as quoted in the Block Island Times.
Moore and colleague David Bidwell, assistant professor of marine affairs at URI, as well as Tiffany Smythe, assistant professor of maritime policy at the United States Coast Guard Academy, will discuss their collaboration looking at the Block Island Wind Farm’s impacts on recreational fishing and tourism.
The goal of their work is to provide a greater understanding of the impacts from offshore wind farm development to aid decision-makers, scientists, and developers interested in offshore wind farm planning, research, and permitting processes throughout the United States.
Rhode Island Sound’s Role in Fueling Harmful Algal Blooms in Narragansett Bay
An unprecedented toxic algal bloom from Long Island to Maine in 2016 led to the first-ever shellfishing ban in Narragansett Bay. After five tons of shellfish were recalled in Maine that September, a rapid increase in a certain species of algae that produces a neurotoxin, which can infect shellfish, was observed outside of Newport Harbor the following October.
Researchers from the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography (GSO) will discuss how Rhode Island Sound may be linked to these harmful algal blooms in the bay.
Since the 2016 bloom was concentrated in the mid- and lower bay, with its longest duration in the Sound, one theory is that nutrients, such as nitrogen, are being funneled into the bay that can trigger algal blooms.
“One of the important things missing is the water coming in from the shelf. There’s a deep pool of nitrogen [offshore] in the bottom water in the summer,” said Dr. Christopher Kincaid, a GSO researcher who specializes in circulation dynamics. The knowledge gap, he says, is understanding the nitrogen budget and figuring out if, and how, this nitrogen-rich bottom water offshore is making its way to the surface waters in the bay where it can fuel harmful algal blooms. “We need a true nitrogen budget to understand circulation patterns and how that impacts the ecosystem.”
Monitoring stations have also been set up near the mouth of the bay by Dr. Lucie Maranda and her colleagues to test for the presence of the algal species that produce the neurotoxin, domoic acid, and how much, if any, is present.
(GSO) Professor of Oceanography specializing in marine geophysics and circulation dynamics.
(GSO) Research scientist specializing in biological oceanography and ecosystem dynamics.
(GSO) Research scientist specializing in physical oceanography and circulation dynamics.
(GSO) Ph.D. candidate specializing in marine geophysics and numerical modeling.
How Oysters Alter the Environment
While nitrogen, which is found in fertilizer, is essential to plant growth, it can become too much of a good thing. When nitrogen from fertilizers or even sewage enters our waters, it can accelerate plant growth that can suffocate marine life and degrade the quality of our waters.
Dr. Robinson Fulweiler, a research scientist from Boston University who specializes in nitrogen dynamics, and her team have been comparing how nitrogen is cycled through various oyster habitats and how different farms at different ages impact this cycle to better understand how oysters can potentially offset too much nitrogen in the environment.
“Over the last several years, we have measured [nitrogen] cycling through oyster habitats in Narragansett Bay and Ninigret Pond,” she says, explaining this includes oyster farms, natural and restored reefs.
Their initial findings show oyster farms may alter the way nitrogen is removed from the environment and may serve as a potential means for removing excess nitrogen. Fulweiler’s research also shows that when compared to other animal production, such as beef and poultry, raised oysters have less than one percent of the greenhouse gas cost.
Can Winter Flounder Survive a Warming Bay
Winter flounder dominated commercial and recreational fishing in Narragansett Bay until the 1980s. Populations have since declined to historically low levels. This has raised concerns about what caused this decline, the overall health of the bay, and the future for fisheries in the bay.
Overfishing and predation may be a few reasons why, but new studies suggest warming water temperatures may also be crippling populations.
Joe Langan, a Ph.D. candidate, and Dr. Jeremy Collie at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography (GSO) presented findings on their research investigating the role temperature plays in winter flounder populations. Their primary focus has been looking at which life stages of winter flounder are most vulnerable.
“We don’t know the answer yet, but at best, winter flounder are an underdog going forward in Narragansett Bay … because there’s plenty of things acting against them as they try to recover,” said Langan. “But, this is important work to understand what happened here so colleagues in Maine or Nova Scotia can understand the dynamics that might influence their winter flounder populations as climate change marches on.”
Rhode Island’s historic coastal cities, such as Newport and Providence, were built on ground that is slowly sinking and has been for thousands of years.
Dr. Simon Engelhart at the University of Rhode Island presented findings on his research investigating how Rhode Island’s coasts have responded to past sea-level rise changes and the influence of land subsidence from the last glaciation to better understand future implications as sea-level rise projections continue to climb.
Although the state is losing only one millimeter of ground annually, it plays a meaningful role in present-day flooding along a coastal state that is mostly at sea level or 10 to 30 feet above, he said. To better understand changes in the past to estimate what might happen in the future, Engelhart looked at salt marshes, he said, are geological archives that show how the coastline has changed over time.
Engelhart’s research to better understand how the land is responding is aimed to better inform resiliency measures by coastal managers.
Quahog Hot Spots in Narragansett Bay
It might seem obvious that microscopic larval quahogs, spawned up into the water column by adult quahogs, would be at the mercy of tides and currents, which would entirely determine where they would land and bury themselves in the sand.
But, while newly spawned quahogs—which will spend 8 to 12 days in the larval stage before settling on the bottom and becoming juvenile quahogs—are very much dependent on water circulation to determine where they will end up, they are able to swim, and their behavior, to a degree, factors into where they settle.
Researchers Scott Rutherford (Roger Williams University) and Chris Kincaid (URI Graduate School of Oceanography) discussed their work investigating how current flow through Narragansett Bay influences where quahog larvae go when released from a specific place, combining computer modeling with a hands-on approach creating “drifters” from hardware-store materials, such as PVC pipe and canvas, to follow the path of the quahog larvae.
Rutherford discussed that while larvae have little ability to swim against a current or determine their direction horizontally, they are able to determine their place vertically within the water column, and “where they are vertically (effects) where they go laterally.”
Their research also found that quahogs that spawn in Conditional Area A, an area that is periodically closed due to pollution, is an important source of larvae for the Providence River and a lot of the West Passage, with only 20 percent being lost from the system. Conditional Area B is a source for the West Passage, as is the spawner sanctuary, which researchers—as well as fishermen in the audience—agreed is an effective spot for the sanctuary in terms of the number of larvae it contributes to the system. Greenwich Bay seeds itself as well as a spot by Jamestown.
What was not considered by the project were other factors beyond circulation and behavior that would affect the number of larvae that reach the bottom and mature—factors such as predation by ctenophores (comb jellies) or menhaden, or whether crowding at spawning areas, such as the sanctuary, reduces the spawning capacity.
Mining Offshore for Future Coastal Restoration
Two years after Superstorm Sandy scoured Misquamicut Beach in 2012, the state trucked in 84,000 cubic yards of sand to restore the beach at a cost of $3.1 million in federal relief funds. If it happens again, or as lesser storms cause more gradual erosion, where will more sand come from? And at what cost?
Geologists John King (University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography) and Bryan Oakley, (Eastern Connecticut State University), discuss their collective research on available offshore sand resources, as well as the amount needed to sustain Rhode Island’s southern shore.
Recognizing that Rhode Island’s beaches are a major economic driver and that to maintain them will require further nourishment, the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council sought an assessment of offshore sand resources for their potential for future beach replenishment.
“The first step is figuring out what’s out there,” says Grover Fugate, executive director of the Coastal Resources Management Council, regarding offshore sand. “Then we move into the discussion phase about who gets impacted, what are the impacts, and should we be doing this?”
Perspectives of Aquaculture and the Impacts of Climate Change on Recreation in Coastal Salt Ponds
Dr. Tracey Dalton, professor of Marine Affairs at the University of Rhode Island, shared findings on what influences people to support or oppose aquaculture in Rhode Island waters. Her team’s findings will help to minimize conflict where possible and help guide aquaculture practices.
Emily Patrolia, a graduate student at the University of Rhode Island, has been working with Dr. Dalton to study the various uses of Rhode Island’s coastal salt ponds. She will be discussing the short- and long-term fluctuations in coastal recreation to help state managers and business owners better utilize resources and plan for the future.
Ship Graveyards & Uncovering Our Maritime Heritage
To date, 29 historic wooden-hulled vessels from the late-19th and early-20th centuries have been discovered off of East Providence’s Bold Point in Providence Harbor. Among the discarded vessels are the remains of Mount Hope and Bay Queen, two of Rhode Island’s most prominent 19th-century steamboats. In addition to the wrecks, the remains of the first floating dry-dock in Narragansett Bay, as well as pier pilings once used to support nearby marine railway operations, have also been identified.
“Cultural history doesn’t end at the water’s edge. Shipwrecks are not all there are to marine studies,” said Susan Langley, Susan Langley, Maryland state underwater archaeologist, discussing the parallels between Mallows Bay and noting that the National Register of Historic Places is considering adding the concept of “Maritime Cultural Landscape” as an additional category. “A shipyard is a perfect example in that there are wrecks, docks, in [Rhode Island’s] case a dry dock, marine railways, the pickling pond (brining pond), the actual yard itself…they are part of a maritime landscape too. We want to integrate land and shore/littoral and water and look at them as a cultural whole, and Providence is just the perfect … pilot project for this.”
David Robinson, a marine archaeologist at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography, discussed the historical and environmental values of 29 historic vessels discovered off Bold Point in Providence Harbor – including two iconic steamships, Mount Hope and Bay Queen and the implications for Providence Harbor.
Dr. Susan Langley, Maryland State Underwater Archaeologist, joined the discussion presenting work on the development of Mallows Bay, the largest ship graveyard in the nation and on the table to be listed as the next National Marine Sanctuary. She describes the history of these watercraft and how they ended up in Maryland, as well as how the site serves the area now, which may offer ideas about what could be for Rhode Island.
Coming to America: The biology of marine debris from the Japanese Tsunami
The Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami of March 11, 2011, ejected a vast debris field into the North Pacific Ocean that began drifting toward North America and Hawaii. This allowed, for the first time, to track and study how invasive species may be transported over long distances via rafting on debris.
Since 2012, over 400 objects including docks, vessels, and buoys with more than 330 living Japanese species have been intercepted from Alaska to California and Hawaii. Searches for new potential invasions from tsunamis have begun in the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii. More than 4 years after the tsunami, living Japanese species on tsunami debris continue to arrive.
Dr. James Carlton, world-renowned expert in aquatic invasive species and professor emeritus of marine science at Williams College and director emeritus of the Williams College Maritime Studies Program at Mystic Seaport, discussed marine life discovered on Japanese tsunami debris along the West Coast, potential bioinvasions from natural disasters, and current invasive issues along the New England coast.
+ Read More:
Species ‘rafting’ via marine debris
Impacts of Climate Change on Septic Systems
Jennifer Cooper, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Rhode Island, will discuss how increased surface temperatures, changing precipitation patterns and sea-level rise impact conventional septic systems and alternative technologies.
Cooper has been working Jose Amador, URI professor of natural resources and the team’s research leader, and George Loomis, a soil scientist and director of the New England Onsite Wastewater Training Center at URI, to look at current designs and parameters for septic systems against various climate-change scenarios. Cooper, more specifically, has been investigating two types of alternative systems more commonly used in Rhode Island, which both utilize a pressurized shallow narrow drain field (PSND) technologies that either applies an advanced treated wastewater using sand filtration or just the surface soil for treatment.
Guest speakers Jeremy Collie, a fisheries ecologist and professor of oceanography at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography, and Hirotsugu Uchida, an assistant professor of environmental and natural resource economics at URI, will discuss the status and trends of various fish stocks, an examination of whether certification of fisheries sustainability by an organization, such as the Marine Stewardship Council, affects the sustainability of a stock, and whether a certified product commands a premium price, as expected.
An Ounce of Prevention: Probiotics Hold Potential for Shellfish Disease
Deep lacerations scar the shells of lobsters. Entire populations of oysters die in less than 24 hours. These are the results of disease, potentially caused by bad bacteria. And although bacteria may be the cause, in it also lies the potential for a solution.
Can something as simple as a probiotic, the good bacteria, like the ones found in yogurt, help prevent, treat, or even cure these diseases?
Dr. David Rowley, associate professor of biomedical sciences and pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Rhode Island, has been studying the effects of probiotics — bacteria that promote disease-resistance — for reducing mortality rates in a larval oyster.
He will discuss his current work with probiotic applications in oyster hatcheries that could have implications for Rhode Island’s shellfish aquaculture industry.
Dr. Kathy Castro, a fisheries scientist specializing in lobster ecology at the University of Rhode Island and who runs the university’s Fisheries Center, has been studying the effects of lobster shell disease.
She will be discussing ongoing work testing Dr. Rowley’s probiotic hypothesis to fight lobster shell disease that is thought to be linked to a new bacterium found in local waters. If the disease expands as rapidly in Maine as it did in Rhode Island, it could also have a dramatic effect on the iconic Maine fishery.
The Role of Nitrogen in Ecosystem Functioning and the Impacts of Climate Change
The nitrogen cycle seems simple. As a gas, it’s the most abundant element in the atmosphere, but can quickly be turned into organic nitrogen, ammonium or nitrate through fixation done naturally in ecosystems by microbes, then used as fuel for plants to grow.
But there’s a catch.
“It’s a lie. A total lie,” Robinson “Wally” Fulweiler says of the readily accepted nitrogen cycle theory.
Robinson “Wally” Fulweiler, an ecosystems ecologist and biogeochemist at Boston University, will discuss her work with energy flow and biogeochemical cycling of nutrients – specifically nitrogen and its impacts on coastal marine ecosystems. Her recent focus has been on how climate change may influence the nitrogen cycle in estuarine and shelf systems, and how anthropogenic impacts alter coastal nutrient cycles.
Bethany Jenkins, associate professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography, will discuss her work in understanding how marine microbes are impacted by nitrogen cycling, and her DNA sequencing technique to characterize the assemblage of genes represented in a particular environment – with respect to nitrogen assimilation gene sequences.
“The Economics of Climate Change”
To any economist, things are typically broken down into “tradeoffs.” What will I give up and what will I get in return? At least that’s what Robert Johnston, an economics expert from Clark University, said at the Coastal State Discussion Series on February 25, 2014, sponsored by Rhode Island Sea Grant] at the University of Rhode Island’s Kingston campus.
Johnston discussed various ongoing research efforts to look more specifically at the tradeoffs of coastal management in New England communities, and the potential costs associated with climate change. He said we can’t think about hazard adaptation in a box and isolate it from all the other management tradeoffs, noting that some of the key tradeoffs will be related to coastal development regulations.