Friday, September 22, 2017

Microplastics in our Waters

Microplastics in our Waters | Riverkeeper Blog

By Rachel Calabro, Save The Bay Riverkeeper

Photo: http://www.bearder.eu/microplastics
Microplastics are bits of plastic debris that are less than 5 mm in size. They are prevalent in ocean waters and on beaches where they pose a risk to marine life. Microplastics can come from break-up of large plastic that ends up in the ocean, or they can be microbeads or pellets that are manufactured. Synthetic fibers that either wash into the ocean or come from ropes and nets are also counted. These synthetic fibers often come from our polyester fleece clothing and can enter the ocean through the waste stream. Plastic microbeads first started showing up in personal care products more than 50 years ago. Their use increased until 2015, when President Obama signed the Microbead-Free Waters Act. This act calls for the phase-out of microbeads in personal care products such as toothpaste and soaps.

According to an article in the Journal of Science, 8 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean each year. As this plastic breaks down over time, it adds to the prevalence of tiny bits of plastic that can be ingested by marine organisms. Studies are now being done on what this plastic does to animals in terms of feeding changes, reproduction and accumulation of toxins or as a vector for pathogens. Other studies are looking at how chemicals such as flame retardants leach out of plastics or how other chemicals stick to plastics. Different types of plastics react differently when they break down or when they are subjected to digestive juices in animals. Many animals tend to eat these particles because they are covered in algae. Studies are also being done to understand the types of algae that live on microplastics.

If fish are ingesting these particles, we are too. They even show up in sea salt made from evaporated ocean water. Save The Bay is interested in how much microplastic is in the waters of Narragansett Bay. In order to learn more, we are teaming up with Clean Water Action to trawl the Bay this summer to find out how much we can collect and where in the Bay it is found. We will take that information and share it with policymakers and the public to find ways to stop plastic from entering the Bay. You can make a difference by using less plastic and making sure that what you do use gets recycled.

Dammed Wildlife



The Kickemuit River Fish Ladder was built on the
Warren Reservoir 
to give migrating river
herring access to the pond.
By Rachel Calabro, Save The Bay Riverkeeper

Imagine you are a river fish. To thrive in your environment, you have a few requirements. Cool water with enough oxygen will keep you alert and active. Insects that wash downstream or emerge from the stream bottom will keep you fed. Sand and gravel in which to lay your eggs and plenty of places to hide from predators are also keys to survival. When rivers function properly, all these things are in place to support a wide diversity of fish and insects.

But when environmental stresses, such as low water levels or warm water, are present, fish need places to go for refuge. Just like on a hot sunny day you might seek the shade of a tree, fish seek out cold spots in deep pools and under bits of wood in the stream. Fish also need to find mates to increase their genetic diversity and species health. A healthy population of fish will be able to migrate up and downstream and into tributary streams to mix and mingle with others of their species and to find new habitat. These are all parts of a healthy stream ecosystem.


An historic photo of Pawtuxet Bridge and
falls before the dam was removed in 2011. 

Dams, culverts and other physical changes to a stream can cause harm not only to the species living there, but also to the quality of the water and habitat for other wildlife and surrounding ecosystems. Dams change the dynamics of a stream by slowing the water, allowing fine sediment to deposit rather than flow downstream, and changing both temperature and nutrients in the water. Warm water holds less oxygen. Gravels are covered over by fine silts and sands. In essence, a dam turns a river into a pond. Fish that thrive in ponds move in to the newly created habitat, cutting off the upstream habitat from the fish living in the river below. As a result, genetic diversity suffers, and less food comes downstream. The community of river fish changes as well.

Humans have caused many changes to our surrounding environment, but few of our changes to streams and rivers have had as much consequence as dams. Although beavers have made dams for thousands of years, altering the landscape in many ways, these dams are temporary and an important part of creating a constantly changing set of diverse wetland systems. Our wildlife adapt and thrive with these changes. Most of our man-made dams no longer serve their original purpose of providing power for mills. They have become icons of industrial and community heritage with lasting negative effects on river and stream ecosystems.


The Hopewell Mills dam was removed in 2012 to restore the
Mill River in Taunton, Massachusetts. Three dams on
this river are being removed.
Efforts to restore migrating fish populations with fish ladders have allowed us to leave the dams and preserve their legacy while trying to accommodate some lost river function. But these aging structures are becoming a hazard for our communities as they reach the end of their functional lives, threatening either to release years of sediment that has accumulated behind them or flooding downstream towns and structures when they fail.

Climate change is adding to the challenge of managing undersized and outdated dams. Unpredictability in our weather and increasing severity of both droughts and floods will require our ecosystems to be more resilient and our wildlife to be more adaptive. This means allowing for more migration, more chances to find refuge, and more diversity in habitat. Mammals and birds can migrate across the landscape and can move in response to shifts in temperature. Fish can migrate only as far as they can swim, and for many, that means as far as the next dam upstream. We are seeing major shifts in ocean fish related to changing ocean temperatures, so we expect populations of freshwater fish to change as well.


The Hopewell Mills dam was removed in 2012 to
restore the Mill River in Taunton, Massachusetts.
Three dams on this river are being removed.
Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, New England has a larger density of small dams than any other place in the country. More than 600 dams still stand in Rhode Island, more than 3,000 in Massachusetts, and more than 6,000 in Connecticut. Many of these dams are over 200 years old. Working with various local partners, as well as partners in state and federal government, Save The Bay supports dam removal projects that aim to create resilient streams with diverse habitats.

Dam removal has really gathered steam in Massachusetts, where more than 50 dams have been removed in the last 15 years. The Commonwealth has an entire Division of Ecological Restoration that works not only on dams, but on culverts, stream flow and wetland restoration. The state has made a concerted effort to support these projects through capitol authorizations and grant programs.

Rhode Island also has a small habitat restoration fund and supports river restoration projects through state bond referenda, but no dedicated program for riverine habitat restoration exists in state government. Here, local watershed councils and others must initiate fundraising and manage projects. Save The Bay has assisted on several dam removal projects in both Rhode Island and Massachusetts, providing technical, fundraising and outreach support. These projects require multiple partners, from the federal government to local volunteers, and take many years to complete.

Of the 496 animal species federally listed as threatened or endangered, nearly half are freshwater species that have found themselves living in small habitat “islands” due to the cumulative effects of dams, roads and development. This makes them extremely vulnerable to one-time events such as last year’s drought, which dried up small streams in the Taunton watershed and killed many localized populations of rare freshwater mussels.

Diadromous fish—those that migrate between fresh and salt water, like herring, shad, sturgeon, smelt and eels—have all suffered population declines to less than five percent of historic levels, and many rivers lost these species completely. In addition, only about five percent of historic brook trout populations remain and are extremely vulnerable to temperature stress. We have seen many gains in water quality in the last few decades, but we still must remain vigilant in the protection of our most vulnerable freshwater species. The Narragansett Bay watershed depends on us.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Rattlesnake Brook Dam Removed in Freetown

The Taunton River watershed is becoming more fish friendly as another dam is removed in an effort to increase habitat. The Rattlesnake Brook Dam, owned by the Fall River water department, was recently removed to help fish access habitats cut off for almost 200 years. The dam had partially failed and was unsafe in its former condition. Rattlesnake Brook is part of the Assonet River watershed, which drains into the Taunton River just north of Fall River. Assonet Bay has some of the healthiest salt marshes in the Narragansett Bay watershed and is home to threatened diamondback terrapins.

Dam removal is becoming commonplace in Massachusetts as a way to eliminate flooding risk and to restore free flowing rivers. This project is the 44th dam removal to take place in the state, and already the total has reached to over 50. Three more dam removal projects are planned for next year in the Taunton River watershed, and other dams are in study. The Taunton River was designated as a Wild & Scenic River in part because of its large and healthy fish run. The migratory river herring run is the largest in the state and will increase as other rivers are opened up for spawning. American eel, white perch and shad are also benefitting from these projects.

Save The Bay has been supporting these projects as a partner for many years. We provide outreach and community support to get projects started, and technical support as they move through design. Habitat restoration in the Taunton River watershed is one of our long term strategic goals. Rivers that are free flowing and connected are better able to support wildlife and are more resilient to changes in climate. We look forward to supporting more projects in the coming years.