Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Menhaden, Mossbunkers, Pogies, Bunker -- All Dead

I mentioned the other day that there had been bunker (or mossbunker) die-offs in a couple of places in the area this summer, including Narragansett Bay, but "a couple" is an understatement. John Torgan, the Narragansett Baykeeper, says on his blog that there were bunker kills ... ... in Providence, East Providence, Barrington, Wickford, Warren, Cranston, the Kickemuit River, and in Massachusetts' tributaries to Mount Hope Bay.
But why? Here's what he says:

Like the Greenwich Bay fish kill of 2003, warm temperatures, algae blooms and low oxygen combined to suffocate fish in the shallow and restricted coves of the upper and mid-Bay.

Unlike 2003, where an estimated million juvenile menhaden died along with millions of clams and a much smaller number of flounder,crabs and other fish, 2008's fish kills involve exclusively adult menhaden.

And while oxygen levels are low and temperatures are high right now in late August, they're not off the charts. Today I did a water quality survey in the Seekonk and Providence Rivers and Upper Bay and we found water temperatures in the high 60's to low 70's Fahrenheit, and oxygen levels near the lower limit of healthy but not anoxic. (See the data on Brown University Geo-Science's website here: )

This year, adult menhaden are much more abundant in the Bay than at any time in the last 30 years, and these die-offs may be an effect of that big population, in part. For every dead one we see, hundreds swirl in cooler deeper water a few yards away.

In my previous post I noted that there are historical records of bunker kills in the northeast -- specifically on Staten Island -- from the 1600s and the 1800s (and those are merely the ones I've come across). So does that mean they are a normal occurrence? Perhaps -- especially if you assume that the examples I cited were two among many that were either unrecorded or that I hadn't heard about. Here's what Torgan says:

Some suggest that this die-off phenomena is normal and natural, and that bluefish and other predators chase these fish into the coves where they become exhausted and succumb to the relatively warmer, more turbid and lower-oxygen water of the coves. Stress and oxygen starvation certainly appear to be part of the problem.

But maybe Jasper Danckaerts and Henry David Thoreau wrote down what they saw precisely because it was abnormal? Historically, perhaps, bunker kills were rare. That might mean that they happen more frequently now because something is adding to the natural stress. Here's what Torgan speculates:

But is it really normal and natural? Adult menhaden like these are strong swimmers- it would seem that they should be able to swim back out to cooler cleaner water. And it's a fact that many of these coves are seriously polluted with sewage and stormwater, and that this pollution contributes to the degraded conditions in which the fish are dying.

Sam Wells, a transplanted Long Island Sounder now living on a barrier beach in Texas, wrote to tell me this:

I don’t know if we’re talking the same fish ..., but down here they’re called menhaden or “pogies.” The travel in immense schools and have been used in farming for decades – and Lord do they stink to high heaven! I’ve attached a photo from Hurricane Ike [above] that shows a pogie kill, these ones thrown up on the shore about 15 miles inland near Orange, Texas. The must have came in on the surge waters. Ain’t that something?

Indeed, as Torgan notes, they're called pogies in Rhode Island too. We called them bunker when we used them as crab bait when I was a kid. Thanks for the photo, Sam. Glad to see you survived Ike.

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Monday, September 15, 2008

Bunker Kills

There have been a couple of bunker kills this summer that I missed out on reporting about, for whatever reason -- one in Narragansett Bay, another somewhere along Long Island Sound (I can't remember where). Here's a recent one, along the Branford River. These things are no doubt unpleasant but it's hard to attribute them to pollution, mainly because there are records of bunker kills occurring as long ago as the 1600s. Here's something I wrote a few years ago:

In 1679 a Dutchman visiting Staten Island reported:

“Lying rotting upon the shore were thousands of fish called marsbancken, which are about the size of a common carp. These fish swim close together in large schools, and are pursued so by other fish that they are forced upon the shore in order to avoid the mouths of their enemies, and when the water falls they are left there to die, food for the eagles and other birds of prey."

About 150 years later, Henry David Thoreau was living on Staten Island with William Emerson, Ralph Waldo’s brother. He spent a lot of time exploring the beaches and also observed a mossbunker or menhaden kill. (Thoreau and Walt Whitman, by the way, spelled it ‘moss bonkers.’)

I-95 in New Haven: Put It Underground

The interstate highway system is one of those monumental mistakes that, if it weren't so massive, we would look at it rationally and dismantle it. In my book I quoted Crabgrass Frontier by Kenneth Jackson, who quoted Lewis Mumford, who wrote in the mid 1950s, "When the American people, through the Congress, voted a little while ago for a $26 billion highway program, the most charitable thing to assume is that they hadn't the faintest notion of what they were doing."

There are many reasons why the interstate highway system is bad, but one of the most obvious is that the highways were built in bad places. I'm thinking now in particular of New Haven, where I-95 is an enormous barrier between where people live and work (that is, in the city of New Haven) and their beautiful harbor. This story, from the Register, talks about state and city plans to somehow improve the highway and the local roads. My solution: make a priority list that says this -- cars and trucks are not the most important thing in the world; they are destructive but, for the time being, useful; it would be better for everyone if people could easily get to the harbor and the shoreline. So put vehicles in their proper place. Tear down the highway, and tunnel 95 under the city.

Consider the Lobster

It's worth noting that David Foster Wallace, the young writer who died over the weekend, wrote that terrific piece for Gourmet magazine four years ago that looked into the question that must have occurred to anyone who has cooked a lobster himself -- namely, how must it feel to an animal to be cooked alive. I can't find the piece online any longer but it's the title essay of Wallace's book, Consider the Lobster and Other Essays.


Friday, September 12, 2008

Submarine Research

Tiny Goodwin College, in East Hartford, is using a two-person submarine to conduct water quality testing in Long Island Sound, from Groton to Stamford. The sub will bring back data on ...

... dissolved oxygen, turbidity, chlorophyll concentrations, temperature, blue-green algae concentrations (an indication of toxic bacteria) and salinity. It is hoped that the data will help determine sources of pollution entering the Sound from the state's rivers.

That's from this Hartford Courant column. Goodwin, by the way, doesn't even have an environmental studies program yet -- it's starting one in January. But the college's intentions sound good though:

Scheinberg [Good win's president] said the last time a similar study was done was in the 1970s.

"We are dealing with major issues out in the Sound," he said. "There's algae blooms, temperature gradients, lobster die-offs and problems with effluent. We are hoping to come back with great data to check the health of the rivers and how that in turn affects the health of the Sound."

Scheinberg said the college plans to share its findings with environmental agencies and groups monitoring Long Island Sound. The college is also hoping to conduct similar missions annually to provide a base for future analyses.

I assume that when he says the last time a similar study was done was the 1970s, he means a study of how rivers are affecting the Sound. The Connecticut DEP has been collecting the usual water quality data in the Sound itself for years.


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Fort Slocum's Final Remnant is Gone, But What Will Happen to Davids Island?

Although I wrote about Long Island Sound issues a lot in the late 1980s, when I was working as a reporter in New Rochelle, in some ways I think the best stuff I did was my coverage of a development proposed for Davids Island. A developer, with the very strong support of the New Rochelle city council, wanted to build 2,000 condos on the island, which is about 80 acres in size, and which until the early 1960s was the home of an army base called Fort Slocum.

My newspaper had always covered it uncritically, treating it as just another development of merely local interest. But when they assigned me to start covering the environment, I looked at it differently, as a project that would at the very least change the landscape in that part of the Sound and might well have bigger impacts in the Sound itself. My coverage coincided with a rise in opposition to the project in New Rochelle's south end and in neighboring villages. It's impossible to say what was more influential, and the truth is both fed on each other: skeptical newspaper coverage fed citizens to oppose the project, and informed, active citizens encouraged me to keep examining the issue. Eventually, in 1991, I think, that particular proposal died.

New Rochelle still owns Davids Island. Westchester County has offered to buy it for $6.5 million, to turn it into a park. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been dismantling and demolishing the remnants of Fort Slocum, including the 100-foot-tall water that was the island's most visible landmark.

The water tower finally came down yesterday, and the last structure to remain. The Journal News covered it and, time passing the way it does and memories being short, managed to not mention the development controversy which, looking back, was after all a short blip in time. But I agree with my friend Barbara Davis, the New Rochelle City Historian, who was among those in the late 1980s who did not want to see condos built on the island:

"There needs to be a great deal of public support," she said. "In the short term, what I hope is the great minds of Westchester will start thinking carefully about the future of the island for the best purposes of the public good. For it to be a viable ecosystem, it will take a tremendous amount of work."


Monday, September 08, 2008

Acting Locally: in Westport, It's 'Paper or Paper?' In Westchester, Lawn Fertilizer Restrictions May Be on the Way In.

Westport last week became the first community east of the Mississippi to ban merchants from offering plastic bags to customers (thanks to my friends at Citizens Campaign for the Environment for the heads up). (11:13 A.M. -- Note the correction in the comments section)

And Westchester County will hold a hearing today on a bill that would restrict on the use and sale of phosphorus fertilizers, to protect up-county reservoirs,, prevent all lawn fertilizer use from November through March, and start a county-sponsored public education campaign designed to reduce the use of nitrogen fertilizers, to protect Long Island Sound. If I learn why the law doesn't restrict the sale and use of fertilizers with nitrogen, I'll let you know.

Nitrogen, of course, is the key cause of the low dissolved oxygen problem that hits the western half of the Sound each summer. Essentially all of the Sound off Westchester County had dissolved oxygen concentrations near zero late last month, which means a big part of the Sound was essentially worthless as habitat, as usual. I say "as usual," although Save the Sound notes that this year was probably worse that usual (I'm linking to this story, here, -- where's the apostrophe in the headline? -- because Save the Sound's press release doesn't seem to be online. Wednesday update: it's online now, here).

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Saturday, September 06, 2008

Crabs and clams

To catch crabs in Chesapeake Bay, kids would tie one end of a long piece of string to a flip-flop and the other to a chicken wing, and let it drift out into the shoals. The chicken wing would sink a bit and the flip-flop would float visibly. When the flip-flop bobbed, it meant a crab was biting. The kids could then carefully scoop it up with a bucket.

We did it differently on the Jersey shore. We rented a rowboat from Chapman's, on the Manasquan River, and bought bunker -- heads, tails, and middles -- for bait. We tied the fish to one end of a string and tied the other end to a hook on the gunwhales of the boat. With two people in a rowboat -- my father and me -- we set out five or six lines. Every ten minutes or so we'd slowly raise the lines, hand over hand. If a crab was eating the bait, it would appear like a ghost out of the depths. When the crab and the bait were two or three feet below the surface, you took a long-handled scoop net and scooped down and then up from below. You had to keep your shadow out of the way and be quick and smooth to get under the crab without it noticing and dropping down to disappear.

Another method was to wait til the tide was moving -- I don't remember if it made a difference if it was rising or falling -- and glide the boat along the piiings at Chapman's marina or along the pilings and abutments of the bridges that crossed the Manasquan, looking for clingers. Crabs clung to the pilings, I think, to avoid getting carried along on the tide. You moved slowly and were quick with the net, scraping the net's metal ring against the piling and scooping up the crab.

The summer I was 12, we rented a bungalow for a week in a grove of pines in Brick Township, along the Metedeconck River -- the next river south of the Manasquan. The bungalow was not far from the beach on the Metedeconck that we had taken day-trips to for four or five years (or since the beaches on Staten Island were shut down because of pollution). We'd seine from the beach where we swam and with each haul we'd be amazed at all the life that was sharing the cove with us, including blue crabs. You learn quickly on a rowboat that when a crab gets loose, you have to grab it from behind, two or three fingers on the bottom, thumb on top, out of reach of the claws, and that's how we extracted them from the mass of kelp and sea lettuce and killies, my father and I, and my sisters and grandfather, who had been waiting on the beach, hurrying to get them into the bushel before they scuttled back into the water.

I bought a clam rake on Block Island this year. I've bought a non-resident clamming license each year there since 2004 and always dug for clams in the Great Salt Pond with my hands, bending down in the warm shallows and sending up clouds of sediment that attract tiny fish that swim through my fingers and around my ankles. There are egrets in the marsh, and plovers and sandpipers on the sandbars, and usually four or five other people digging for clams in the sharp, warm light of late afternoon. With the rake this year I could work waist-deep waters, pulling the tines through the sand and stones and watching, as the clouds below me cleared, for the ghost-like brightness of a clam to appear. I'm thinking now of buying a non-resident shellfishing license in Westport but am not sure if the clamming near shore is good enough, or if I'd drive over there often enough, to make it worth it.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Salps: Not in Long Island Sound Apparently

About salps in Long Island Sound, Mickey Weiss, the head of Project Oceanology, at Avery Point, told me:

There are no scientific reports of salps occurring in LIS according to my LIS data base (Weiss, 1995. Plants and animals of Long Island Sound: A documented checklist, bibliography and computer data base. Project Oceanology, Avery Pt., Groton, CT). However, these planktonic critters can be quite common in southern New England (i.e. Cape Cod) during the late summer months, sometimes carried there by the Gulf Stream.

Rick Damico, a marine biologist who used to work for the New York State DEC, told me:

In the past, I've seen them while diving off Block Island. I strongly suspect that they're more common offshore (at least around here). Remember, Block Island is offshore, with respect to LIS. Furthermore, I've never seen them in inshore plankton samples--again, my personal experience.

The Block Island Times published a story online yesterday about boat owners in the Great Salt Pond having problems with salps clogging their intake pipes , which you can read here (it's an interesting story but in general I consider a clogged air conditioning pipes on a pleasure boats to be one of life's problems I'm least sympathic towards).

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Power to the People in Stratford

Stratford residents will vote on Election Day on whether to sell the town's portion of Long Beach West to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. No matter which side you're on, you can't ask for more than that. Here's what the Connecticut Post reported
The referendum question — which will ask voters if the town should enter into an agreement with the nonprofit Trust For Public Land, which has acted as an intermediary, and would convey the property to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — will be placed on the ballot.

The question will also include language that the land be sold for a "minimum of $10 million, with a full public access easement reserved for Stratford residents in perpetuity."

And Bridgeport wants to do the same (which I learned from Chris Zurcher's environmental headlines).

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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Salps in the Surf

The shallows where we swim on Block Island, and the sandbars in the Great Salt Pond, where we clam, have been invaded by transparent, pellet-sized, glass-like animals called salps. We've vacationed on the island 10 times in the last 13 years and we've never seen them before, and people who have been going there for longer have never seen them before either. Swimming through them is like swimming through tapioca. On the sand, in the late afternoon sun, they shine like diamonds or cut glass or tiny mirrors. My guess is that they've been around before but not in such abundance. Swimmers think they're jellyfish or fish eggs. But salps are primitive vertebrates in the tunicate family (or so two marine biologists at the Block Island Maritime Institute told me). They have tiny hooks on each end and at times apparently latch on to each other and form long chains. Over the last two weeks they were unhooked, and the hooks sometimes give you a needle-like stick when you're swimming.

Some people at Soundwaters, by the way, found a seahorse in Long Island Sound a few days ago. Salps I had never heard of; seahorses I didn't realize were so unusual in this area.

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