Putting Eyes and Ears on the Water (Part One)

50 Ways We’ve Saved The Bay: Putting Eyes and Ears on the Water (Part One)

Mackensie duPont Crowley, communications specialist

Save The Bay’s Narragansett BayKeeper Is Coming, read a headline in the Spring 1993 Bay Bulletin. For 23 years, Save The Bay had made major steps in turning the tide on pollution as a political advocacy powerhouse and educational pillar in the community, with an established presence in the statehouse, in courtrooms, in classrooms and on the street. But, challenges were evolving, and new strategies had to be implemented.

Original Baykeeper Maria Libby poses by our first on-loan patrol boat with advocacy team member Topher Hamblett in 1993.

A plan to institute a Narragansett Baykeeper, a dynamic, on-the-water-presence dedicated to defending the environmental integrity of Narragansett Bay and its tributaries was developed. All Save The Bay had to do was fundraise to acquire a specially-equipped boat, computer hardware and software for documenting and mapping, an 800- number hotline for handling public reports, and staff. Easy enough, right?

Baykeeper John Torgan skims through debris in the upper Bay in the nineties.

A campaign fundraising goal of $470,00 was set to implement the Baykeeper program; halfway to the goal and with the loan of a Boston Whaler and outboard engine, our first Baykeeper, Maria Libby, took to the water in 1993. At the time, illegal discharge pipes were emptying untreated sewage into the Bay, construction work on local bridges was impacting Bay and human health, ships were illegally washing pollution into the Bay without being held liable, unauthorized shoreline development was destroying fragile ecosystems, and failing septic systems were poisoning shellfish beds. The Baykeeper had her work cut out for her.


The job of Save The Bay’s Baykeeper is to serve as the eyes and ears of Narragansett Bay. Whether on the water or along the shore, he or she works to observe, document, and report any environmentally harmful activity and serves as a deterrent to irresponsible action. The Baykeeper’s “watchdog” role routinely involves reviewing development proposals and ensuring that the rules and regulations in place to protect Narragansett Bay are maintained and enforced.

Baykeeper Tom Kutcher reports evidence of a fish kill from his patrol vessel in 2014.

Docked at the Bay Center in Providence, the Baykeeper vessel allows our Baykeeper to actively patrol every corner of Narragansett Bay and verify that permit conditions are upheld. You can routinely find our Baykeeper patrolling the Upper Bay, which suffers from a legacy of industrial pollution and other environmental issues. While some issues are resolved quickly, many require persistence and many years of advocacy. For more than 10 years throughout the mid-2000s, Baykeepers Tom Kutcher and Mike Jarbeau spent significant time monitoring and publicizing ongoing violations at Rhode Island Recycled Metals and other operations along Providence’s industrial waterfront. In these instances, it is the role of our Waterkeepers to pursue the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, Environmental Protection Agency, and United States Coast Guard to enforce the Clean Water Act and keep the press informed of the pollution.

The first patrol vessel owned by Save The Bay, M/V Narragansett Baykeeper.

Over the years, DEM enforcement capacity has been reduced due to staff and budget restrictions. As a result, Save The Bay has increased our watchdog activities. Just recently in 2017, current Baykeeper Mike Jarbeau spotted, reported and helped the DEM respond to an oil spill near Stillhouse Cove in Cranston. The physical presence of the Baykeeper on the water resulted in the identification of a spill that would have otherwise gone undetected, and led the correct agency to the site for cleanup. And, this is just one example of how the Baykeeper is able to help document issues, contact the appropriate authorities, and follow up to ensure action is taken.


While actively patrolling is a major part of the Baykeeper job, our Bay watershed is huge, making it impossible to be in all places at all times. Implemented in 1994, the 1-800-NARRBAY hotline has allowed community members to report incidents of pollution, illegal dumping, and spills of oil or hazardous materials in Narragansett Bay. Responding to tips from the hotline, our Baykeeper has often been the first on the scene to investigate such incidents. The first month of promoting the hotline in 1994, our Baykeeper responded to 11 incidents of pollution reported by community observers.

A flyer promoting the Baykeeper hotline

In early 1995, concerned Tiverton residents called the Baykeeper to investigate a controversial parking area on Fogland Point Beach. Our third Baykeeper, John Torgan, who held the role for 18 years, investigated the site before testifying at Town Council hearings, leading to a new plan to protect the habitat. Later, in October 1995, a hotline call was received informing the Baykeeper of hundreds of sacks with chemical warning labels containing computer parts littered along the shore at Allens Avenue. An investigation by Baykeeper Torgan led Save The Bay to alert the DEM and EPA, sparking a cleanup of the site.

But it was Save The Bay’s response to the North Cape Oil Spill of 1996, the first major oil spill in the United States since the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 passed, that propelled the Baykeeper role into what it is today. When the oil barge North Cape grounded on the rocks off Moonstone Beach, 828,000 gallons of heating oil spilled into 250 square miles of ocean, and spread into nearby estuaries and inlets. After receiving a tipoff on his pager, Baykeeper Torgan responded to the scene, and represented Save The Bay as the official volunteer coordinator within the state.

Baykeeper John Torgan on the scene of the North Cape oil spill in 1996.

While many state and federal agencies took on their respective duties during the spill, Save The Bay’s office was transformed into an oil spill communications center, where staff collected names of volunteers to train in wildlife rescue and damage assessment. John appeared on local news broadcasts and appealed to the public for help, eliciting an overwhelming response of more than 5,000 volunteers. In the midst of crisis, our Baykeeper spent his time giving on-the-ground analysis at the beach, where 12 million lobsters and 300 seabirds perished, and debating next steps at the Save The Bay office.

In the following months and years, Save The Bay participated in legal and legislative proceedings to protect Rhode Island’s waters from future spills. Baykeeper Torgan represented the region’s environmental groups on a new task force that would set rules and safety procedures to be implemented by the Coast Guard. Save The Bay was also written into the Rhode Island and Southeastern Massachusetts Area Contingency Plan for future spills. Overall, the North Cape Oil Spill was a perfect example of the critical and unique role that our Baykeeper could play in incident response, managing the public, and working with various agencies and groups to make political change. 

Eyes on the Bay, current Baykeeper Mike Jarbeau on-vessel with an intern in 2018.

The Waterkeepers still rely heavily on tips from the community, which has allowed them to be on the scene of major historical incidents within our watershed, including the 2000 Penn 460 Oil Spill, the 2003 fish kill in Greenwich Bay, and other similar incidents in the time since. It is imperative that members of the community continue to keep their eyes, ears, and noses poised for anything that might be a hazard.  If someone has an incident to report, and either doesn’t know who to call or isn’t getting any traction at a state agency, Save The Bay can use our knowledge and resources to pressure a state or town to do right by their own environmental laws. 

Stay tuned for Parts Two and Three of the history of Save The Bay’s Waterkeeper program!

Also, check out our post on the Waterkeeper Alliance, our partner in clean water!