50 Ways We’ve Saved The Bay: Growing Community and Conversation with Eelgrass
By Lily Sylvester, communications intern, and Cindy Sabato, communications projects
The success of Save The Bay’s first 25 years, reclaiming waters from raw sewage and toxic waste, stirred us to wonder: could we now give an assist to the recovery of habitats that had been destroyed by that pollution? The resulting 10-year effort to restore critical eelgrass beds ignited the involvement of hundreds of community members in the betterment of our environment and elevated the long-term conversation about the need for continued water quality improvements in Narragansett Bay.
Historically, eelgrass beds were one of Narragansett Bay’s most vital habitats. A thriving population of shellfish and finfish, including the bay scallop, depend on eelgrass for food or shelter. By filtering excess nutrients from the water, eelgrass supports healthy, clean water. And, rooted in the sandy or muddy bottom of near-shore, shallow water, eelgrass beds help prevent flooding and erosion by stabilizing sediment and buffering wave action.
In the mid 1990s, teaming up with the University of Rhode Island, Narragansett Bay Estuary Program and Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, we mapped Narragansett Bay’s eelgrass beds and compared them to historical maps. Shocked by the results, we estimated that the Bay had lost 90 percent of its historic eelgrass beds over the last 200 years due to a range of human and natural causes. In the 1930s, eelgrass loss from disease and the 1938 hurricane decimated Rhode Island’s the once-thriving commercial scallop industry. In the following decades, water pollution from watershed development prevented the eelgrass from recovering. And without eelgrass several other commercially valuable species, including blue crabs, also dwindled. Eelgrass was worth saving.
For the next 10 years, Save The Bay led a determined and highly visible effort to restore Narragansett Bay’s eelgrass beds. In addition to numerous partners, hundreds of community members, SCUBA divers, and students across Rhode Island dove into what became an enthusiastic community effort. By the mid-2000s, it seemed as though all of Rhode Island had painstakingly helped us harvest healthy eelgrass from Newport and Jamestown and carefully transplant them to locations that had conditions that could support eelgrass—in Wickford Harbor, at Prudence and Hog islands, and offshore in Tiverton and Portsmouth.
Unfortunately, a 2010 assessment of all transplant sites proved disappointing. Just three sites—at Hog Island, Prudence Island, and Coggeshall Point—sustained eelgrass in the short term. By 2012, aerial photos showed eelgrass was no longer there.
Because eelgrass requires specific amounts of light since it is rooted on the bottom, its presence, or absence, is a strong indicator of water health. Researchers explored several reasons the transplanted eelgrass did not survive—winter ice, summer heat, wave action, water clarity and predation by spider crabs. They determined the most probable explanation poor water quality due to nutrient pollution causing algal blooms to block sunlight from reaching eelgrass rooted on the Bay floor.
Try, and Learn
Our hopes of hastening the return of Narragansett Bay’s eelgrass beds were not realized, but our efforts did not fail. Students at more than 20 schools throughout Rhode Island learned about and became directly involved in their local habitat. Dozens of community groups and a strong network of volunteers continue to work with us today on shoreline cleanups, salt marsh restoration, and stormwater and wastewater management. Conversations about water quality and Bay health reached the legislative level, as we made politicians and policymakers aware of the integral role a healthy Narragansett Bay plays in quality of life in the Ocean State.
These successes remain positive consequences amid an otherwise discouraging outcome. They established a body of knowledge and set the stage for the ongoing dialogue necessary to persevere in our efforts to reduce the amount of nutrients entering the Bay, upgrade wastewater treatment plants and septic systems, and eliminate cesspools, and improve stormwater management practices. If water quality continues to improve in the mid- and upper-Bay, perhaps in the future, we will yet see eelgrass thriving in areas of Narragansett Bay where it once flourished.