TESTIMONY OF H. CURTIS SPALDING,
EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF SAVE THE BAY, INC. OF PROVIDENCE, RHODE ISLAND
TO THE SENATE COMMITTEE ON ENVIRONMENT AND PUBLIC WORKS
WASHINGTON, D.C. JULY 9, 1998

On behalf of Save The Bay's 20,000 members, I would like to thank Senator Chafee and the Committee for this opportunity to present testimony in support of S. 1222, the Estuary Habitat Restoration Partnership Act. Save The Bay is a member-supported nonprofit organization. Our mission is to restore and protect Narragansett Bay and its watershed.

Five years ago, over 20 nonprofit organizations met to discuss the future challenges for our nation's estuaries and to set a course of action to meet those challenges. Many of our coastal areas were beginning to reap the benefits of the Clean Water Act. In Narragansett Bay, harbor seals and oysters were starting to return after decades of absence due to polluted water. Despite similar limited recoveries in many of our nation's estuaries, we shared a deep concern that many species of fish, birds and other animals were not recovering as we had expected. Also troubling, some coastal areas not previously affected by water pollution were now in serious decline.

After months of inquiry and discussion, we saw that the problem with the health of our estuaries was no longer grossly polluted water, but the ongoing loss of habitat for fish, birds, shellfish and plants along our shorelines and in our watersheds. Thus in late 1994, Restore America's Estuaries was formed. It is a current partnership of 11 nonprofit organizations from Seattle to Galveston to the Gulf of Maine. Over the past four years, each organization has identified and targeted the habitat resources in its own estuary and coastal environment that are threatened and in need of restoration. Restore America's Estuaries has pledged collectively to restore one million acres of habitat to our nation's estuaries by the year 2010.

How the Estuary Habitat Restoration Partnership Act Will Restore America's Estuaries

An important word in the title of this legislation is "partnership". It is a lesson we have learned well in Narragansett Bay communities. Over the past three years we have provided technical assistance to many neighborhood associations, conservation commissions, golf course managers and land trusts to help them restore their local salt marshes or eelgrass beds, which are Narragansett Bay's most threatened habitat resources. People care so much that they are volunteering their time and energy to restore these areas. Save The Bay trained these volunteers to research the Bay's salt marshes. Local community groups have adopted local salt marshes and eelgrass beds. We connected them with the other groups and agencies that could help them accomplish their restoration goals. We have helped these groups get things done by educating them about coastal restoration and helping them apply for and win funding from existing government grant programs. The measure of our success, although in its beginning stages, is our willingness to be a true partner with these local activists. These are not "Save The Bay" habitat restoration projects, they belong to the community.

The one barrier to greater success is the lack of a coordinated and unified program at the federal level to help facilitate and fund community based restoration projects. And there are limited resources on all levels of government. In Portsmouth, Rhode Island, a neighborhood association struggled for five years through a maze of regulation, amassing funds from several government and private programs and overcoming government inertia to help restore five acres of salt marsh. A similar restoration effort in Narragansett took eight years. Unfortunately, the current agency structures do not encourage habitat restoration and in fact are an active deterrent. The only encouraging point on local restoration projects in Rhode Island is that these efforts have been rewarded. Rarely seen wildlife and healthy coastal and estuarine habitats are returning to Rhode Island's coastline. But the struggle to design, fund and coordinate these projects is too long and too costly for most volunteer organizations and community groups to sustain.

The Estuary Habitat Restoration Partnership Act can change this situation by making effective use of limited resources. The bill will help coordinate many overlapping plans and programs and bring down the barriers to habitat restoration. The bill places a strong emphasis on moving on-the-ground restoration projects forward quickly, as opposed to funding more plans and studies that tend to be collect dust in government libraries.

The Situation in Narragansett Bay

Why do we need this bill to become law as soon as possible? Because the foundation of life in Narragansett Bay is in critical condition. The Bay's natural systems its eelgrass beds, salt marshes and fish runs which allow it to function healthfully, are severely damaged or disappearing. For example, we have only about 100 acres of eelgrass left in the Bay, which once supported thousands of acres. Eelgrass prevents shoreline erosion, filters pollution, and provides clear water, food, shelter, nurseries and breeding grounds to shellfish, juvenile lobsters, and young fish. About half of our salt marshes have been lost. What we have left is degraded and getting worse. Salt marshes are nurseries for many species, help prevent erosion and filter toxins from our water. Flounder, striped bass, mussels, scallops, fiddler crabs and scores of birds rely on salt marshes for some or all of their lives. We have only 15 functioning fish runs left in Rhode Island. To survive, many fish must be able to get to fresh water to spawn. One of our Bay's greatest fisheries the Atlantic salmon now can only be read about in books, due to the destruction of their fish runs. We must turn the tide soon, and begin to repair decades of damage and neglect or it may be too late.

Narragansett Bay is not just a place where the fresh water of the rivers meets the salt water of the ocean. It is a place that shelters and nurtures a complex web of life. From the smallest creatures living in its mud to the seals that migrate here for the winter, the Bay is home to hundreds of species. Plants and animals including humans depend on each other and form what we call the "web of life" in Narragansett Bay.

We can compare Narragansett Bay to the human body. The decline in our eelgrass, salt marshes and fish runs are warning signs, not so different from changes in a person's vital signs. We would not ignore a loved one's complaint of chest pains, shortness of breath or numbness in their arms and legs because these are signs of a potentially deadly heart attack or damaging stroke. Likewise, we cannot ignore the Bay's symptoms. If eelgrass, salt marshes and fish runs continue to decline and disappear, the Bay will be little more than an empty body of water. The Bay life that depends on these areas the lobster, shellfish, birds, fish and plants will disappear. Necessarily, many people who make their livelihoods off the Bay will have to find other work. This is not the kind of Bay we want or should leave for our children.

Crashing Fish Stocks

The most evident sign that the Bay's web of life is unraveling is the near collapse of many Narragansett Bay fisheries in the past twenty years. Many fish populations are in decline despite improvements made to control toxins and water pollution. Despite stricter management of commercial fishing, fish populations have not recovered.

Although much of the decline in Bay fisheries can be attributed to over-fishing, the loss of eelgrass beds and salt marshes is preventing any significant recovery of fish stocks. Eelgrass beds critical to thriving Bay fisheries have dwindled to only 100 acres remaining in Narragansett Bay. A 1988 report by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) estimated that between 1965 and 1982, Rhode Island lost over 850 acres of coastal salt marshes about 20 percent of the marsh we had in 1965. We are now feeling the pain of ongoing habitat loss.

Save The Bay has focused our attention on three critical habitats in Narragansett Bay which are most in jeopardy underwater eelgrass, salt marshes and fish runs. Restoring these critical habitats is essential if we are to sustain the myriad of Bay creatures that depend on them.

Eelgrass Beds A Flagship for Life in Our Bay

Eelgrass is:

-- an underwater marine plant;
-- a primary source of food for hundreds of Bay plants and animals;
-- a critical nursery and shelter for shellfish and finfish;
-- a supplier of clear water; and,
-- a guard against shoreline erosion by dampening waves and currents.

(Batiuk et al 1992, Thayer et al 1975, Short and Short 1984).

Eelgrass, one of 50 kinds of seagrass, is a marine plant that lives completely underwater. Eelgrass is one of the most diverse and productive underwater habitats found in the United States and Europe. Eelgrass can form large meadows or small separate beds, which range in size from many acres to just a yard across (Burkholder and Doheny, 1968). The largest remaining meadow in Narragansett Bay borders the eastern shore of Jamestown and covers about 25 acres. Found in depths from 3 feet to 20 feet, eelgrass growth and survival is dependent on clear water and strong sunlight.

Eighty species of worms, mollusks, crustaceans, echinoderms, fishes, reptiles, and birds depend on eelgrass as a food source (McRoy and Helfferich 1980; Thayer et al. 1984). This list of dependent species includes economically important finfish and shellfish species such as summer and winter flounder, weakfish, blue crabs, rainbow smelt, bay scallops, blue mussels and spotted seatrout. Research has demonstrated that eelgrass provides higher survival rates for juvenile American lobster than rock or mud habitat types (Barshaw and Bryant-Rich 1988).

Eelgrass loss can have devastating consequences. Eelgrass decline led to the extinction of the eelgrass limpet (a type of snail) in the 1930's, one of the few marine species extinction known in this century. Our disappearing eelgrass has been a primary cause of the collapse of brant geese populations in the Bay. Brant geese depend on eelgrass as a primary food source.

Eelgrass loss also has dire economic consequences. The loss of eelgrass in Narragansett Bay led to the collapse of the bay scallop fishery in Rhode Island. The bay scallop fishery has been nonexistent in Rhode Island since 1957, primarily due to the loss of eelgrass beds. The bay scallop needs eelgrass as a settling area and as a refuge for mature scallops (Pohle et al. 1991). There is a neighborhood in Warwick along Greenwich Bay that used to be known as "Scalloptown" because so many scallop fishermen lived and worked there. Greenwich Bay and other northern locations in Narragansett Bay once supported hundreds of acres of eelgrass and healthy bay scallop populations. Eelgrass restoration in Narragansett Bay could contribute to the revival of the once thriving commercial bay scallop fishery. Eelgrass restoration can also help rebuild other commercially important fisheries. More than 20 types of commercially valuable fish feed in the eelgrass beds of Narragansett Bay at some point in their lives including winter and summer flounder, lobsters and tautog.

Restoration is possible. Efforts to re-establish eelgrass have taken place over the last three decades. The National Marine Fisheries Service believes Narragansett Bay has a high potential for eelgrass restoration, based on its historical distribution and a concentration of scientific and academic resources in the region (Fonseca, et al, NMFS, 1994). Active restoration through transplanting began in Narragansett Bay in 1994. Both the National Marine Fisheries Service and the University of Rhode Island have identified and transplanted eelgrass in sixteen separate sites in the Bay. While these efforts have had limited success due to a variety of factors including predators grazing the transplanted stock, storm damage and the relative low density of transplanted eelgrass, research and experiments with improved methods of restoration should continue.

Although poor water clarity poses the greatest problem for eelgrass restoration, we can take steps to correct this problem. The eelgrass beds which remain in the Bay offer hope that areas of the Bay may be able to host transplants. But, taking no action is not acceptable. The clear water that is necessary for restoration is also critical to saving the eelgrass remnants still clinging to Narragansett Bay. Ultimately, we must improve the conditions for eelgrass immediately if we are to save this vital thread in the Bay's web of life.

Salt Marshes A Place of Bountiful Plants & Creatures

A salt marsh is:

-- a nursery and spawning ground for two-thirds of the United States' major commercial fish;
-- the largest producer of basic food per acre anywhere on earth;
-- a nursery for 63 species of fish in Narragansett Bay; and,
-- a shoreline stabilizer and shield against coastal storms.

(Lieth, 1975; Teal & Teal, 1969; McHugh, 1966; Dept. of Interior, 1989; Knudson et al, 1982)

Salt marshes provide enormous economic and environmental benefits. Approximately two-thirds of the United States' major commercial fish depend on estuaries and salt marshes for nursery or spawning grounds (McHugh 1966). Among the more familiar salt marsh-dependent fishes are menhaden, bluefish, flounder, sea trout, mullet, croaker, striped bass and drum. At least 63 fish species use Narragansett Bay as a nursery, with the highest use in the fall (Department of the Interior, 1989). Salt marshes are also important for shellfish including bay scallops, soft-shell clams, grass shrimp, blue crabs, oysters, quahogs and other clams. Blue crabs and grass shrimp are especially abundant in the tidal creeks that feed salt marshes. Salt marshes produce more basic food energy per acre than any other known ecosystem including tropical rainforests, freshwater wetlands or agriculture fields (Lieth, 1975 and Teal & Teal, 1969).

Salt marshes protect private property by shielding coastal shorelines from storms and by dampening the power of waves, which stabilizes the shoreline (Knudson, et al. 1982). While most wetland plants require calm or sheltered waters, established salt marsh grasses are effective against erosion (Kaldec & Wentz, 1974; Garbisch, 1977).

Restoration of salt marshes may help protect our health as well. Rhode Island is home to 42 different mosquito species. The salt marsh mosquito, along with three other species, is known to carry the Eastern Equine Encephalitis virus and transmit it to humans, horses and other mammals. Large populations of these mosquitoes can present an increased health threat to humans. To breed and develop, mosquitoes need standing water. In the 1930's ditches were dug through many of Rhode Island's salt marshes in a vain attempt to eliminate standing water on the marshes. Not only did the ditches fill in with debris creating larger mosquito breeding areas, but also restricted nature's best mosquito control larvae eating minnows and other fish from reaching the mosquito breeding grounds. Ditching, in most cases, created a larger problem than previously existed. Old mosquito ditches are affecting most of the Bay's salt marshes. Restoration is necessary to remove the ditches and help nature control mosquito populations and the Eastern Equine Encephalitis virus.

Despite all of these important benefits, we recruited over 80 volunteers to survey the health of Rhode Island's remaining salt marshes. Their findings are alarming and demonstrate the existing threats to Rhode Island's salt marshes. Seventy percent of the Bay's remaining salt marshes are affected by restrictions to the daily ebb and flow of tides, reducing their ability to support Bay fisheries. Over 60 percent of the salt marshes show signs of dumping or filling. Mosquito ditches drain over 50 percent of the marshes. About 1,200 of the 3,800 remaining acres of Bay salt marshes are impacted by invasive plant species such as the tall common reed, phragmites. Phragmites can grow to over 10 feet tall, block shoreline vistas and pose a fire hazard when they die in the winter and early spring leaving dry plant material close to coastal homes. Nearly thirty percent of our remaining salt marshes have no protection from polluted runoff from lawns, golf courses and parking lots. About 58 percent of Narragansett Bay marshes suffer from the polluted discharges of storm drains.

Restoration is feasible and the only way to bring back the marshes. Successful salt marsh restoration efforts have occurred in many New England states including Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut. In Massachusetts, salt marshes north of Boston have been restored through an innovative mosquito control program called "Open Marsh Water Management." This technique involves re-creating the natural water conditions in the marsh thus allowing mosquito-eating minnows to survive in tidal pools and creeks. Connecticut has reopened many Long Island Sound marshes to the normal ebb and flow of tides halting the growth of invasive phragmites in the process. Locally, Rhode Island began restoring the marshes at the Galilee Bird Sanctuary by scraping off old dredge spoils, opening culverts, and recreating tidal creeks. A community-sponsored marsh restoration was recently completed at Common Fence Point in Portsmouth. The project involved removing dredge spoils and re-grading a five-acre area of phragmites to allow salt marsh grasses to re-colonize the area. Since the completion of the project in the fall of 1997, plants and animals are beginning to return to the area. Many community groups throughout Rhode Island want to restore salt marshes, but lack the necessary funding and technical support.

Fish Runs A Legacy of Vanishing Abundance

A fish run is:

-- a freshwater river or stream that runs directly to the Bay;
-- the place where native herring, salmon, smelts and shad return each spring to spawn; and,
-- the spawning grounds for herring stocks that are an important food source for striped bass, bluefish, herons, otter and osprey.

(RIDEM, 1996; Desbonnet & Lee, 1991)

River herring, Atlantic salmon, rainbow smelt, sturgeon and American shad depend on fish runs for survival. These are saltwater fish that are hatched in freshwater, but mature and spend most of their lives in the Bay or the ocean. These fish must return to the freshwater rivers and streams where they were born in order to spawn. Narragansett Bay previously supported commercially valuable Atlantic salmon and alewife (river herring) fisheries. River herring are a primary food source for striped bass whose continued recovery is dependent on increasing sources of food. The Atlantic salmon fishery was short lived in Narragansett Bay after the industrial revolution began harnessing the power of the Blackstone, Ten Mile and Pawtuxet Rivers. The salmon were effectively blocked from returning to the waters of their birth. The Blackstone and Pawtuxet each ended up with one power producing dam for every mile of river by the middle of the 19th century. The Atlantic salmon was eliminated from its Bay spawning runs by 1869 (Goode, 1887).

The commercial herring fishery depended on Rhode Island fish runs. As with the Atlantic salmon, the herring fishery declined, but managed to linger much longer. Herring do not need the same type of river conditions as salmon. They attempted to adapt to other rivers and streams that were not dammed in the southern areas of the Bay. Commercial harvesting was forced to a halt in Narragansett Bay by 1930 because of declining fish stocks. A few areas still support small runs of river herring including Gilbert Stuart Brook in North Kingstown and the Annaquatucket River in North Kingstown. The largest and healthiest herring and shad run in Narragansett Bay is on the Nemasket River in Massachusetts a tributary of the Taunton River where over one million fish came to spawn in 1996 (pers. comm, P. Brady).

But many fish runs remain obstructed. In Rhode Island and Massachusetts combined, there are 27 rivers that could be spawning grounds for herring, shad and Atlantic salmon. Only two of these river systems were never harnessed for water power or water supply and host small native runs of herring. Ten more rivers have fishways any structure that allows fish to swim over dams, including fish ladders to help herring and shad pass over dams and swim to spawning areas. But 15 are still closed to spring fish runs of herring, shad and salmon. Among these 15 rivers are three of the top five freshwater tributaries of Narragansett Bay the Blackstone, Pawtuxet and Ten Mile rivers.

There are a number of steps we can take to restore our fish runs. We can remove unnecessary dams and build fish ladders over dams that must remain. We also can restore streams and improve water quality to make these rivers and streams once again hospitable to fish runs.

What this Crisis Means to Rhode Islanders

On September 22, 1997 Senator Chafee came to a small boat yard in Narragansett Bay to announce the introduction of the Estuary Habitat Restoration Partnership Act (S.1222). This legislation is a vital component in our efforts to bring back healthy conditions not only in Narragansett Bay but in Chesapeake Bay, Long Island Sound, Puget Sound and many of the other vital estuaries of the United States. At that press conference Senator Chafee said, "Narragansett Bay is good for the soul." No truer words had ever been spoken about the meaning of Narragansett Bay to all Rhode Islanders.

Narragansett Bay is our home. Even if we live miles from its shores, it is part of what makes Rhode Island special. The Bay is our lifeline it nourishes our environment, strengthens our economy, enhances our leisure time and protects our children's futures. We need to care for the Bay and invest today in its health and very survival. This investment will help ensure a secure future for Rhode Island.

Narragansett Bay is an engine for Rhode Island's economy. It is estimated that Narragansett Bay generates $2.4 billion in annual revenue from marine and Bay related activities (estimates, Rorholm and Farrell, 1994). Commercial fishing and the tourism industry are major contributors to our state economy. Restoration is a small investment to keep this economic engine running.

Commercial fishing is estimated to generate $42 million dollars for the Rhode Island economy each year. For many communities, the harvesting of quahog, fish and shellfish is central to a healthy local economy. The fishing industry understands the importance of balancing the needs of industry with ecological concerns. Fishermen realize the need to restore Narragansett Bay to give the fish and shellfish they harvest an ability to replenish and thrive. Without restoration, the fishing industry's future in Rhode Island is uncertain.

No one understands this more than Paul Bettencourt and Don Dawson of Pawtcuket, RI. Like two gruff midwives, these graying fishermen assist in the final leg of an otherwise impossible spawning journey by dipping a long-handled scoop net beneath the foam and magically lifting a half dozen squirming, blueback herring above the roaring mouth of the Ten Mile River. They help the herring upstream into Omega Pond beyond the salt waters of the Bay a task these fish have been unable to accomplish themselves for many generations. They do this because they have witnessed the consequences of disappearing fish runs firsthand. As a young man, Paul Bettencourt made a living harvesting herring for bait for other fishers angling for striped bass, lobsters and blue fish. Paul now refers to himself as a living "dinosaur".

But restoration means much more than helping fishermen. In 1993, for the first time in Rhode Island's history, the travel and tourism industry surpassed manufacturing to become the state's second largest industry. In 1997, tourism brought in over $2 billion to the state. Narragansett Bay is key to that industry. People come to Rhode Island from all over the world to enjoy the beauty and splendor of Narragansett Bay. Whether sailing Bay waters or fishing for striped bass this resource is an enormous treasure for residents and visitors alike. An increasingly unhealthy Bay will lose its appeal.

Narragansett Bay is part of our lives. Tony Giardino knows this. Born just south of Naples, Italy, Tony came to Rhode Island in 1927. Fishing trips with his dad at Narragansett Pier sparked a lifelong passion for the sport and the Bay. Tony's Barbershop, a fixture on Providence's Hope Street for the last fifty years, is a great place for a haircut and stories about the big ones that did not get away including his 58- pound striper. When Tony learned to fish, flounder was almost always the fish of choice they were plentiful and did not put up much of a fight, once hooked. But the Rhode Island tradition of teaching kids to fish by catching flounder is fading fast and, without adequate restoration measures, may soon be gone forever. Tony taught his kids to fish by first catching flounder but says now it is "pretty much a waste of time" to take his grandchildren in search of flounder. "They're just not out there anymore," says Tony. "I am worried that the flounder are disappearing and I think it is a shame that I cannot teach my thirteen grandkids to fish for flounder."

Narragansett Bay is as important to our future as it has been to our past. We can leave our children a Bay that gives them the pleasure of discovering the wonders of a summer beach by collecting seashells and tasting fresh baked clams and scallops. We can pass on the opportunity to swim in the Bay's waters or hear the rustle of reeds in the salt marsh. We can afford them the thrill of landing their first mighty bluefish. We can guarantee them the joy of seeing a heron fishing in a salt marsh or saluting the rising moon. We can allow them to see a quahogger working a rake. All of these opportunities are part of our Rhode Island and national heritage, part of our past and present. These opportunities can be a part of our future if we make a commitment to restore Narragansett Bay and all of the other nation's estuaries great and small.

Make no mistake. Narragansett Bay and most of our nation's estuaries are in crisis. Rhode Island and many other regions have only a limited time to take action and resolve this crisis. If we do not restore America's estuaries soon, many fish, plant, and bird species may become extinct in this country. With this disappearance, the United States will lose many jobs that depend on these species and our quality of life will plummet.

In conclusion, Save The Bay applauds the leadership of Senator Chafee on this critical issue. The need is so great and the situation so precarious that to delay at this point would certainly mean greater losses for our coastal environment, our economy and our quality of life. Twenty-six colleagues of Senator Chafee, from both sides of the aisle, also understand this grave situation and have signed on as co-sponsors. If we truly want to restore our nation's fisheries, preserve our coastal heritage and improve our economy we must give our federal government agencies the opportunity to actually help with this task. Not just with more funding but with tools to break down the barriers of bureaucracy and to build partnerships with local community efforts.