Fish Captured in Weekly Trawls Document Warming of Narragansett Bay


University of Rhode Island fish-trawl records date back to 1959. The animals are released after being identified, measured, and weighed. (Nina Santos/URI)

On a normal Monday morning, University of Rhode Island graduate student Nina Santos would head to the Wickford Shipyard in North Kingstown, R.I., pull on some waterproof gear, and board the Cap’n Bert.

“My dad was a fisherman, so I grew up around fishing and boats but I had never been out on the water on a fishing boat before,” she said. “I had been on my dad’s fishing boat when it came to port but never out on the water, so now I feel like I’m getting to experience what he did for a living.”

Santos and the boat’s captain, Stephen Barber, would normally set sail around 8:15 a.m., measuring the water temperature, oxygen, and salinity levels, and then casting a net out at various checkpoints. They would pull up the net after 30 minutes of cruising at 2 knots, then identify, group, measure, and weigh the fish they caught before tossing them back. This would continue for about 4 hours, before Barber would turn the Cap’n Bert around at Whale Rock and slip back into the Wickford Shipyard around 12:15 p.m.

But the past month or so of Mondays have been anything but normal. The coronavirus hasn’t only shuttered universities around the world, it’s also shuttered much of researchers’ field work, and for Santos, that means a gap in URI fish-trawl records dating back to 1959.

“It’s kind of sad to have this big data gap in the trawl survey but it’s not the first time it’s happened,” Santos said. “So, I don’t think it will change too much, but it is a little bit sad because now is when we would actually see things moving back into the bay.”

Before the coronavirus derailed the weekly trawl, Santos was continuing a 61-year legacy of scooping fish out of Narragansett Bay to paint a picture of its inhabitants.

The story of the fish trawl starts, appropriately, with a couple by the name of Fish.

Charles Fish and his wife, Marie, were longtime members of the marine biology community with a long list of accomplishments: Marie collected and studied fish and marine sounds; Charles was a pioneer in the study of zooplankton. In 1925, the couple were a part of an expedition to study the Sargasso Sea led by naturalist and explorer William Beebe.

But their lasting legacy lies in the creation of the Narragansett Marine Laboratory, which opened 72 years ago, as a part of the School of Arts and Sciences at Rhode Island State College — what would become URI — and in a fish trawl that has collected an astounding amount of data.

“The goal was to measure the seasonal occurrences and abundance of fish in the bay,” said Jeremy Collie, a professor of oceanography at URI who runs the program today. “Part of it was to catch the fish that were in the bay from week to week and actually be able to identify them, and perhaps link that with the soundscape that Marie Fish was hearing.”

Collie took the helm of the program in 1998, after H. Perry Jeffries retired. Jeffries was one of Fish’s original assistants, who took over the program in 1966 after Fish retired.

“Jeffries was one of the first assistants, and when he got the job here as a professor, he decided he would keep the program going. It was really Perry who started looking at the longer-term trends of the fish populations,” Collie said. “When he retired, I took over and the longer we keep going, the more interesting it becomes. It’s a very rich data center.”

While the program has noticed changes in local marine populations, including a shift from fin fish species to more invertebrates such as crabs and lobsters, one of the biggest differences over time has been the introduction of many more warm-water species.

“Since the year 2000, it’s become more and more obvious that it’s the changing climate that is affecting fish populations,” Collie said. “The community is shifting because the cold-water species are less abundant than the warm-water species, which are way more abundant. That’s the big signal that we are measuring.”

Santos has noticed this shift, especially during her wintertime trawls.

“We’re not really catching much right now; it’s surprising how little we do catch. There’s such a disparity between the winter catch and the summer catch, and I think that part of that is the shift that Narragansett Bay has had towards warm-water species,” she said. “There’s not really anything left once winter hits; all the species that would have been here in the winter in the cold waters are not around anymore. They’ve moved north.”

Some flashy examples of warm-water visitors include orange tilefish, sand tiger sharks, and an errant sailfish. There also are two warm-water residents of Narragansett Bay that are so common you might think they were native species: striped searobin and scup.

“We’ve been studying the striped searobin in particular because we’re interested in the impact they have on the fish community,” Collie said. “Searobins kind of swim around on the bottom, vacuuming up everything that’s in their path, and so we’re trying to estimate their impact on the community, on the invertebrates and the fish they may be eating. So, it’s not only that these species are changing in abundance and increasing, they are also having an effect on the food web.”

As for scup, there is a healthy population of the fish also known as porgy in Rhode Island waters. In 2017, the state landed more than 6 million pounds of the bony fish.

For Collie, the reason for its abundance lies in the warming of Narragansett Bay.

“The easy answer to why there are so many is that they’re a warm-water species, and the water is getting warmer so there are more of them,” he said. “The scup population as a whole, coast-wide, is in good shape. There’s a healthy scup population out there.”

As the bay has warmed, with the surface temperature on Jan. 25, 1959 registering 33 degrees Fahrenheit and on the same day in 2017 registering 40 degrees Fahrenheit, the URI trawlers have been there to document it, and they will continue to do so — once the pandemic is squashed.


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  1. Long term studies like these are invaluable as we are finding. Recognition like this is due to those who care enough to take time weekly to conduct these tests! Data is all we have to base future impactful decisions.

  2. The Sound School Inter-District Marine Education Program Newsletter

    • IMEP –

    Rhode Island Leads Country in Aquaculture Upweller
    Technology a Century Ago

    The Lobster Die Off of 1898

    During The Great Heat 1880-1920*

    Wickford Lobster Hatchery and
    pweller System Completed in 1900

    The Sound School – December 2013

    Tim Visel

    IMEP # 6

    European visitors marvel at advanced aquaculture larval grow out canvas bags in Narragansett Bay 1904

    Even Dr. Bumpus formerly of the Rhode Island Fisheries Commission who helped establish one of the first marine experiment stations for the University of Rhode Island at Point Judith Pond must have been impressed. After leaving Rhode Island for a new job with the U.S. Fish Commission (1900), Dr. Bumpus is credited with the aquacultural achievement of being the first United States researcher to raise lobsters hatched under laboratory conditions to the critical release size frequently known as “stage four,” a term still used today.

    From a very modest start in 1899 at the Woods Hole facility, only 100 lobsters reached to stage 4 – In the same year however the Wickford facility raised 3,425 fry and by 1904, 50, 597*to stage 4. The Rhode Island Fisheries Commission was very proud of its aquacultural achievement and mentioned on pg. 5 – “Your Commission’s [lobster] work has attracted the attention of those interested in promoting the fisheries’ interests in all parts of the world.” Indeed it did.

    It certainly caught the attention of nearby Noank– Connecticut lobster fishers – once the center of southern New England’s regional “lobster trade” that declined shortly after the habitat failures for lobsters during The Great Heat (1880-1920). The evidence of this southern New England habitat failure for lobsters often came from first the lobster fishers themselves by their honest habitat observations – “no shorts.”

    The State of Connecticut following years of poor lobster catches confirmed by the United States Fish Commission and pleas from the remaining “lobster trade” in eastern Connecticut appropriated $10,000 in 1904 to establish a lobster facility here and put it in Noank. That facility continues its aquacultural research today under the direction and management of a unique state and local partnership with the Groton Shellfish Commission. Its first mission however was to raise as many stage four lobsters for near coastal release as possible to help prevent a complete “failure” of the lobster trade (fishery). The State of Maine was to build one of the largest lobster hatcheries of modern times in the harbor of Boothbay, Maine. Massachusetts followed and eventually New York with similar lobster hatcheries. The first large scale aquaculture upweller system to really produce juvenile lobsters however came from Rhode Island.

    Why the urgent interest of southern New England lobster producing states, in lobster hatcheries? They all were experiencing the largest “habitat” failure in at least a century as lobster landings were free falling and would continue to fall despite good legal size/management regulations

    Fishery managers soon looked to what farmers had done during the cold 1870s with glass greenhouses and turned to a climate controlled hatchery reduce the enormous risk of climate / habitat and predator reduction of spawn. Lobster hatcheries followed years of work with trout hatcheries also during the same hot and habitat failure period for “cold water trout species,” with the trout hatcheries “science” firmly established lobster hatcheries soon followed the same aquacultural techniques.

    Rhode Island officials were especially concerned about the disappearance of “cold water” fish now being replaced with tropical species. After the Great Heat Wave of 1896, they commissioned two studies regarding the “hot term.” The continued examination of the physical and biological conditions of the waters of the Bay (Narragansett) was begun in 1898. A second study was finished in 1909 by Dr. Bumpus and amended the native species list for Rhode Island naturally occurring fish. When several large Tarpon were caught out of Dutch Harbor (last one in 1906) it would also be included. It was the fishers of Block Island that requested a special study – and on pg. 42 is found this excerpt:

    “ Fishermen [Block Island] say that frequently in these offshore waters they take fish which are new to them and that they see even whole schools of unfamiliar species.”

    When the climate cooled slightly after 1910 – Tarpon soon disappeared.

    As lobster landings continued to fall, at first lobster fishers were blamed (including the lobster canneries), but canneries had already found diminishing returns of cooking and canning small lobsters for meat for export to Europe. The first canneries wanted no lobsters smaller than two pounds (U.S. Fisheries Fish Commission, 1887 pg. 701), but numbers of lobster pots caught fewer and fewer lobsters and minimum lengths were seen enacted –any lobster who measured short from beak to tail was a “short.” However fishers soon reported (including Noank fishers in Connecticut Bienniel Reports at the turn of the century) no shorts at all, signaling a widespread regional lobster habitat failure. When the number of lobster pots set increased to catch a declining adult population, a fishery failure occurred.

    Rhode Island fishery managers at the time turned to the options they had at the time, regulation catch sizes, creel limits and seasons. At the end of the Great Heat, Rhode Island was the only state to close the lobster season between November 15 to April 15. Rhode Island was the only state to do this. With a high heat habitat failure such regulatory measures are largely ineffective in the face of regional habitat failures.

    One of the reasons that New England states turned to lobster hatcheries was traditional regulatory measures were not effective – hatcheries held promise of adding another fishery management tool in the regulatory toolbox. Although lobster fishers strongly supported the creation and funding of lobster hatcheries during this extremely hot cycle, colder temperatures and storms eventually removed Sapropel (organic muck) deposits from cobblestones improving lobster habitats decades later. At the turn of the century (1900) Rhode Island’s lobster hatchery breakthrough occurred with the perfection of open top canvas larval grow out bags.

    An upweller powered by a two and a half horsepower Fairbanks – Morse gasoline engine (that moved water paddles) two bladed paddles brought water to the larval bags from below with gear reduction that with the help of mitered gears and belts kept slow but steady upwelling flow to the larval grow out bags.

    It was an engineering marvel for its time. Although aquaculture was not an industry term then, instead the species preceded the work culture when Ernest Barnes wrote his report, “Lobster Culture in Rhode Island” (1905). Rhode Island was leading the nation in technology with the development of larval canvas bags and a floating upwelling system with engine driven paddles to directing currents with sufficient food to lobsters suspended in the bags. “The engine used for transmitting power to the paddles of the bags is located on the houseboat. By means of shafts and gears the power is transmitted from the houseboat to the five paddles on each of the two floats and to the three paddles in the well of the houseboat.”

    The upweller action was the key to raising stage 4 lobsters so they could be released in the fall – mostly in salt water ponds and in areas of vegetation including eelgrass meadows which had grown prevalent during this time.

    Rhode Island officials were very optimistic about the lobster culture efforts but tagging studies already were indicating adult “habitat compression” and commission staff noticed the decline of suitable lobster habitats for stage 4 habitats from the transitioning kelp cobble stone to growing eelgrass meadows. With the warming temperatures any adult lobsters that could were leaving Narragansett Bay – nearly all the tagged lobsters showed a southern path, one lobster traveled 11 miles in five days. In times of a high heat habitat failure adults become compressed into cooler areas. Lobsters that could generally moved to deeper cooler waters. Lobster catches in these areas can actually increase as warm temperatures does, favoring the adults but not the recruitment into the fishery. Thus the rapid collapse when the adults “ran out” giving of course, the common but technically incorrect assessment that the fishery was “overfished.”

    1905 brought a huge decline in lobster landings but to add confusion a surprising surge in blue crabs. As habitat quality declined for lobsters, blue crab populations suddenly surged in Rhode Island. Within a decade blue crabs would become abundant in Narragansett Bay.

    On pg. 16 of the introduction this change is mentioned.

    “Your commission believes that, as the lobster experiments are now on a firm foundation attention should be paid to the crab question, which in the future is destined to become more and more important.”

    As lobster landings continued to fall, lobster hatcheries output increased. By 1912 the Noank lobster hatchery had hatched 1,474 ripe egg lobsters releasing some 22 million fry into Connecticut waters that year* but those efforts were miniscule compared to the federal lobster hatchery at Boothbay Harbor in Maine which hatched out that year ten times that amount (14,000 egg lobsters) and in seven years time released billions of stage 4 lobsters .

    And the reaction from lobster fishers that was very favorable in the 1911-1912 Biennial Report of the State of Connecticut Commissioners of Fisheries and Game included a special section diverted to lobster fishers comments regarding the increase of shorts on pg. 14 is found in this quote.

    Guilford, Connecticut (1912)

    “The marked increase of small lobsters is very gratifying and is sufficient proof that the hatchery (Noank) is one of the greatest institutions in the state, and I shall do all I can to help the Commissioners of Fisheries and Game in the protection and propagation.”

    As the climate moderated slightly and habitat conditions improved, the State of Connecticut purchased eggers from fishers and punched their tails releasing them back into Long Island Sound (1919). By 1921, the State of Connecticut (1921 – 1922 Fourteenth Biennial Report printed in Hartford, 1922) had stopped hatchery efforts but instead noted the increase in sublegal lobsters in areas planted with eggers purchased from lobster fisheries.

    On pg. 58 is found this section,

    “Several fishermen who set their pots in the vicinity of where many berried [egg bearing] lobsters were planted last spring report that when hauling their pots, they found them covered with lobsters about half an inch long. This is said to be a condition which was never before noticed and it indicates quite conclusively that planting berried (egg bearing) lobsters in their natural results. This minute lobsters undoubtedly hanging around the lobster pots in order to secure food from the bait within them.”

    The report also lamented about the sudden ending of funds to purchase loads of eggers from lobster fishers as pg. 57 states,

    “During the fall of 1922 sufficient funds were not available to warrant purchasing them at wholesale prices, but the lobstermen were paid a bonus of 10 cents for each berried lobster delivered at the hatchery wharf [Noank].”

    As the Great Heat (1880-1920) ended, (approximately) habitat conditions for the lobster improved. After 1931, eelgrass began to fade, strong storms cleared sand and muck from the four decade “quiet period” and replaced it with thousands of acres of kelp cobblestone habitat so important to lobsters in southern New England. Previous kelp habitats returned and so did successful lobster recruitment. As the 1930s turned to 1940s, blue crab abundance which had soared throughout the region was replaced by lobsters again. Lobsters and blue crabs had reversed in abundance much as their preferred habitat conditions reversed.

    For more information about the die off of southern New England lobsters from the 1890 to 1900 period, please see, Can We Rebuild Our Lobster Fishery? Capstone Project Proposal – The Sound School, written in 2009 in our adult education series on our website:

    This paper reviews the lobster landings of the New England states from the past century and includes a Capstone research proposal.

    The HIFFM IMEP Newsletter is possible by an Inter-District Cooperative Grant (Public Act 94 -1) and regional marine education bulletins can be obtained or accessed on the Adult Education and Outreach directory by accessing the Sound School website: For information about The Sound School website, publications, and / or alumni contacts, please contact Taylor Samuels at [email protected] .
    The Sound School is a Regional High School Agriculture Science and Technology Center enrolling students from 23 participating Connecticut communities.
    Program reports are available upon request. For more information about New Haven Environmental Monitoring Initiative for IMEP reports, please contact Susan Weber, The Sound School Adult Education and Outreach Program Coordinator, at [email protected].

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