Survey Says Life in Narragansett Bay Rapidly Changing
Monthly trawl records ecosystem transformation in some of the fastest-warming waters on the planet
November 5, 2022
How many thousands of millions of those under water, sea inhabitants, in all Coasts of the world preach to the sonnes of men on shore, to adore their glorious Maker by presenting themselves to Him as themselves (in a manner) present their lives from the wild Ocean, to the very doors of men, their fellow creatures in New England.
— Roger Williams
The John H. Chafee pitches on long, gray swells as the crew of the 50-foot trawler roll out the net and begin a mile-long drag in Rhode Island Sound.
These are not your typical fishermen. They are marine biologists and state environmental workers. Their catch won’t be measured by what can be sold to the wholesalers at the docks in Galilee, but by the count of what they find, and what it reveals about how Narragansett Bay has changed over time.
“I’ve been doing this for a while now, and you never know what it’s gonna be,” says Chris Parkin, donning waterproof orange overalls and rain slicker.
Parkins is chief biologist for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), and a census taker of the bay.
For decades, dating back to the first survey in 1959 by marine biologists at the University of Rhode Island, scientists have been surveying the bay’s marine life population. DEM began its own seasonal survey in 1979 and expanded it to monthly in 1990.
Every month since, in blazing summer sun and icy winter blasts, scientists have fished 13 spots in and around Narragansett Bay to count the marine life and gather other information to help manage the state’s fisheries. In the process, they have also created a record of how climate change is affecting New England’s largest estuary, a teeming incubator of life in one of the fastest-warming regions on the planet.
“With any survey, it’s the importance of a time series,” says Parkins. “The longer you do the same thing, you’ll notice trends and changes over time … we’re looking for changes of species diversity, the size of the species when they arrive, when they leave, things … that can be really important to the future of the ecosystem and future of fisheries management.”
The resulting scorecard is one of winners and losers.
In the 1970s, the Bay was largely home to cold-water species like Atlantic cod and the popular winter flounder.
The ’80s and ’90s saw an increase in invertebrates — lobster, crab, and squid.
Since 2000, the bay has seen a growing influx of warmer-water species moving north — scup, black sea bass, striped sea robin.
The scientists have also seen changing migration patterns, with more fish moving into the bay earlier in the year and staying longer, with significant impacts on the ecosystem and the food web.
“Warmer water fish are coming in earlier and staying longer,” says Jeremy Collie, a URI professor of oceanography. “It’s changing the food web. Predators are here longer.”
Narragansett Bay has been here for 5,000 years, since it was flooded by melting glaciers that drowned three river valleys that now connect it to the ocean — the West Passage, the East Passage, and the Sakonnet River. But it’s the rapid rate of change in recent years that is worrisome.
“It’s the rate at which it’s happening,” says Parkins. “The ocean is notorious for being able to adapt, to change through some pretty significant events in the history of Earth. We see species have survived asteroids. Whereas climate change is happening at such a rapid rate. It’s pushing a lot of species out quickly. And then the species that are taking their place are changing the structure of the ecosystem.”
The winch whines as the net is raised. Parkins and first mate Sean Fitzgerald maneuver the green net above the deck, bulging like a sack of Christmas presents. Parkins releases the metal latch at the bottom, spilling a writhing mass of fish onto the hog pen, a rectangular enclosure at the stern.
Standing ankle deep in the bay’s bounty, the men scoop and sort the fish and crustaceans into large white buckets filled with seawater. Scup. Butterfish. Black sea bass. Flounder. Skates. Hake. Menhaden. Jonah crabs. Lobster. Anchovies. Longfin squid, aka calamari — the official Ocean State appetizer and the state’s top seafood export.
One by one, the contents are transferred to red buckets with holes to drain the water, then carried to a table. Parkins calls out the species, places the bucket on a scale to weigh it, then dumps the wriggling contents onto a white table with a ruler. Working quickly as fish mouths gasp and pucker, fins and tails twitch, Parkins measures the length of each creature. He straightens a wriggling dogfish against the ruler — 92 centimeters — calling out numbers to a crew member who records them on a chart. Then, Parkins tosses the fish back overboard.
A chorus of shrieking seagulls wheels overhead. Sometimes, an aggressive gull will swoop down and snatch a fish from the table.
As he sorts, weighs, and measures, Parkins carries on a running commentary about Narragansett Bay’s underwater life.
He scoops up a summer flounder, then a winter flounder, and explains how to tell the difference.
“You hold them away from you and if the eye is on the right, it’s a right-eyed flounder — summer flounder,” he says of the flat, oval-shaped fish. “Hold it away from you, eye on the left, left-eyed flounder.”
The winter flounder used to arrive in great numbers in late fall, migrating to the bay’s shallower waters and spawning through the winter — hence their name. They were the first fish that bait-and-tackle shops would sell gear for in the spring, a popular recreational fish as well as commercial catch.
But the numbers of winter flounder began to drop dramatically in the 1980s, thanks to overfishing and then climate change. Another factor: the mammoth Brayton Point Power Station on Mount Hope Bay in Somerset, Mass., which opened in the 1960s, sucked in a lot of larvae along with the water it needed to operate. (The plant shut down in 2017.)
URI’s Collie says that by the time fisheries managers were able to halt the overfishing of winter flounder, climate change had intervened to deplete their numbers. The eggs and young larvae, which once had the bay to themselves during the December-to-April spawning season, were ravaged by predators that multiplied in the warming waters, from shrimp to the striped sea robin. Those winter flounder that survived were stressed by higher water temperatures and lower oxygen levels.
Joseph Langan, a fisheries oceanographer who did his doctoral research on winter flounder at URI, published a paper in January concluding that prospects for the winter flounder’s recovery are bleak. Catches in Narragansett Bay have plummeted to one-100th of their historical apex. In an article published in The Atlantic in August, Langan said: “The climate of the 1970s is not our current climate. The rules of the game have changed.”
Today, Rhode Island lies at the southern end of the range for winter flounder, which once extended south to Long Island and New Jersey. They’re doing better further north, in Cape Cod Bay, says Parkins, though there are also signs of decline there.
It was concerns over the winter flounder’s decline that prompted DEM, 32 years ago, to start doing its trawl survey monthly instead of seasonally.
“There were still quite a few around, but they were seeing decreases,” says Parkins. “The population got hit really hard, to the point where it may or may not recover.”
Parkins turns next to one of the climate-change winners — scup. The silvery fish with iridescent scales are so abundant that they have to be scooped up from the deck with a white plastic shovel, filling several buckets. Parkins weighs them all, then tosses most overboard before measuring a smaller, representative sample.
Scup have always lived in and around Narragansett Bay. Known elsewhere as porgy, or sea bream, the local name is a derivation of the Narragansett Indian word for it — mishcuppauog.
“Of this fish there is abundance which the Natives drie in the Sunne and smoake,” wrote Roger Williams.
Scup have always been here, and in fact were a large commercial catch in the 1970s until overfishing sent them into decline. But they have bounced back since the early 2000s, adapting well to climate change and the warmer waters in and around the bay.
According to federal statistics, the commercial scup catch in Rhode Island more than doubled from 3.4 million pounds in 2004 to 7.3 million pounds in 2013. Since then, the weight has dropped to an average of 4.4 million pounds each of the past four fours. Parkins says the “skinnier scup” are a product of so many more scup swimming into Narragansett Bay and competing for food.
On one of DEM’s monthly trawls last spring, Parkins recalls, they hauled in a whopping 3,000 pounds of scup.
“They dominate our catch,” says Parkins. “We see scup from the early spring well into December, and they’re very abundant.”
Conor McManus, chief of DEM’s Division of Marine Fisheries, says scup is the most prominent example of Mid-Atlantic fish moving north in greater numbers because of climate change. DEM’s survey also tracks the temperature of the water at different depths and different spots up and down the bay. Overall, the waters have warmed significantly — 1.6 degrees Celsius, or nearly 3 degrees Fahrenheit — over the past 60 years.
According to a study published in the journal Climate in December 2021, New England is warming faster than average world temperatures, with winters warming the fastest. Researchers also note Rhode Island had the fastest increase in maximum temperatures among the six New England states, which they said could be attributed to rising ocean temperatures.
“When you think about animals that live in the water all the time, there isn’t air-conditioning, there isn’t refuge,” says McManus. “So the question is can they survive, and if they can’t survive, are they able to move? … (A few degrees) may sound like a little, but when you spend all your time in the water and you’re not warm-blooded, you’re very susceptible to the world around you.”
Early in the afternoon, the John H. Chafee is at its third station of the day, trawling in 116 feet of water off the west shore of Gould Island, an old Navy missile test site north of Rose Island and the Newport Bridge. The sun has broken through the haze, and a fresh breeze blows across the deck as a large bag of fish is spilled onto the deck for counting.
As he takes their measure, Parkins says, some creatures will speak to him. A sea robin grunts when you take it out of the water. A longhorn sculpin vibrates so fiercely that it earned the nickname “buzz bomb.” Lobsters will also vibrate in your hand.
Call him the fish whisperer.
“They speak to us,” Parkins jokes. “They say they want to be back in the water.”