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News Release
Office of the Governor
http://www.governor.ri.gov
RI Department of Environmental Management
235 Promenade Street, Providence, RI 02908
(401) 222-2771 TDD/(401) 222-4462
For Release: September 5, 2003
Contact: Gail Mastrati 222-4700 ext. 2402
Stephanie Powell 222-4700 ext. 4418

CARCIERI RELEASES DEM REPORT ON FISH KILL

In response to Governor Donald Carcieri's urgent request for an assessment of the causes and impacts of the recent fish kill in Greenwich Bay, DEM Director Jan Reitsma earlier this week submitted a detailed, 21-page report to the Governor outlining the Department's findings. Included in the report are recommendations for actions that might prevent, or at least minimize, the recurrence of a similar event.

On Wednesday, August 20, about one million fish, primarily juvenile menhaden, or bait fish, washed ashore along Greenwich Bay in Warwick, primarily in Apponaug Cove and Greenwich Cove. A massive slick of dead fish, extending from Cedar Tree Point to Buttonwoods, was also observed that afternoon. In addition to the juvenile menhaden, several hundred small crabs and some larger blue crabs, horseshoe crabs, grass shrimp, blackfish, and American eels were also observed along the shore or floating at the surface. The fish kill was followed a week later by a massive die-off of juvenile soft shell clams. Discolored water and noxious odors also permeated the western shore of the bay.

"I want to thank Director Reitsma and DEM for compiling this report so quickly," Governor Carcieri said. "I asked DEM to prepare this report because I am keenly aware that the Narragansett Bay is the heart of our state, and that we must be vigilant about preserving and protecting it for future generations of Rhode Islanders. While we've made some important strides in recent decades, the recent fish kill - combined with the rash of beach closings this summer - demonstrates that much work remains to be done."

Carcieri continued, "The report notes some important long-term challenges affecting the health of the Narragansett Bay, and makes several valuable recommendations on what we can do to mediate those challenges. Going forward, I plan to work with DEM, local communities, and stakeholders throughout Rhode Island to find ways to implement and fund many of these recommendations."

"We have sufficient knowledge and scientific understanding to move forward aggressively to address both short and long-term issues," said Director Reitsma. "To put it bluntly, there is less immediate need for more study and new initiatives than for better implementation of existing programs that were developed to address the very issues raised by the fish kill. That means ensuring adequate capacity in key programs. It means getting serious about pollution reduction: eliminating cesspools, upgrading sewage treatment plants, mandating tie-ins to sewers or smaller scale treatment facilities where septic systems cannot provide adequate treatment, and either preventing direct discharge of storm water or providing adequate treatment."

A major finding of the DEM report is that the fish kill was not a simple or isolated event. It was part of a much larger event going on in Greenwich Bay and other parts of Narragansett Bay this year, and part of a trend that has been observed for many preceding years and will likely continue. In all likelihood, a much broader and deeper impact on the Bay's ecosystem is occurring from events like this, including loss of quality habitat and changes in assemblages of resident species. Further, the findings indicate there is no magic solution, no quick fix. Future fish kills may not be entirely preventable, nor is there any guarantee that any action or combination of actions will reduce the risk of a recurrence significantly within a short period of time, according to the report.

The fish kill happened during a summer that also saw an extraordinary number of beach closings around Narragansett Bay, including locations that have not been usually affected in previous years. This has added to the concern that something unusual has been taking place in the Bay and that a comprehensive effort is needed to address the larger phenomenon. While some of the same factors have contributed to poor water quality at beaches and to the fish kill - an unusual amount of rain and storm water runoff - the phenomena are clearly different, so it could be confusing and counterproductive to merge them completely.

Causes

The fish kill was caused by the absence of dissolved oxygen (anoxia) in the waters of Greenwich Bay, particularly in its deeper waters and near its western shore. The condition caused fish and other marine animals living in these areas of the bay to suffocate. This conclusion is based on continuous measurements made by DEM in the western bay before the event was reported, and by surveys made throughout the bay on the day that the kill was first reported.

Anoxia or hypoxia (low oxygen) is often caused, as it was in this case, by blooms of tiny marine plants. The rapid growth of marine algae occurred in response to an increase in nutrients in the bay resulting from this summer's high rainfall, along with the relatively sunny and warm recent weather. As the algae bloom ended, the dying algae decayed. The decay process consumed the dissolved oxygen in the water column that animals breathe. The impact of the crashed bloom and the subsequent recovery of this area was further hampered by the relatively slow flushing characteristics of western Greenwich Bay. Data collected by DEM and others confirm that this scenario lead to the August 20 fish kill.

While the immediate cause for the kill was lack of oxygen, there is a broad and complex range of factors resulting in a severe and prolonged pattern of oxygen depletion. They include factors that cannot be controlled, at least not quickly or directly, such as rain, wind, temperature, geology and hydrodynamics. They also include pollution from various sources, including effluent from wastewater treatment facilities and septic systems, storm water runoff and groundwater flow from polluted areas, and perhaps discharges from vessels using the Bay.

Impacts

The obvious symptoms of the fish kill will likely disappear very rapidly, in a matter of days to weeks. Dead fish will be scavenged and buried. The stench of their decay will dissipate. Stronger tides and cooler weather with stronger wind will eventually mix water masses and raise oxygen levels.

The immediate ecological damage is difficult to evaluate, but long-lasting ecological changes, particularly to bottom communities, can result from severe hypoxic/anoxic events. Menhaden stocks are not likely to be significantly affected since they are large and migratory. Shellfish are able to survive short periods of anoxia but particularly the young are likely to succumb. The massive die-off of juvenile soft shell clams reflects this. Soft shell clams naturally experience wide swings in populations, so it will be difficult to accurately estimate the impact on that population, but it is likely to be significant after the second kill. Soft shell clams are not as heavily exploited commercially as hard shell clams, but there is a significant soft shell clam fishery in Greenwich Bay. Adult quahogs are very resistant to low oxygen and most likely will survive, but will not grow or reproduce during this stressful period. The newest sets of quahogs, however, may have been affected, as they are more vulnerable to low oxygen. Although it is too early to tell, impacts on the quahog fishery cannot be ruled out.

Recommendations

The report notes that Rhode Island has had much success in improving its environment, including water quality in Narragansett Bay, yet events like the recent fish kill show that the progress made to date is not good enough. There is a need to accelerate the state's pollution control efforts and adopt more ambitious targets, in particular for nitrogen removal.

Rhode Island has many programs in place that focus in part or entirely on the health of Narragansett Bay, including ways to reduce pollutant loading. These programs use both regulatory and non-regulatory approaches for purposes like protecting the fisheries of Narragansett Bay, establishing and assuring compliance with water quality standards, water quality monitoring, biological monitoring, complaint and incident investigation, development and implementation of water quality and habitat restoration plans and watershed action plans. Besides state agencies, coastal communities, watershed and other environmental organizations, and many academic programs are actively involved in tracking and trying to improve conditions in the Bay. In this context, the report makes the following recommendations:

bulletConduct a public workshop on the fish kill within one month

 
bulletConsider new bond funding to revitalize assistance programs

 
bulletAccelerate nutrient upgrades at sewage treatment facilities

 
bulletImprove septic system management

 
bulletImprove storm water management

 
bulletImprove monitoring and assessment

 
bulletImprove Bay planning

The full text of the report is available on DEM's website at www.state.ri.us/dem by clicking on "Greenwich Bay Fish Kill Report" at the bottom of the home page. For questions about the report or to request a hard copy of the document, call Jan Reitsma at 255-6142 or Bob Ballou at 265-0157.

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