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The Governor celebrates quahogs at Save The Bay headquarters but fails to address the urgent threats to Narragansett Bay

By Richard Asinof
Posted 3/27/17
Save The Bay is considering ways that it can step up its advocacy efforts in the wake of growing threats from climate change and threatened funding cuts to federal agencies by the Trump administration that are critical to support the work of protecting Narragansett Bay.
When will Gov. Gina Raimondo step up to the plate and speak forcefully about the environmental threats to Narragansett Bay? Who among the business community leaders will speak out to debunk the ideas that environmental regulation that protects Narragansett Bay hurts the economy? How can Save The Bay best convey the urgency around how climate change is a threat to Narragansett Bay? Will the legislative forces championing “A Fair Shot” rally to support the legislation to raise new funds for environmental protection of Narragansett Bay? Will the public health advocates reach out and converge with environmental advocates at Save The Bay?
The message in the defeat of the proposed repeal and replacement of Obamacare is, in large part, the success achieved by grassroots resistance to fight back against the proposed legislation. Moving forward, the question is: how will that resistance coalesce around other issues? The reproductive health rights of women? The integrity of research and science? The threat to environmental and public health? All of the above?
The planned March for Science on April 22 will be a time for scientists to speak out. But, perhaps more importantly, the question will be how local researchers and university scientists coalesce here in Rhode Island to make their concerns known. How will that translate into reshaping the priorities of the emerging innovation ecosystem here in Rhode Island, beyond the profit motive for young entrepreneurs?

PROVIDENCE – On March 20, Save The Bay headquarters served as the scenic postcard backdrop for Gov. Gina Raimondo to kick off the second annual Quahog Week celebration in Rhode Island, accompanied by First Gentleman Andy Moffit.

“Rhode Island’s seafood is core to our identity,” Raimondo said, according to the news release following the event. “Like many Rhode Islanders, I have fond childhood memories of watching the fishing boats come in at the Port of Galilee. We love our seafood, and as a state, Narragansett Bay is at the heart of our economy, history, and quality of life.”

Raimondo continued: “Quahog Week is an opportunity to celebrate the many riches of the Bay and, in particular, the vitality of our shellfish industry. We have a thriving local food scene, world-class eateries, fishermen, and food-based businesses all in one place. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate our top-notch quality of life in the Ocean State.”

The emphasis of the event was on promoting the state’s food sector, not on the need to protect Narragansett Bay. “The state’s booming local food sector supports more than 60,000 jobs and continues to attract and inspire the imagination of entrepreneurs and innovations,” the new release continued. “Last year, more than 100 million pounds of seafood arrive to a local port – with an export value of [more than] $ 1 billion.”

Surprisingly, there was no effort made by Raimondo to connect the importance of protecting the environment of Narragansett Bay with the bountiful harvest of quahogs. Why not?

The irony of the scene was not lost upon Topher Hamblett, director of advocacy for Save The Bay, or Cindy Sabato, communications director for Save The Bay, when ConvergenceRI sat down to talk with them the very next day after Raimondo launched Quahog Week.

The nonprofit advocacy organization had been founded in 1970 with the mission to galvanize residents of Rhode Island to protect its “most precious resource.” Now, as new threats emerged to Narragansett Bay, there was a need to capture the urgency of the threats.

Cognitive dissonance
What was not mentioned by Raimondo at the Quahog Week celebration was the fact that Narragansett Bay is now under siege: rising seas from climate change threaten to swamp salt marshes in the Bay; coastal communities are threatened by erosion, and the diversity of the fisheries ecosystem continues to decline with the onset warming waters. Never-before-seen toxic algae blooms in Narragansett Bay recently shut down shell fishing, confounding scientists. And, the lobster population is migrating to colder waters off the coast of Maine.

In Washington, D.C., the funding for scientific research on marine estuaries is threatened by massive proposed cuts by the Trump administration budget to the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

Here in Rhode Island, efforts to get two additional environmental enforcement positions to help protect Narragansett Bay have been thwarted for the last two years. In 2016, the R.I. General Assembly failed to approve the recommendations to fund the positions that had been proposed as part of Governor’s FY 2017 budget. This year, in her FY 2018 budget, the two additional positions were not included by Raimondo. Why not?

The mindset that all regulation is bad for business runs very deep, explained Hamblett. “And, it is very easily roused, when politicians want to tap it,” Hamblett said, during an in-depth conversation with ConvergenceRI last week.

The nomination and confirmation of Scott Pruitt to serve as director of the EPA, Hamblett continued, “came with a lot of rhetoric about how [environmental] regulations are stymieing American businesses, crushing jobs, things like that.”

The exact opposite was true when it comes to Narragansett Bay, Hamblett countered. “I am not an economist, but I know that the better off Narragansett Bay is, the better off the [Rhode Island] economy is.”

When the Bay is doing well, protected by environmental regulations, he continued, “People are fishing, tourism is thriving. When we have beach closures and algae blooms that close down our shellfisheries, people worry. Livelihoods are at stake here.”

Past successes, new urgent threats
Communicating a sense of urgency about the new threats to Narragansett Bay was more difficult now than it was in the 1970s, in part because Save The Bay has achieved so much success in the last four decades.

In the 1970s, as Hamblett recalled, “The Blackstone River was running [tinted] orange, purple or red. There was raw sewage washing up on our shores.”

How to communicate the new sense of urgency, he continued, “is something that, as an organization we have done a lot of introspection about. It’s all the more challenging because we’ve had so much success. A few decades ago, the Providence River was an open sewer, and it was accepted as an open sewer. There was an urgency about restoring Bay habitats in the 1990s. There was an urgency around preventing catastrophic petroleum accidents along the Bay, when ships ran aground and belched their oil into our waters.”

But now, Hamblett told ConvergenceRI, “What’s hard is that the urgency is mostly around climate change. The salt marshes that we’ve been restoring all these years now are suddenly under siege from sea level rise.”

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Topher Hamblett, director of Advocacy at Save The Bay, and Cindy Sabato, communications director at Save The Bay, as they wrestled with the question of how to step up advocacy for Narragansett Bay and communicate the urgency of the new threats posed.

ConvergenceRI: How do you see Save The Bay having to step up its advocacy role in the current Trump era, when there is the promise of diminished budget resources?
Our most important way of stepping up is to really remind Rhode Island leaders that we to take care of Narragansett Bay.

That has always been the case, but now there is a level of urgency that wasn’t there a year ago or two years ago.

ConvergenceRI: Are you in direct contact with Gov. Gina Raimondo? I know that there was a news event held here at your headquarters yesterday around the celebration of Quahog Week.
I wouldn’t say it was a news event as much as a community event celebrating the Quahog.

HAMBLETT: Here’s an example of what I mean about stepping up. Before the last legislative session [in 2016], we called on the Governor to beef up environmental enforcement, which had been eroding steadily over the previous 10 years.

She responded by putting two new enforcement positions in the budget, which was very welcome. At the end of the day, the R.I. General Assembly took those out of the budget, without explanation.

Fast forward to this year. The Governor submitted her proposed budget and did not include those positions in the budget.

We are trying to figure out why. We’re also asking the General Assembly to do what they did not do last year, to beef up enforcement.

ConvergenceRI: There seems to be cognitive dissonance occurring. There’s no money for greater enforcement, but there is a desire to use Save The Bay and its headquarters to celebrate Quahog Week as a beautiful, scenic backdrop. On one hand, we can celebrate the Bay, but on the other, we’re not interested in investing in new enforcement positions to better protect the Bay.
Jonathan Stone, [the executive director of Save The Bay], had an op-ed published a couple of weeks in which he wrote about this disconnect. He noted that in the last legislative session that the Governor proposed to beef up enforcement, but the General Assembly says no. But, at the 11th hour, she feels free to put $20 million in the budget to buy up land along Allens Avenue, with very little vetting.

But I think the larger issue is that there is still a mindset in this state that the environment is a luxury, and the more environmental protection you have, the worse it is for business.

We think the opposite is true.

I think the voters do as well, ultimately, because the voters, time and again, have overwhelmingly approved environmental bond referenda and clean water projects, things that are good for everyone in the state.

So, there is a disconnect there, too. The people of Rhode Island have clearly – over and over again – stated that the Bay is important to them.

ConvergenceRI: Is there a need to put the Governor and other leaders on the spot, to do it in ways that the message can be better heard?
I think we are at that point where we need to do that. I have learned over the years at Save The Bay that the really important fights take a while to win. I’m hopeful that what we’re hearing in response to what is happening in Washington will help us deliver those messages in very clear, stark terms.

ConvergenceRI: Have you done an analysis on the impacts of proposed cuts in the EPA budget recommended by President Trump, and what that will mean for Rhode Island?
We have not done that analysis. I know that the DEM is doing that analysis now, because they manage many of the EPA programs here in Rhode Island.

I also know that Rep. Lauren Carson has introduced a resolution in the General Assembly asking the DEM to share with the Assembly what the impacts of these budget cuts in EPA funding will have on Rhode Island. I don’t believe that the resolution has been heard yet.

ConvergenceRI: In response to the recent new algae blooms, do you think that people are making the connections to climate change and understand the significance of the changes that are occurring? That the Bay is increasingly more at risk?
The [recent algae] bloom is still confounding the experts, scientists are still trying to understand it.

But warming temperatures are clearly affecting algae in the Bay. Some fish species are declining. Some are increasing…

SABATO: …Including those that are more native to southern sub-tropic environments in the Carolinas. They've been coming up here in the Gulf Stream for hundreds of years.

It’s not a new thing, but they are making their way earlier in the season, and surviving longer into the colder months, later into the season.

HAMBLETT: Blue crabs used to be a little more rare, now they’re a little more common.

Winter flounder and summer flounder are all on the decline. It makes fisheries management extremely challenging.

Fisheries management is challenging anyway, because you’re dealing with the entire Atlantic seaboard and multiple jurisdictions. With climate change, some species are now moving around.

All this means that, when profound changes are happening, it’s not the time to cut your science and research budget to better understand toxic algae blooms, or how to better manage our coastal ecosystems as they are changing very rapidly.

The idea of cutting research funding for both NOAA and EPA now just doesn’t make sense.

ConvergenceRI: Let me ask about the conflict between the desire to promote the food industry in Rhode Island, the recent promotion of scup as the next big thing, and the need to better manage fisheries in a time of depleted species.
I think we have to become careful about harvesting fish species to oblivion. Right now, fish are managed by species. There are regulations for menhaden harvesting, for stripers and for bluefish.

On a very common sense level, it doesn’t make sense to manage one species on its own, because these fish species are all interdependent on the Bay’s ecosystem.

Today, there is in fisheries management, the concept of ecosystem-based management, [based upon] that all these species are related.

We can’t just manage species down to the point where they can be harvested and barely survive.

For example, menhaden depend upon plankton, stripers and blue fish depend on menhaden; it is all very interwoven, and we should be managing accordingly.

One of the ideas that we’ve put forth at Save The Bay is that we an ecosystem system study on the value of menhaden. They pick up a lot of nitrogen, which is a good thing: they are prolific filter feeders.

ConvergenceRI: Who would conduct the study? Would it be NOAA, EPA, or DEM?
We have the research capacity here in Rhode Island. So it could be a combination of URI working with DEM, and perhaps NOAA.

ConvergenceRI: How much would such a study cost?
I can’t tell you off the top of my head.

SABATO: When you talk about the impact the federal budget cuts, it’s on the research end where a lot of cuts will be hitting hard. We may lose the capacity to do that kind of research.

ConvergenceRI: At what point do the researchers cry “Ouch” publicly? At what point do you challenge the Governor publicly? At what point do you cross the line? How do you mobilize the local population to speak out and take action?
That’s what we are in the midst of figuring out right now. We’re at a moment in time when a lot of this is up in the air.

ConvergenceRI: Are you considering how Save The Bay can ramp up its advocacy activities? Is it harder today to communicate the sense of urgency than it was in the 1960s and 1970s when rivers were catching on fire?
Or when the Blackstone River was running [tinted] orange, or purple, or red? Or, when raw sewage was washing up on our shores?

This is something that, as an organization, we have done a lot of introspection about. It is all the more challenging because we’ve had so much success.

Just a few decades ago, the waters of the Providence River were an open sewer, and it was accepted as an open sewer. There was an urgency around fixing that problem. There was an urgency around restoring Bay habitats in the 1990s. And, an urgency around preventing catastrophic petroleum accidents along the Bay, when ships ran aground and belched their oil into our waters.

Today, what’s hard is that the urgency, most of it is focused around climate change. The salt marshes that we’ve been restoring all these years now are suddenly under siege from sea level rises.

We are scrambling, working with NOAA, with the EPA, and our other state and local partners to figure out we can help some of our salt marches survive, because a lot won’t survive, they just won’t.

We are in danger of losing some of our public access as our shoreline erodes and erodes.

Many people feel like the Bay is cleaner, that we’ve done a great job at Save The Bay. But the issues today around climate change, where there is an urgency, are more complex and not so easily solved.

SABATO: And not so visible.

HAMBLETT: We monitor for dissolved oxygen levels, but we often don’t know that we have a problem until we see a fish kill.

I think that the real urgent issues facing the Bay used to be much more obvious; now they are much more complex.

SABATO: And it does make it that much harder to communicate.

ConvergenceRI: Have you reached out to the public health advocacy groups?
The constituency for Narragansett Bay is significant. It’s everyday citizens, all the people involved with fishing, shell fishing, tourism, hospitality, to name a few.

We do think we need the General Assembly. We can’t let them off the hook. They have a responsibility as our public servants to take care of the Bay.

We have a bill in place, proposed by Rep. Deb Ruggiero, to add funds to the habitat restoration fund, which is currently funded at $250,000 a year. We want to double that, to $500,000 a year.

We also want to create a new fund, it would be about $1.5 million a year, to assist coastal communities in dealing the impacts of climate change, such as eroding shoreline and the loss of public access, for example.

India Point Park is a wonderful place, but it is caving in, on the eastern end.

ConvergenceRI: Is that known?
The city of Providence knows about it, because our staff has been working with them for a long time. It is caving in on the eastern end, across the water from Tockwotten. There was an old coal dump there, among other things, and it’s just caving in, because the shoreline is eroding. Something needs to be done to preserve that as a public access.

ConvergenceRI: How would the additional funding be secured?
We’re talking about $2 million a year in total for habitat restoration and to help communities protect their shorelines and adapt to climate change.

The funding source is from something called OSPAR – the Oil Spill Preparedness and Response Fund, which was created post North Cape oil spill, when the General Assembly put a five-cent fee on each barrel of oil imported into state waters.

We are asking that the fee be doubled to 10 cents a barrel, and it would generate about $2 million; all of the additional revenue except about $250,000 would go into this new community fund, the climate change adaptation fund.

The bill is H-5808. This is a real-life policy response to very serious threats.


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