Fewer birds, fewer fish…fewer quahogs

Posted 6/20/24

There’s nothing like resuming a routine after an extended hiatus to notice change.

I haven’t resumed morning rows on the bay as much as I would like to. Nonetheless, I look out on …

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Fewer birds, fewer fish…fewer quahogs


There’s nothing like resuming a routine after an extended hiatus to notice change.

I haven’t resumed morning rows on the bay as much as I would like to. Nonetheless, I look out on the bay and the rising sun from the recumbent bike the kids have given me to hasten my recovery from back surgery. The scene is rejuvenating regardless of the weather although a brightening sky, sometimes sliced by jet contrails, reflected in still waters is decidedly the most awe inspiring. Low hanging clouds catch the first rays rendering their bellies red. At first the sun is but a spark among the trees and houses on the distant Barrington shore. Quickly, though it is a brilliant coin lighting the sky.

The air is alive with birds. Swallows swoop, twirl and dive in pursuit of insects. It’s a wonder they don’t collide. A mourning dove rests on the porch roof peak just beyond the window to survey the scene and coo. Egrets, their bills, crooked necks, and wide and long wings giving them the appearance of flying dinosaurs slowly follow the shore line in search for a good place to stalk fish while standing on thin boney legs. Life is stirring.

High above the reflective waters osprey circle, pausing between glides to hoover, flapping wings practically holding them stationary, as they search for fish.

It’s a scene I’ve seen countless times while on the water. The osprey would follow me, until they learned the swirls generated by my paddles were not fish. The gulls paid little attention to my passing and the swans even less, only flapping and paddling furiously to become airborne. I would have changed course, only when rowing you’re looking backwards.

Even from my morning window perch I’ve noticed change that makes me question that there’s validity to quahoggers’ claims that a cleaner bay is hurting the industry. The shell fishermen argued strenuously before a legislative commission that the aggressive removal of nitrogen from wastewater treatment effluent over the past two decades has dramatically reduced nutrients that feed the phytoplankton the shellfish live on. In its recently released report, the commission ruled out increasing nitrogen discharges at this time but left room for additional study and possible future changes.

I can only report on what I’ve noticed as a daily bay watcher.

This year has been dramatic. The first change was apparent in early May when the stripers and the cormorants return. Usually the cormorants arrive in swarms of up to 50 birds to patrol and dive on  schools of fish. So far, I’ve seen no more than a dozen of the birds, which I’m sure is good news to boaters who put up with cleaning their poop from decks. But think about it, that’s only a fraction of their poop. The rest of it goes in the bay where it provides nutrients. The same can be said for terns and the occasional loon which I have yet to see. There are fewer fish in the Providence River and upper bay. That is especially evident by the absence of fishermen in pursuit of stripers that feed on the menhaden, herring, butterfish and other species found in the bay. And as you surely have concluded these are the same fish the osprey, cormorants, egrets and terns dine on.

I remember giant schools of menhaden, which like shellfish are filter feeders, ruffling the water  like a heavy local downpour. Spotter planes flew overhead to direct trawlers to the schools that would scoop them up until legislation put a stop to it. Now there are no huge schools of menhaden.

This is not to suggest that had we left things as they were we would be better off or that climate change hasn’t had an impact.

Indeed, the bay is cleaner. Save the Bay, environmental agencies, environmental advocates and education have elevated our appreciation of this valuable quality of life resource. The bay is in a much better place than when it was in 1975 when we moved to Conimicut. The climate has dramatically changed, too. The winters when the Providence River froze over from shore to shore are long gone. On the other hand, storms are more frequent, and the water is rising.

This is not to say the commission got it right and the quahoggers had it wrong. The point is change is happening on many levels. Understanding it and appropriately responding takes observation, deliberation and minds open to new possibilities.

birds, fish, quahogs


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