Battle With The Sea: Change Is Here (Part 1)

Nov 18, 2014

Rapidly rising sea levels and severe weather threaten every community and natural habitat in the Ocean State, not just along the coast. Through a new ongoing series we’re calling, Battle With The Sea, Rhode Island Public Radio will examine the range and scope of these threats from city to city and town to town, and the solutions to prepare and strengthen Rhode Island for future threats to come.

The Ocean State isn’t a major carbon polluter. Instead, it’s on the receiving end of the harms created by carbon pollution. That’s why last month Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, known as a climate and clean energy champion, brought Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), a strong coal advocate, to witness how warming temperatures have already started to change the landscape here in Rhode Island. 

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Sen. Joe Manchin are often described as coming from two different worlds, the Ocean state and the Mountain state, and with two different causes: protecting the environment and protecting coal jobs.

“Without West Virginia the East Coast goes dark,” said Manchin at a press conference in Galilee where Whitehouse introduced him. “So we want to continue to be that provider of energy for this country and what we’ve been able to do, but we need good people like Sheldon who understands and maybe brings federal agencies like the EPA in line.”

The two senators visited each other’s states to find common ground on climate change. Whitehouse went to West Virginia and toured a coal-fired power plant among different stops, and Manchin came here for a tour of Narragansett Bay.

With the bay as a backdrop, the West Virginia senator boarded the Department of Environmental Management’s research vessel, the John H. Chafee, to observe how the DEM conducts its fish abundance survey. Several fishermen joined the trip to share their concerns with the West Virginia senator. Manchin connected with them as he boarded the boat, talking about how much fishing he does off Ocracoke Island in North Carolina.

As the senators, scientists, and fishermen entered the cabin, everyone lined up shoulder to shoulder to try to form a circle. Whitehouse prompted local fishermen, like Christopher Brown, to talk about the big changes they’re seeing in the water. Manchin was attentive and curious.  

“So what are you seeing? Are you seeing differences at different part of times?”

Christopher Brown fished with his grandfather and stepfather since he was a little boy. He's observed changes in the fish communities in the bay as well as more violent weather at sea.
Credit Ambar Espinoza / RIPR

“Yes, absolutely,” said Brown, who fished as a little boy with his grandfather and stepfather. “You know the scup that we’re going to see today? Juvenile scup, when I was a small boy, scup and butterfish and squid would have been gone by the middle of October from around the beach where we’re fishing today, because they were going to get to warmer waters offshore. Now they’re staying here much longer. So it’s a different ocean than my grandfather’s ocean.”

Fish are moving north and east, echoed fisherman Donald Fox. The iconic winter flounder has moved away, while the summer flounder, also known as fluke, is more abundant these days. And these changes aren’t affecting just Rhode Islanders, noted Fox.

“There are guys that have fluke licenses, permits, in Virginia. They’re coming up here to catch them now,” said Fox. “They’re coming up here--right south of Point Judith, 50 to 70 miles. And then they have to steam all the way back to Virginia to unload them because those fish are moving this way.”

To drive this point home, DEM scientists gave the two senators rain jackets and gloves, and put them to work, counting and sorting fish. The West Virginia senator did the honors and pulled the rope to release the net full of fish.

Onlookers marveled and Manchin admired the sea bass and flounder he spotted in the catch.

The abundant number of summer flounder in Rhode Island waters is one example why the state wants to join the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, made up of states from New York to North Carolina. Those states have lead roles in developing management plans for certain species commonly found in their region, such as summer flounder. Rhode Island wants a seat on that council now that more fish from the Mid-Atlantic region is moving up the coast. And Whitehouse wants Manchin’s support in the Senate to get that approved when the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act comes up for a Senate vote.

Here’s why it’s important for Manchin to hear from Rhode Islanders about how climate change impacts are affecting their lives. Carbon emission drives how we live on this planet. How we produce food, how we move around from place to place, how we heat our homes are all energy intensive. Manchin believes the global warming happening today is caused by human activity. That’s why Whitehouse believes Manchin will play a critical role as a partner on Capitol Hill, bearing witness to what’s happening here.

“If you’ve got science taking place in the spots where the fish used to be, it’s disjointed from the reality of where fish are and what they’re doing,” Whitehouse told Manchin.

After sorting some fish, Whitehouse and Manchin teamed up to measure a type of fish called skates.
Credit Ambar Espinoza / RIPR

Back in the cabin, fishermen painted pictures of more threats to their livelihoods.

In the 1940s and 1950s, fisherman Christopher Brown says Rhode Island’s fishing fleets were mostly small vessels. And they’d fish close to 300 days a year, because the weather was suitable for them. That’s a sharp contrast to Brown’s experience these days.

“I fished 220 days a year last year and I shouldn’t have fished 50 of them,” he said. “The weather is getting worse and more violent. We have less calm weather, we have more brutal storms.”

With more brutal storms come more frequent floods, as Rick Bellavance can attest to. He’s fished in Point Judith for 25 years. He remembers his dock flooding only once or twice a year during high tides.

“Now it seems like every month, two or three days, my little dock is under water, so I gotta walk through water to get to my boat,” said Bellavance. “To me, that’s a visual change, [change] that I can actually see. So yep, it’s not like it was 25 years ago.”

Manchin was a quick study. The West Virginia senator turned to Whitehouse and points to a stone barrier similar-looking to a long jetty, just outside of Galilee Harbor. The barrier is a shelter for boats during bad weather.

“Is this what we’re talking about? Some of our infrastructure that needs to be re-built?” asked Manchin.

“This will need to be repaired over time. It’s still doing its job, but it’s going to need to be rebuilt eventually,” explained Whitehouse. “It’s providing shelter here. You can come here on a very heavy day and you come in and this is protected, this is calm in here. So the break water is still working but you see the holes in it.”

“Yep, yep, they better do something fairly quick,” advised Manchin.

“You can see that it’s not going to last forever,” said Whitehouse.

While Manchin believes in manmade climate changes and sees the great need to do something about it, this doesn’t mean he’s ready to support regulations that would reduce carbon emissions released by coal power plants.

“You can’t have self-imposed standards that are much more restrictive than much of the rest of the world, when we’re not the world problem,” said Manchin, alluding to the EPA's proposed Clean Power Plan. “That’s what we have a problem. That’s what’s so good about Sheldon and I being able to come up here and being able to see the effects it’s having. If it’s a global problem, which I agree we have, then there should be a global concern to fix this problem.”

Manchin takes in everything he heard and saw out on the bay. Before he leaves Rhode Island, he’s also going to see the effects climate change is having on land. We’ll have that story next.

Do you have insight or expertise on this topic? Please email us, we'd like to hear from you: news@ripr.org.

Correction: The original broadcast and print version of this story inaccurately identified Sen. Joe Manchin as a Republican.