Much of southern New England's economy relies on wise climate policies and adaptations, clean water, protected space and biodiversity
By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News staff
Gardner’s Wharf Seafood couldn’t be closer to the water without being in it. Located on its namesake in Wickford Village, the North Kingstown, R.I., retail seafood market and wholesale processing station commands a stunning view of Wickford Harbor.
For more than 70 years, local fishermen have docked their boats and sold their catch to Gardner’s Wharf, a tradition Pete Chevalier has kept alive since 2003. His business employs about 10 people and sources about 80 percent of its seafood from nearby ports such as Galilee, New Bedford and Boston.
On a handful of occasions since taking ownership, Chevalier’s business has paid a price for its proximity to this historic harbor.
“Irene was the worst,” Chevalier said. Despite extending 200 feet into the harbor, Gardner’s Wharf is elevated above neighboring properties, and became an island as the sea swelled around it. Chevalier estimated that the storm surge during Hurricane Irene’s 2011 visit reached 4-6 feet.
Severe storms during the past decade have damaged the cement floors of Gardner’s Wharf Seafood and eroded low-lying areas of the property. To reduce wave action and erosion, Chevalier strengthened and heightened the wharf’s bulkhead with an additional layer of boulders, elevated low-lying parts of the property and planted soil-stabilizing plants.
Chevalier said the improvements allow his property to withstand storm surges some 1-2 feet higher than it could have before. During Superstorm Sandy in 2012, the improvements proved to be effective at controlling erosion and minimizing property damage, he said.
Chevalier had to foot the bill for repairs to his building and property improvements; national flood insurance and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provided no compensation, even when the floors cracked, according to Chevalier. He absorbed the cost of disposing of seafood that spoiled in the wake of Irene.
“Anything the health inspector was slightly concerned about went right in the Dumpster,” he said.
Gardner’s Wharf Seafood also has been forced to close for three to four days at a time during cleanups after severe storms.
Asked whether climate change and sea-level rise concern him as a business owner, Chevalier said, “It does. It’s always a concern.”
That said, Chevalier is betting estimates of sea-level rise are overblown. He doubts the sea will rise 3 feet in the relatively near future. “I think my kids’ grandkids could have an issue,” he said. He also said climate change could be cyclical, in which case rising seas might level off.
Should storm intensity increase and sea-level rise continue on the trajectories projected by most scientists, however, Chevalier’s bet may prove costly.
Calculating the cost
Lauren Carson, Newport’s freshman representative to the General Assembly, recently introduced a bill to study the economic impact climate-induced sea-level rise and flooding will have on Rhode Island’s economy.
“If I were running the state like a business, I would want to know the risks,” Carson said during a recent interview with ecoRI News.
The rationale behind Carson’s bill rests on two pillars: climate change is happening and public and private assets are at risk. The bill cites measurable effects of climate change, including more than 10 inches of sea-level rise since 1930 recorded at the Newport tide gauge and a 30 percent increase in storm intensity that has driven worsening floods, both on the coast and inland.
The bill states worsening storm surges and floods will result in business interruption, property devaluation, lost tax revenue, reduced labor productivity and compromised public health.
Some of Rhode Island’s largest economic drivers — marine industries, real estate and tourism — generate much of their economic benefit from within the floodplain, Carson said.
In Newport, she cited Bowen’s Wharf — a downtown, waterfront tourist magnet — and The Point neighborhood — the site of the highest concentration of Colonial homes in Rhode Island — as places already being impacted by rising waters.
“People come to Newport for the boating, they come for the beaches, and they come for the cultural history,” Carson said. She said a healthy environment is important to each of those economic assets.
“I see the environment as a major driver of Newport’s economy,” Carson continued. “What if Newport had to close down for a month after being hit by a storm? What would the impact be?”
Her bill calls for an 11-member volunteer study commission to assess the Ocean State’s economic risk from sea-level rise, increased flooding and other climate impacts.
The commission would conduct case studies of the Port of Providence, the Newport waterfront, and South County’s tourism and marine industries to identify current and probable climate risks to businesses that could result in lost sales and income, unemployment, increased expenses, delay of business plans and costly cleanups.
The commission, which would include mostly government officials and business groups, would provide data and information to local and state decision-makers, and suggest options to position Rhode Island as a regional leader for taking steps to ensure minimal business interruption and loss of value because of sea-level rise and increased flooding.
The commission, by design, wouldn't include environmental advocates. By appointing business interests to the study commission, Carson said she hopes to bring new voices to the conversation.
“I’ve come to see the environment as an economic issue,” she said.
After all, much of southern New England’s economy relies on a healthy environment.
Chevalier of Gardner’s Wharf Seafood said his business suffers when productive shellfishing grounds are closed after polluted stormwater runoff enters local waters during heavy rains or because of malfunctions at wastewater treatment plants. These closures force shellfishermen to travel further to work less-productive fishing grounds. As a result, shellfish prices rise for Chevalier and his customers.
Minimizing polluted runoff from entering the water could keep nearby, productive shellfishing grounds open, which would benefit businesses like Chevalier’s and marine ecosystems.
Chevalier said the environment and businesses don’t need to compete. “There is technology out there that allows people to do what they need to do to run their business without causing harm to the environment,” he said.
For Wickford Village, Chevalier said that means installing a public sewer system. He said his business is being unreasonably prevented from expanding because of state septic tank regulations. He also claimed that the town’s septic tanks are often damaged by storms, requiring costly repairs, and that they pollute the water his business and Wickford’s charm relies on. A public sewer system, despite the upfront cost, would solve these problems while protecting the environment, he said.
Working the river
The Westport River in Westport, Mass., supports 1,000 acres of salt-marsh vegetation, 100 acres of eelgrass beds and about 3,000 acres of shellfish beds, harvested commercially and recreationally, according to the Westport River Watershed Alliance (WRWA). The river is dotted and abutted by dozens of protected islands and properties, such as the Horseneck Beach State Reservation and the Westport Land Conservation Trust’s Big Ram Island.
For 15 years, Osprey Sea Kayak Adventures has called the Westport River home. Located at the head of the river’s East Branch, the small business offers paddling instruction, tours, rentals and sales. Osprey employs about 10 people, ranging in age from teenagers to older than 50.
Carl Ladd, who owns Osprey with his wife, Sam, said they didn’t choose to open their paddling shop near the Westport River based on environmental factors, but admitted they got lucky with the location.
Ladd said the Westport River benefits from good tidal flushing, which, in addition to preventing large concentrations of pollutants in the river, results in a diversity of habitat and fauna. Ladd said he uses the “micro-environments” along the river as a classroom during tours.
“The birding is incredible,” he said. The Westport River has one of highest concentrations of nesting osprey in the country, which Ladd said is where the business got its name.
In addition to osprey, the river experiences a variety of coastal migrations throughout the year, which means there are always different birds to see, he said. Kayakers might spot wild turkeys, greater and lesser terns, egrets, great blue and green herons, and oystercatchers. During the fall, many species of ducks can be spotted on the river during their migration south, including mallard, wood, black, and blue bill.
Under the water, annual fish migrations keep the river interesting. Beginning in May, herring journey into the river, followed by striped bass and horseshoe crabs, and bluefish in June and July. Hickory shad make a stunning migration each year, according to Ladd. “They are so thick you can walk on them,” he said.
Blue crab populations explode every few years, and he said many of these aquatic creatures are visible from a kayak or standing paddleboard.
“I wouldn’t call the river pristine, but it is pretty spectacular,” Ladd said.
Ladd has witnessed the effect the river can have on his customers. He recalled one instance when a 90-year-old woman rented a tandem kayak with her granddaughter. The older woman returned to the shop in tears. Ladd assumed something had gone wrong. Instead, it turned out the grandmother had simply been overcome by her experience on the river.
“She lived a mile away, but had no idea what was here,” Ladd said.
The Westport River watershed’s most concerning risks include nutrient loading from fertilized lawns and leaking septic systems, and pathogen contamination from dog waste left on the ground, according to Roberta Carvalho, WRWA’s science director. The primary vehicle that moves these pollutants from the land into the water is runoff after it rains.
Carvalho said too much nitrogen in the river results in algae blooms that remove oxygen from the water, cause dead zones and kill fish. In her 14 years with the nonprofit, Carvalho said there have been about 10 fish kills. She also said nutrient loading causes eelgrass beds to be displaced by algae growth on the riverbed. Eelgrass is a highly valued habitat that acts as a nursery for countless fish and marine organisms. It’s been on the decline in southern New England waters for sometime.
Water-born pathogens also impact public health, even if they minimally impact other organisms in the river, according to Carvalho. Humans can come into contact with pathogens by swimming in, boating on, eating shellfish from or drinking contaminated water. She said state and federal regulations define when certain activities are considered unsafe, but there is little enforcement, often leaving the public to use its own judgement.
Over the years, pathogens levels have decreased dramatically in the river, according to Carvalho. Nutrient loading, however, has headed in the opposite direction. She blamed new development in the watershed, which has led to more fertilizer use, more septic systems and more impervious surfaces. She said municipalities could adopt standards that require septic systems to treat nitrogen. Currently, most systems do nothing to remove nitrogen from the treated water they release.
“The river has gotten much better in the past 10 years, but nitrogen pollution, runoff and septic systems are still a concern,” Carvalho said.
She said there are economic benefits to a healthy Westport River. Tourism increases when pathogen levels don’t prevent safe recreation, and fishery health improves as nutrient levels are reduced. Less nitrogen in the water means more eelgrass, and more eelgrass habitat means more shellfish, finfish, crabs and oysters.
“It’s hard to scientifically put a value on wetlands and marsh,” Carvelho said, noting that natural resources such as salt marshes and eelgrass have historically been undervalued.
While Osprey’s main draw is the Westport River, customers also take rented kayaks to Horseneck Beach, Seapowet Marsh, the Solcum’s River Reserve and the Allens Pond Wildlife Sanctuary. These protected areas each offer Ladd, Osprey’s owner, an opportunity to attract more customers.
Ladd said these natural resources and the environmental regulations that protect them help his business.
“You can paddle next to the highway, its just not very much fun,” he said.
REI in Cranston, which employs about 50 people, sells equipment and apparel for biking, camping, paddling, running, nature photography and a variety of other outdoor activities.
Store manager Neil Johnson said REI opens stores based on where it can best serve its membership base, and not based on a community’s commitment to environmental protection.
“That can be in Manhattan, Cranston or Boulder,” he said, noting that REI strives to connect people to outdoor opportunities no matter their situation, whether they are hitting the trails, paddling a bay or running sidewalks.
But it’s undeniable that REI, and many other businesses, profit directly and indirectly on protected lands and waters, and that environmental regulations are good for business.
Johnson described environmental protections as “fundamental” to the company.
“Its part of the essential values of our organization,” he said. “Ours is a customer base of like-minded individuals who care about the outdoors.”
Johnson said he heralds all of the outdoor opportunities Rhode Island offers, such as hiking, road cycling and cross-country skiing.
“(Narragansett Bay) is a huge natural resource where people can enjoy the beach, bird-watch, paddle or ride along the coastal roads,” he said.
REI’s commitment to a healthy environment is perhaps most visible in the form of its stewardship program. The program awards grants to nonprofits that improve access to open space and recreational waters, reduce pollution and provide stewardship services such as maintaining trails.
Locally, REI has awarded grants to Save The Bay to improve the organization’s capacity to manage the annual International Coastal Cleanup and The Trustees of Reservations in Massachusetts to inventory the condition of its properties and trails and identify areas of need. In 2014, REI awarded nearly $170,000 in grants to nonprofits throughout southern New England.
“I think that the reason REI supports stewardship as part of its mission is that we endeavor to help protect the places we love, where our customers recreate, so that our children’s children can love and enjoy these special places as well,” said Leigh Jackson-Magennis, an outdoor programs manager for REI in New England.
“So much of Rhode Island’s economy is related to the environment,” said Jody Sullivan, executive director of the Newport County Chamber of Commerce. She cited Narragansett Bay as the Ocean State’s greatest asset.
While chambers of commerce have the reputation, rightly or wrongly, of supporting business at the expense of the environment, Sullivan doesn’t share that view. She said Rhode Island’s economy and environment are too intertwined to choose one over the other.
Sullivan said the Newport County Chamber has worked with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management in the past to improve the marketing of the state’s shellfishing industry, worked with the agricultural community to make farming — a growing sector in the region’s economy — more profitable, and has encouraged the farm- and ocean-to-table movement. The Newport County Chamber also supports the reuse of existing and historic structures over new construction, according to Sullivan.
Sullivan said she recognizes that “the greater good” can often be trumped by self-interest. She said regulations and zoning allow for a process where business owners, residents and other stakeholders are assured that business interests are playing by the rules.
“If a business is going to be successful, it isn’t thinking about next week, it is thinking about years down the road,” she said. “As a nation, we don’t think long-term enough.”
Asked specifically about the chamber’s position on climate change, she said the issue must be addressed. She clarified that the Newport County Chamber of Commerce is in no way affiliated with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which notoriously sticks its head in the sand regarding this issue.
“Climate change is a reality,” Sullivan said. “You cannot deny it.”
OTHER STORIES IN THIS SERIES
"Perhaps reluctantly we come to acknowledge that there are also scars which mark the surface of our Earth — erosion, deforestation, the squandering of the world's mineral and ocean resources in order to fuel an insatiable consumption."
— Pope Benedict, from a 2008 speech
“Those who develop the technologies, who promote them and stand to profit most from them, are not those who suffer their risks. The analysis of technologies is biased toward their use because the technology promoters generally lack the expertise and the incentive to analyze the risks of the technologies for human health and the environment.”
— H. Patricia Hynes, author
“The American lawn uses more resources than any other agricultural industry in the world. It uses more phosphates than India and puts on more poisons than any other form of agriculture."
— Bill Mollison, scientist and author