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« on: November 24, 2021, 12:41:00 PM »

IMEP #100 – Part 2

How Climate Impacts Bay Scallop Inshore Fisheries
“Understanding Science Through History”
Rhode Island Report of Commissioners of Shell Fisheries
Scallop Sets Return 20 Years After the Lobster Dieoff of 1898
Colder Winters Increase Scallop Sets in New England
May 7, 2020
Tim Visel, The Sound School, New Haven, CT
This is Part 2 of a two-part report
Viewpoint of Tim Visel no other agency or organization
This is a delayed report
Part I was posted on November 23, 2021

A Note From Tim Visel

When you review the catches of alewife and the bay scallop, the climate impacts are most noticeable, they both show increases after a period of heat transitioning to cold.  Scallops respond quickly to climate transitions to cold and strong storms.

The temperature has a huge influence on the bay scallop and is connected to the bacteria of the bottom.  In cool temperatures bacteria on the bottom tend to produce nitrate a nitrogen compound that favors the plankton that bay scallops eat.  Several strains of algae make up a scallop’s diet, but those who are “soft walled” are easy to digest.  In times of heat the bacterial species can change and produce ammonium the nitrogen compound for non nutritious algae, and even the harmful algal blooms (brown tide) that produce toxins.  In the 1980s bay scallops died when surrounded by dense plankton that was not edible but lived on ammonia.  When the climate and storm activity are plotted against scallop catches this heat/few storms or cold/many storms trend becomes very clear.  Colder seawater tends to produce plankton that scallops need to grow quickly.  High seawater temperatures often support sulfate reducing bacteria and their respiration by product hydrogen sulfide.  The plankton then utilizes ammonium is often an poor or even toxic food for bay scallops.  The change from oxygen requiring bacteria to sulfur reducing bacteria has a storm/energy link related to soil chemistry.  Loose cultivated soils tend to support oxygen bacteria (and why terrestrial composters turn organic deposits) and sealed or stagnant soils are often higher in toxic sulfides.

Climate record exist from the 1790’s, a chief source is the farming societies and agriculture boards which reported growing seasons, air and soil temperatures.  In the 1840’s, the Smithsonian Institute trained weather observers and equipped 500 reporting stations.

In 1870 Congress established the Army Signal Service responsible for observations and weather forecasting and was signed into law by Uysses S. Grant.  After a devastating flood near Johnstown Pennsylvania in 1889 the meteorological division under the US Army Signal Service is transferred into a new civilian agency the US Weather Bureau within the Department of Agriculture in 1890.  It is possible to review regional climate records before bay scallops had significant market landings.  (Bay scallops was not a popular seafood or market fishery much before 1850).     

The records of bay scallop catches are hard to find; they exist in the town records as shellfish management authority are still within municipal jurisdiction.  Niantic scallop fisheries are perhaps an exception.  Here, the shallow areas of Niantic River made possible a very public fishery – the use of small boats and “lookers,” a four-sided tapered glass bottom view box and a small dip net.  The use of small scallop drags and push-pull rakes were eliminated as the fishery developed after the winters turned much cooler in the 1920’s.  Bay scallops live offshore in 20 to 30 feet of water and are driven into the river by storm tides.  Reproduction can occur in the river as long as it remains cool and nitrate-sustained algae remains sufficient.   When it is hot, barrier spits tend to “heal” and circulation becomes restricted.  This can cause extreme heating in shallow areas and the formation of sapropel – sulfide rich marine composts.  In heat, bay scallops move out or are killed by sulfides; in cold, scallop seed can easily be driven on the beach and freeze.  Both these climate conditions can be found in the scallop historical literature. 

While many reports concentrate on water quality influencing the growth of eelgrass to bay scallop abundance few have looked at the marine soil chemistry.  Much of the omission I believe is from a reluctance to examine the soil successive properties of eelgrass in low energy (non-disturbed) habitats.  The negative phase storm filled NAO cold of the 1950’s and 1960’s transitioned slowly to a more quiet and hot positive NAO phase.  As temperatures moderated after 1972 marine soils became more of a composting soil becoming unsuitable for eelgrass.  Without storm energy to recultivate these marine soils, opening soil pore space, reducing organic acids and freeing them decomposing plant tissue they became toxic to eelgrass.  This toxicity is associated with a rise in sulfide.  In the coastal shellfisheries, shellfishers noted this soil change as going from hard to soft.  Sandra L Macfarlane did a study for the Barnstable County Cape Cod Cooperative Extension Service (my old UMASS Employer) in 1999 titled “Bay Scallops in Massachusetts Waters A Review of the fishery and prospects for future enhancement and aquaculture” (27 pages) included a survey in which 48% of the respondents reported a change in sediment (think marine soil – T. Visel) from hard to soft while only a small number 4% reported conditions from soft to hard – pg. 16.

We may find that the best bay scallop harvests, occur when the waters and cool, soils cultivated and strong storms which drives both offshore (20 to 30 feet) seed and adults into shallow waters.  Bay scallops need alkaline soils which provides an eelgrass relationship to cooler and often transitioning habitats.  Areas such as Niantic River have at times reduced flushing (stagnation) and low energy warm water events.  This creates an opportunity for sulfide formation as shallow soils now undergo sulfate organic composting (bacterial decay of plant tissue) becoming a source of ammonium and sulfide.  These substances kill bay scallops and both can be traced to bacterial sulfate metabolism, in a toxic soil condition in warm water.  When waters are cool different bacteria oxidize ammonium into nitrate a plant nutrient that bay scallops benefit as it feeds plankton that it consumes.  The changes in soil bacteria are changed by both temperatures and massive soil disturbance – usually strong storms.  Non- disturbance actually hastens the creation of acid sulfate soils, a toxic marine compost in low oxygen conditions.  These soils conditions have been recorded in estuaries to our south as heat conditions are more numerous.

In 2008 Jamie P Vaudrey of the University of Connecticut wrote a report titled “Establishing Restoration Objectives For Eelgrass In Long Island Sound – Part 1 Review of the Seagrass Literature Relevant to Long Island Sound.  This case study found on page 42 illustrates the explanation of why previous researchers mentioned scallop fisheries in areas void of eelgrass (Marshall 1947) and matches the sudden appearance of bay scallops following Hurricanes Gloria (1985), Irene (2011) and Sandy (2012) as cooler air and colder winters changed soil characteristics.  It also helps explain Niantic Rivers record harvest of 72,000 bushels in the fall of 1955 after two powerful hurricanes Connie August 12, 1955 and Diane, August 19, 1955 only eight days apart just a few months before.  On page 42 Vaudrey 2008 in found a similar case history example, see below -

Natural Cycle of Loss & Recovery

”In 1995, a poorly-flushed, restricted sub-estuary (Turnbull Bay) in the northern Indian River Lagoon, FL experienced a shift in seagrass species from Halodule wrightii to Ruppia maritima, coincident with increasing macroalgae biomass.  Over 100ha of seagrass disappeared from 1996 to 1997.  By 2000, seagrass had returned to its pre-pertubation levels.  This decline in seagrass was not linked to water quality issues or to a natural or anthopogenic catastrophic event.  Morris and Virnstein (2004) proposed that the loss of seagrass was part of a natural cycle, where decaying seagrass and macroalgae accumulate in beds, creating an organic ooze which stresses the seagrass by raising sulfide levels in the sediments.  Anoxia in the sediments and the accompanying high sulfide levels cause the seagrass to become loosely attached and eventually to fail.  Without the seagrass and associated rhizome mat to hold the ooze in place, the decaying organic matter can be flushed out of the embayment under storm conditions.  Removal of the organic matter leaves behind an embayment with a primarily mineral sediment, ready for recolonization by seagrass.”  (Morris and Virnstein, 2004). 

The pattern of ammonium transition to nitrate from composting bacteria helps answer a question once asked by John Scillieri of Waterford in the middle 1980s – Niantic River eelgrass grew so thick it was causing the Niantic River to stagnate, and possibly increased nitrogen levels.

The density of this eelgrass was so thick that in 1974 a project that used dynamite cleared a channel.  This quote is from an April 8, 1987 Hartford Courant article titled “Scallop Harvesters Worry About Loss of Eelgrass.”

“Scillieri said it was also possible there are factors in addition to pollution that are killing the eelgrass Scillieri said a fungal blight in the late 1930s and early 1940s killed most of the eelgrass in the eastern United States and could be involved in the present decline of the grass.”

“Only eight years ago there was so much eelgrass in the Niantic River that the Shellfish Commission thought it was choking the flow of water” he said.  “It was blasted with dynamite to ensure a good flow of water and nutrients over shellfish beds. This decline of eelgrass has occurred over a very short time.”

Within a year we were both focusing upon the warming of the water – not fully understanding how much ammonium was coming from bacteria and how sulfate reducing bacteria could influence habitat quality.  One of the few clues to the scallop fishery was to obtain catch results.  In 1986 the Niantic River bay scallop catch was 15,000 bushels – 1 year after Hurricane Gloria.  I sought out records of the catch soon after and learned that catches in the 1980s were nowhere near those in the 1950’s.

The community in Connecticut that perhaps rivals Niantic for bay scallop history is Greenwich.  Here in the 1840’s to 1880 bay scallops thrived in coves along its shores.  In 1841 in a Greenwich Historical Society publication titled “Before and After 1776” is found this notation:

November 17 (1841) “Within the last two months, more than 20,000 bushels of scallops have been taken out of Greenwich Cove,” and “they still continue to be plenty that a single person can gather some six to eight bushels at a tide.”

In the historical scallop fisheries, they occurred in deep water and caught by using small iron dredges.  The Deep Water Narragansett Bay scallop beds are described in the US Fish Commission reports – out to 30 foot depths.  (See Narragansett Bay Deep Water Bay Scallop Habitats of the 1870’s, IMEP #52, posted July 27, 2015 and the account of John Healy found in part 2).  It is Rhode Island that has the best record of the bay scallop (Our Connecticut Fisheries History is still in boxes at the Old Lyme CT Marine Fisheries Office) landings that show this climate connection.

Rhode Island, after salt ponds fish kills of 1896, established the nation’s first marine experiment station associated with a land grant university, the University of Rhode Island.  It is here that Dr. George Wilton Field began looking at the plankton and nitrogen changes during John Hammond’s “great heat” (a retired oyster farmer who lived in Chatham, MA and studied this impact) a period between 1880 and 1920 – a period of immense climate change (Dr. Field also noticed during this period an increase in hydrogen sulfide).

The change from cold-water species of the 1870’s to those of heat in the 1890’s perplexed fishery managers and it is here that we see a concentrated effort to understand why – and this effort connected to the production and harvest of seafood.

By 1896, Greenwich, CT was also experiencing the change and fighting mosquito disease Malaria.  With support from the Connecticut legislature, Greenwich raises money to drain and fill coastal marshes.  This period of heat brought Malaria to Connecticut’s shore.  (The last Malaria outbreak occurred in South Hadley, MA in 1792 a century before.)  (See Malaria in the Connecticut Valley by Howard N. Simpson, M.P. The Valley Newsletter, April 1982) a time when lobsters became scarce and Connecticut’s weather so warm that Connecticut farmers planted mulberry trees for the silk worm, Bomyx mori, and the production of fine silk thread for a growing silk industry.  This 1790’s silk industry would be crushed by the bitter winters of the 1840’s.  The 1890’s would be quite different and the warming continued for decades.  The return of heat had also returned an old foe, Malaria, to plague Connecticut.  In 1912, the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station of New Haven, CT would issue Bulletin #173, July 1912, a 14-page report titled “The Mosquito Plague of the Connecticut Coast Region and How to Control It.”  A year later Greenwich votes with its Sanitary Committee to drain all swamps (and fill them, T. Visel) from Port Chester to Sound Beach to combat mosquitoes.  It is during this 1880 to 1920 period that Connecticut filled much of its coastal salt marshes and salt ponds to fight Malaria.  This climate period was not only hard on scallops but other cold-water species, and pronounced bulges were seen in finfish, especially the alewife.  These waves can be seen in the alewife historical catch statistics – 1879 to 1965.  Massachusetts and Rhode Island show similar peaks and valleys.  Maine’s alewife catch in cooler waters show very little change.  These waves reflect the warming and cooling of shallow waters of the climate pattern called the NAO.  The changes can be manmade – such as Tampa Bay Florida reduced flushing or natural in a cove when a sand wave is driven in by a strong storm.

(See Tidal - Flow, Circulation and Flushing Changes Caused by Dredge and Fill in Tampa Bay, Florida by Carl R. Goodwin, US Geological Survey Water Supply Paper 2282, US Geological Survey 1987).     

In New England cool water species declined in the face of extreme heat, especially the bay scallop.  This is recorded in the Rhode Island fisheries history,

1900 – Two years after the 1898 lobster dieoff in Narragansett Bay. This is the period of extreme heat.
Commissioners of Rhode Island Shell Fisheries - Pg. 8 of Scallop Fisheries:

“We are unable to give a very favorable account of the catch of scallops during the past year.  The scallop law should be reassessed and made more certain and at the same time more stringent in some respect.  We hope the law may receive your early consideration.”

1911 – 13 years after the 1898 lobster dieoff - Pg. 10:

“For many years, Greenwich Bay (RI) has been considered the best scallop ground in the state, and there have been many thousands of bushels of scallops taken from this bay.  During the season of 1911, the scallop fisheries were not limited to any one locality but were from Apponaug Cove, Chepiwanovet, Bush Neck Cove, Warwick Cove, Backer Creek, at the mouth of the Green’s River, off Pojack Point, and off Wickford.  Many were also taken from Point Judith Pond, in the town of South Kingston.

The scallop fishermen had to dredge many acres of ground for their catch, as these shellfish were scattered over large areas and were not plentiful.”

1920 – 22 years after the 1898 lobster dieoff – Pg. 8:

“It was unfortunate that the extremely severe winter of 1919 and 1920 with very heavy ice along our shores covering our river(s) and bay(s) destroyed almost completely what appeared to be in the Fall of 1919 one of the largest set of scallops in a great many years, so that the catch of scallops during the season of September 1 to December 31, 1920, was almost negligible.  There were twenty-nine (29) licenses issued for that season against one hundred and seventy (170) for the season of 1919: the catch was estimated at 500 bushels against an estimated catch of 20,000 bushels for the season of 1919.”

1924 – 26 years after the 1898 lobster dieoff in Narragansett Bay.  This is the period of extreme cold.

Commissioners of Rhode Island Shellfishers – Pg. 3 of Scallop Fisheries

“We have probably had the largest crop of scallops during the Fall season of 1923 ever known in the history of Rhode Island, at least not within the memory of the oldest inhabitant has such a fine crop, both in size and number, have been harvested as has been taken since the first day of September, and this in spite of the fact that the winter of 1922 and 1923 was one of the most severe that we have had in a number or years.  We attribute it somewhat to the fact that during the late Fall of 1922, permission was given the free fishermen to move under the supervision of our deputies seed scallops from the shallow water inshore, where the chances are good that they will survive the cold weather and become strong and healthy.  As we stated in the 1922 report, about 3 thousand bushels were thus moved.  From results obtained, we feel that the move was a good one, and the experiment if it may be called such, has been reported this fall, and at this writing something over 7,000 bushels of seed have been placed in deep water, than double the quantity, that was moved one year ago with such splendid results …

The scallops taken have been of very fine quality, and have opened about one gallon to the bushel, and sometimes a little more, so they have been unusually large.  At this writing, the crop has not all been gathered, and won’t be at the time the law goes on the first of January.  Estimates of the size of the crop of course differ very widely but taking the lowest estimate that has been made, 300,000 bushels.  Scallops are worth in the shell when taken from the water one dollar per bushel they cut one gallon to the bushel, and sale at wholesale from three and one quarter to three-and-one-half dollars per gallon.

Also scallops that happen to be found on leased oyster ground are the property of the lessee … We have been informed that as high as one hundred bushels per boat per day have been taken and during most of the season one lessee has had as many as four boats gathering scallops from a large private bed … Scallops taken by them will add thousands of bushels to the estimate.”

1929: 31 years after the 1898 lobster dieoff – Pg. 6:


“The returns on scallops were not quite as large as in proceeding years, the reason being that this species of shellfish are more liable to be moved about by heavy storms, winds and tides, than other bivalves, and in fall and winter seasons a large number are washed ashore, or destroyed by freezing.  The scallops do not breed until they are a year old, and then but once.

The Commissioners are convinced that by extending the open season for the taking of scallops from the first of September to the second Monday had been a great benefit, as it increased the scallop both in size and quality.”

Dr. George W. Field opened the Rhode Island Agricultural Experiment Station in 1896 after a series of black water fish kills, especially in Pt. Judith Pond.  The 1890’s were extremely hot and Dr. Field concentrated on the lack of nitrate – most likely used by oxygen reducing bacteria as a secondary oxygen source – today termed as “nitrate buffering.”  Nitrate was the nitrogen form that saltwater algal strains important to shellfish food, and he uses the term artificial fertilization, adding nitrogen to seawater to encourage more nitrate dependent algae.  But he was looking at two issues at once (See Proximity to Sea Coast; G. W. Field and the Marine Laboratory at Point Judith Pond, Rhode Island, 1896-1900 by C. Leah Devlin and P. J. Capelotti 1996 – Journal of the History of Biology, Vol. 29, No. 2, 251-265 for a great detailed write-up of our nation’s first land grant University Marine Laboratory).  The tidal exchange to Point Judith pond was closing – sand bars moved by storms.  Although oyster sets had improved the rise of sulfide it is thought (with organic matter reduced in heat) was killing salt pond oyster populations.  In 1899 the Commissioners of Rhode Island Commissioners of Shellfisheries asked Dr. Field for a report concerning the decline of the oyster fisheries in Point Judith Pond.  Statement of Dr. G. W. Field of the Rhode Island Experiment Station Agricultural Experiment Station 1900, contains these sections, my comments (T. Visel).

“In brief, the cause of the decline was found to be the deposition of sediment upon the oyster beds; a condition brought about the repeated closure of the breach, (inlet opening to Pt. Judith Pond, T. Visel) thus making the pond a settling basin for the silt brought down by the Saugatucket River.  (It was common to pasture farm animals in streams or dam pasture low areas for ice – both practices tend to release large amounts of organic matter, T. Visel).  The silt and detritus, settling upon the oyster beds, kills the oyster by smothering.”

At the same time, sediment in heat was smothering oysters - nitrate was scarce in Pt. Judith Pond.  It can be assumed that in heat and stagnant conditions oxygen became limiting and nitrate utilized in organic matter reduction by bacteria.  Nitrate was also essential for algal strains for shellfish nutrition.  Dr. Field wrote Bulletin #50 - The Nitrogen Problem in 1898.

The second part of Dr. Field’s report focused upon adding nitrogen to the ponds water column.  This seems contrary to present day activities to take nitrogen out, but in the heat, nitrate was likely scarce, so the need for nitrogen enhancement.  Page 17 of the Rhode Island Shellfish Commissions report from Dr. Field contains this statement,

“Experiments upon artificial fertilization of the water, analogous to the method of chemically fertilizing the land for crops, demonstrated that it was feasible to increase the growth of plants in the water through the addition of chemical plant foods, and thus render the water capable of supporting a greater quantity of animal life.  These experiments were subsequently suspended, and have not been carried to the conclusion of demonstrating the feasibility from an economics point.”

Water Quality, Bacteria and Fisheries   

It is the temperature, which guides the type of benthic bacteria that dominate the shallows and the nitrogen in the water column.  Nitrate produced by soil bacteria and Dr. Wheeler,  University of Rhode Island President in 1911 promoted the harvesting of soil bacteria below terrestrial grass to inoculate those soils low in bacteria needed for plant growth.   Nitrate from organic matter gets easily washed into estuaries during spring rains and now feed those algal strains that needed it.  These “nitrate” alga strains rich in calories are the ones that shellfish need and in the 1950’s and 1960’s Long Island Sound nitrate sometimes “ran out” and limited the algal strains that fed shellfish (ammonia fed algal strains do not provide shellfish much nutrients/nourishment – some are even toxic to shellfish).  A smaller source of nitrate occurred in the fall, as fall leaves failing in estuaries in cool waters now feed nitrate producing bacteria – and a smaller fall bloom of nitrate algal strains allowed shellfish to “store up” and produce glycogen food reserves for the long winter.

This significantly changed in heat and it was the Agriculture Experiment Stations that noticed that marine mud sealed in barrels then produced ammonia.  During warm summers oxygen levels lessened and instead of nitrate production – ammonia bacteria now grew in number and natures filter now switched (See EC #8: Natural Nitrogen Bacteria Filter Systems on The Blue Crab Forum™, posted October 30, 2015, Environmental Conservation Thread).  Ammonia algal strains now thrived, and in the 1890’s it was Dr. Field who wrote about the “Nitrogen Problem” there was not enough nitrate and that was why he added it to Point Judith Pond to keep nitrate sustained algae alive and available for oysters.

Instead in the high heat of the 1890’s, ammonia production soared, and the waters turned brown, oysters were “thin and watery” and starved as sulfides also increased.  This would increase each year until a huge red tide event happened in Narragansett Bay in 1898.  This event was extensively written up in the Rhode Island fisheries and science literature by A. D. Mead, then a professor at Brown University.  His article titled “An Investigation Of The Plague which destroyed multitudes of fish and crustacean during the fall of 1898”.  What added to the “black water” sulfate fish kills of the 1890s was those bacteria that needed oxygen could also use nitrate as a secondary oxygen source in seawater.  It is a common mistake to list only elemental oxygen as the only seawater oxygen sources but nitrate sulfate and even nitrite compounds have much more oxygen resource capacity than oxygen itself, which in warm water naturally contains less.  This solubility law is often combined with saturation – in hot or warm water less elemental oxygen is available.  In cold nitrate dominates and bacteria that keep ammonia levels low – in heat ammonia levels increase and oxygen requiring bacteria “hang on” by utilizing nitrate before giving way to those who can use sulfate as an oxygen source which because of previous global heat sulfate saturated seawater – in fact, sulfate reducing bacteria those strains that generate ammonia from organic matter compost will never see a limit – they in a warming climate will never run out.  (Although much effort has been expended in human nitrogen impacts most of it is in a highly reactive highly mobile form chemical compounds – that can flow with the water).  Far more damaging nitrogen compounds (cellulose) is locked in organic matter – leaves.  It is a solid “form” and delivered courtesy of rainfall into this most critical shallow water “nursery habitats” those subjected to thermal heating and organic composting.  Habitat wise, leaf falls (particularly oak) are far more of a habitat influence than dissolved nitrogen in water - chemical and organic nitrogen sustain different nitrogen cycles known to agriculture as organic (manure) or chemical fertilizers.

With an unlimited amount of oxygen locked in sulfate, sulfur-reducing bacteria in heat now break down leaf and grass (some of the heaviest organic loading comes from wetland/forests).  Heavy rains can wash forest “duff” ground up bits of organic matter into streams– (an example of this is the organic paste covering surfaces after a hurricane) and produce ammonia – the terrestrial “smelly” compost.  (And why most terrestrial composters today “turn” composts to keep nitrate/bacteria cycle alive by introducing oxygen from air into the organic mixture).  As bacteria that covert ammonia into nitrate die, ammonium levels build in shallow poorly flushed waters and nourish often toxic brown algal strains termed “HAB’s” or Harmful Algal Blooms.

Some of these changes in the estuaries are recorded in coves in core sections – changes between Ruppia, which needs more freshwater or eelgrass which needs salt is a proxy for rainfall.  The cysts of red tide buried deep in sapropel deposits such as in Mumford Cove tell of previous centuries ago “blooms.”  Parasites are contained next to pollen, and the largest habitat driver in shallow water, energy evidenced by “sorting.”  It is here that perhaps fisher (industry) observations are so important, the bottom habitat types.  Here are perhaps the most significant, the softening or composting of estuarine habitats in heat and low energy – the formation of sapropel.  The Town of Waterford and its winter flounder fishers, I feel, were some of the first to notice the change from firm or hard bottoms to soft.

The compost builds up in periods of heat and little energy – “the quite times.”  In regards to our bias, we like these periods – it produces the most “stable” shore habitats, as we require habitat stability in order to survive.  It is discouraging to see “energy” on the coast, it destroyed houses, killed people, washed away beaches, or cast seafood up in piles to die.  It is disturbing for us to see seafood habitat instability as it reminds us of our, oftentimes, weak hold onto habitat stability on land.  Because of this, we tend to have a negative bias against energy as it is so destructive to our interests and very deadly.

One of the best examples of this bias I use in talks and The Sound School is the massive New Haven Harbor breakwater complex.  As the 1860’s quiet and heat led into the cold and storm filled 1870’s New Haven’s port facilities were destroyed including its prize commercial pier – Long Wharf.  The wharf was indeed long as the shallow water of New Haven Harbor worked against maritime commerce and international trade.  In storms the shallow harbor waters did little to “break” the energy of storms and delivered most of the storm energy directly to harbor shore fronts.  Time after time, long wharf would be damaged, small sail schooners at anchor cast up along the railroad tracks at the harbor edge.  (At this time, the shoreline New Haven Harbor project in support of Route 95 was a century away).  Navigation and commerce losses mounted and New Haven a powerful commercial center then mounted a call for a “federal” response – the construction project for the Army Corps of Engineers plan for massive breakwaters.  New Haven then declared a war against coastal energy and this section from The New York Times confirms the declaration with a campaign to engage public opinion in support of these efforts.

On February 9, 1891, The New York Times headlines announced “It Will Be a Harbor of Refuge: What the New Breakwater at New Haven Will Accomplish.”

(* As the federal response took decades by the time the breakwaters were finished it was during the time of the Great Heat – a hot period with few storms and now killer heat waves.  I suspect as they were being finished some perhaps questioned the need.)

But here is where the bias comes in as New Haven continued to push for or campaigned to get the outer breakwaters built.  In the 1870’s, Greenwich Connecticut becomes New England’s center for the bay scallop.  Catches in bay scallops occurred all along Connecticut’s coast, Bridgeport and Norwalk included catches that were in the tens of thousands.  The 1870’s would be marked by unbelievable cold (-30oF degrees in Cheshire, CT (1872), which destroyed most valley apple orchards) but the largest catches of cod and halibut.  Dory fishers hauled up cod in sight of Boston and halibut were on the beaches.  A great brutal cold descended upon New England, and those fish and shellfish that needed cold water energy habitats thrived.  Oysters and blue crabs did not.  Winter flounder did – when the ice permitted fishing.  It was the time of the ice fish smelt, as cold water held oxygen and the smell (smoke) of sulfides in streams were now a distant chemical signature of the 1850’s to 1860’s.  The storms of the 1870s were the strongest since the 1800’s.  It is here that Niantic Bay is such a valuable case history site – the bar.  It is those estuaries that had tidal barriers – long thin sand bars.  (New Haven has one that continues in a much reduced energy state to have a barrier spit– Sandy PT).  The Niantic Bar the most significant in our state and holds a climate/habitat history of immense value from the fish records.

The bar creates what is known as the “Tampa Bay Effect,” a coastal barrier that from time to time “leaks” or breaks.  (A much smaller barrier spit feature shields the docks on Commerce Street in Clinton, CT – Cedar Island and the barrier spit break called the Dardanelles – See Clinton Harbor and the Great Heat on the CT Shoreline Taskforce website).  It is the breaks that allows energy to remove sapropel, rinse marine soils of sulfides and acids and change the species/habitat composition.  We see that transition in coves, both in salt marshes recording hurricanes and layers of bivalve shell and changes in plants (Ruppia to Zostera) reported in shell sand layers in core studies conducted by Dr. Peter Patton of Wesleyan University in 1991 and 1993.

A total of nine coves were cored and all showed layers of sand/shell even including Quiambaug Cove in Stonington.

The Wesleyan studies looked at Vibra cores of coves along Connecticut’s Coast (study contracts 1991-93 finished in 2001 and released for public in 2012) and provide critical evidence of habitat reversals between bivalve shell and sapropel (mentioned as black facies).  These coves matched observations of winter flounder fishers who fished these coves in the high energy cold 1950’s and 1960’s watched over time as leaves and grasses collected and rotted – soft and often sulfur smelling deposits grew deep in them behind coves with tidal restrictions.  These also have a habitat history and one that the Town of Waterford, CT sought to address.  In that community, the railroad crossed its coves, or bisected watershed flows including Jordan, Alewife and Smith Coves.

These tidal restrictions can be natural or manmade a railroad crossing bridge or even a tidal power dam.  The periods of energy or lack of it left layers of soft organics and sandy shell.

These reports became available in 2012 and largely confirmed what fishers had observed in the late 1980’s – layers of black soft organics (sapropel in heat) between those of shells/sand.  This confirms John Hammond’s observations of a dredging project in Oyster Pond Chatham in which the dredge operations broke into older “previous bottoms” (See Some Aspects of the Estuarine Ecosystem of Oyster Pond, Chatham, Massachusetts, 1971).

Niantic Bays “Bar”

It is here that cove samples should pick up the 1815 storm breach of the bar – the last time it would break.  At one time the “bar” acted as a sand bar, opening and closing at different times and contained at one time three openings.  Histories of the town describe cashions that were filled and stabilized and had a series of rope ferries between them (the road over the bar is still called rope ferry road today).  The last small opening filled around 1900 at the most westerly side – a frequent cut on the high tide “flood cut” over wash – water takes the short way out and cuts the bar at its base, creating an island – while storms naturally concentrate all “storm energy cut” at the bowl based cutting the bar in half and the “low tide” cut usually at the easterly end.  This three-opening event is the history of Cedar Island, high flood/storm west cut, high energy cut midway (called the Dardanelles) and low tide cut as river “ebb tide” cuts.  Before barrier bars break, the coastal energy pushes sand bars up into these estuaries (also called sand waves) and can be seen over time in aerial photography (UCONN Clear site has an outstanding time series of the Dardanelles) of Connecticut’s coast.

These sand waves push into the bay opposite the low tide channel and sets the system up for a westerly break.  What early Niantic Bay residents saw all three cuts, high energy, middle (the natural high energy “cut” concentration would impact the Niantic Bay Boardwalk project in 2011) low wide easterly (ebb channel) and a high tide west break (flood cut).  It is the flood cuts that are so dramatic, heavy rains could create a hydraulic over fill and seek as tides fall the shortest way out (this is illustrated in a much smaller system with the Pattagansett River ebb and flood channels just north of the railroad causeway in East Lyme).

The Niantic causeway had trapped several feet of organic debris what is described as two marshy islands with three openings in the bar is consistent with barrier beach habitat histories in New England.  Eventually, the westerly cut and center cut were filled and the Niantic River now today utilizes the ebb channel.  When I conducted workshops in the area, several Niantic River fishers mentioned a “Pug Channel,” a channel that once went straight and not the “Z” shaped channel.  These references could, in fact, be the remains of this west channel straight to the sea now filled most likely with sapropel – the organic paste of decayed leaves.  The last break was in 1815 and the Niantic Bar has been heavily reinforced for rail and road transit since that time.

When this happens, a change in tidal time occurs such as that reported in the East River marsh system north of the railroad crossing between Madison and Clinton.  By the time the tide was able to fully enter, it was already on the ebb at its mouth.  This causes a reduction in saline waters “tidal time” on the marsh surface and helps terrestrial plants “move” into habitat succeed saltwater plants.  This is the leaking dam or Tampa Bay effect of tidal barriers, which restrict tidal cycles (water stagnation).  This can happen naturally on barrier bars, such as the Niantic Bar, and why core studies north of the bar will provide a historic look into previous energy cycles of fresh/saltwater species. (The Tampa Bay Effect was caused by a road causeway crossing Old Tampa Bay in 1934.  It was a part of my Florida Institute of Technology Oceanography study in 1973.)

Following is a segment from the State Geological and Natural History Bulletin #46, Pg. 69, 1929:

“Between Avery and Eastern Points just east of the mouth of the Thames is situated Shennecossett Beach, very popular during the bathing season.  It is a dune-covered bar, separating from the sound, a small pond, the water of which judging from the character of the vegetation, is fresh.  The basin occupied by this pond is undoubtedly a part of the Sound, which was cut off by the growth of the bar.  In the past, the bar may have been further south and the lagoon correspondingly larger.  Continued retreat of the bar in accordance with the history of such forms is expectable and it will gradually but inevitably encroach upon the lagoon, restricting its area, and finally, when the bar reaches the inland shore, destroying it.  At the time of its origin, the pond behind the Shennecossett Beach contained salt water and was probably in direct contact with the ocean by means of an inlet through which the tides flowed.  With the advance of the bar, the inlet became closed, and the inflow of fresh water diluted the salt and made a fresh pond from which water may flow by seepage through the bar.”

This feature sets up a rare opportunity to compare cores of the west side ebb channel as compared to deposits under a huge high flood energy sand bar on the east side.  Here ancient sapropel deposits are buried by sand and the weight of such sand now compressing organics and older sapropel.  This is at times an unstable bottom and did occur at the turn of the century with oyster bars over sapropels in the upper salt ponds in the Quinnipiac River.  Oyster bars covered sapropel and in time formed a crust that sealed sapropel below.  Seed oystering operations broke threw the “crust” and sapropel ooze cut giving the appearance that entire oyster bed “sunk” into the bottom.  It is suspected that oysters had first set on peat bogs – able to support a thin crust of oysters but as the reef built up over time and grew up added more pressure on the peat which over hundreds of years turned to sapropel and dredging had broken or weakened to crust and the bed now sank into this ooze.  When the oystermen returned, they found nothing but black muck, and sapropel.  Core samples in estuaries, even in salt marshes, often show a layer of shell.  This helps explains the layers of marine compost between those with bivalve shell.  It also provides an important climate signal – my view, Tim Visel.     

Niantic River Eelgrass Transplants   

By 1988, eelgrass transplants were failing along the east coast.  Several attempts at transplanting eelgrass had failed, including one conducted by John Scillieri, himself, in 1988.  Largely unsuccessful emphasis was being made to water quality, but we both questioned why eelgrass was dying off along the entire Atlantic coast and transplants failing at the same time.  A March 1988 National Fisherman article titled “Seagrass Replanting Effort May Improve Fisheries” describes a recent project in the north shore of Long Island New York,

“According to Dr. Bill Dennison of the State University of New York at Stonybrook, western Long Island will no longer support eelgrass populations because of poor water quality.  Eelgrass transplanted several yeas ago in north shore bays died, also because of turbidity and poor water quality.”   

Heat and poor flushing could cause water quality issues and the two longest measures of quality were dissolved oxygen and nitrogen levels.  The year before 1987 Niantic River had a modest bay scallop crop without eelgrass.  Little connection was made to the huge energy event that happened.  That energy event had a name hurricane Gloria.

Appendix #1

Annual Report of the Commissioners of Shell Fisheries 1900

“The biological department of the R. I. Agricultural Experiment Station, under the direction of Dr. G. W. Field, began in July, 1896, the investigation of the cause of the decline of the oyster fisheries in Point Judith pond.  Within the past twenty years the supply of oysters, previously so bountiful, has rapidly diminished, and at present they have all but disappeared.  The details of the investigation are published in the 9th Annual Report of the R. I. Agricultural Experiment Station, Kingston, RI, 1896.

In brief, the cause of the decline was found to be the deposition of sediment upon the oyster beds; a condition brought about by the repeated closure of the breach, thus making the pond a settling basin for the silt brought down by the Saugatucket River.  The silt and detritus, settling upon the oyster beds, kill the oysters by smothering.  As a remedy for this a permanent breach was recommended.

The later work upon the conditions in Point Judith pond was upon the general economic value of the pond as a source of food supply.  Experiments were carried on for determining the amount of food in the water available for shellfish and for economic (benefit to) fishers, for the purpose of ascertaining the quantity of fish and shellfish, which could live there.  The comparisons by chemical and planktological methods showed that the food conditions in the pond compare favorably with those in Great South Bay, Long Island, NY (the native home of the Blue Point oysters). 

Experiments upon artificial fertilization of the water, analogous to the method of chemically fertilizing the land for crops, demonstrated that it was feasible to increase the growth of plants in the water through the addition of chemical plant-foods, and thus render the water capable of supporting a greater quantity of animal life.  These experiments were subsequently suspended and have not been carried to the conclusion of demonstrating the feasibility from an economic point.

In addition to the above, considerable work has been done on the economic fauna and flora of the pond, and upon the physical conditions governing marine life in the pond.  An accurate survey of the bottom has been made, giving depths of water and of mud, among other details of currents, temperature, specific gravity, tidal influences, etc.   

The biological department has published, and will send to any resident upon application, the following, bearing directly upon questions connected with the shell fisheries of the State:

1.   Oysters in Point Judith Pond, 9th Annual Report of R. I. Agricultural Experiment Station, 1896, pp. 173-186.
2.   Point Judith Pond, 10th Annual Report, 1897, pp. 117-165.
3.   Methods in Planktology, 10th Annual Report, 1897 pp. 117-165
4.   The Starfish in Narragansett Bay, 10th Annual Report, 1897 pp. 117-165
5.   Report of Biological Division, 11th Annual Report, 1898 pp. 94-96
6.   Report of Biological Division, 12th Annual Report, 1899 pp. 123-124
7.   The Nitrogen Problem.  Bulletin No. 50.
8.   The Clam.  The Cultivation of Tidal Mud Flats.  Bulletin No. 51.

Appendix #2

The Cycles of Climate – A New England Habitat History

The Surficial Geology of the Guilford and Clinton Quadrangles by Richard Foster Flint
State Geological and Natural History Survey of Connecticut – A Division of The Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources 1971 – Quadrangle Report No. 28

Page 25:

“The thicker swamp deposit preserves a fossil record of changes in vegetation and climate since the time when the ice sheet melted off the area.  Swamps and marshes in the Guilford/Clinton area have not been studied from this point of view, but a marsh in New Haven (Deevey, 1943, pg. 726) yielded a core, 28 ft. long, containing a record of fossil pollen that shows the kinds of trees and other plants that lived in the vicinity during approximately the last 15,000 years.  The succession of vegetation shows, in general, progressive warming of the climate with intermediate fluctuation.”

Appendix #3
Connecticut’s Silk Industry – Mulberry Trees of the Tropics in Connecticut
Jared Eliot, Guilford CT, once a resident of the Mulberry Point section of Guilford, was a Yale graduate of 1706; he introduced Mulberry trees into Guilford, CT around the middle 1700’s.  The Connecticut silk/worm industry grew quickly, as silk was a valuable domestic and international trade commodity.  Mulberry tree leaves, a primary food of the silkworm, which as part of its life cycle, spun thread around a cocoon that was detached, then boiled and unwrapped carefully producing the fine thread textile. This is primarily the larvae of the mulberry silkworm Bomyx mori a tropical moth.  One cocoon of this moth could hold a silk filament one mile in length.
Some rather influential Connecticut residents helped developed this silk industry, including Ezra Stiles, then president of Yale University (1778-1795) who helped start several Mulberry tree farms – (it takes about 1,500 pounds of mulberry tree leaves feed for the moth larvae to produce a pound of silk thread). Tree groves needed to be built quickly to produce tons of leaves as silkworm food and those trees needed mild winters.  Jonathan Law, Governor of Connecticut 1741-50, wrote about producing silk starting in 1730, and Benjamin Franklin promoted it and even George Washington himself in a visit to Connecticut in October of 1789 described the silk produced here as “exceedingly good”.  Rapid speculation in the cost of mulberry tree farms, some poor-quality thread and just the huge amount of labor needed to produce quality thread collapsed the industry.  But what made this industry possible were mild winters. What started in the 1730’s had peaked in the 1840’s, and was gone in the bitter cold 1870’s.  Connecticut’s maritime climate did shelter some mulberry trees and today some white mulberry trees can be found and continues as a species listed as non-native. Connecticut thread mills started to import the raw material from Asia as the climate now turned colder.  (A part of Guilford, CT today contains a section called Mulberry Point).
On December 22-23, 1839 – 10 inches or more snow fell across Connecticut, the worst snow in decades – high winds sank ships off the coast of Massachusetts – around 50 vessels.  January 18-19, 1857 was the Cold Storm – 0oF in Washington DC, one to two feet of wind driven snow and just a few days later, January 21-25, 1857, the cold wind outbreak in northern New York -40oF in Charleston, West Virginia; -24oF Fort Monroe on the Chesapeake Bay; -5oF Petersburg, VA; -22oF as this bitter artic air lingered over New England for several days.
It is thought that the severe cold heavy snows and then blight killed thousands of Mulberry trees; problems with silk quality, excess gum protein on the threads (from colder weather?) spelled the end of Connecticut’s silk production. By the time, Henry David Thoreau was writing his notes on Walden Life In The Woods and the growing ice industry there; (1854) Connecticut’s homegrown silkworm industry was almost gone.  The winters of the early 1870’s measured temperatures at -30oF.  Many of the remaining Mulberry trees were killed at this time along with many of the remaining apple orchards.  A great cold had returned to Connecticut.

 Appendix #4

The Storm Filled 1870’s
Abstracted from Don Shine Historians Corner West Haven Voice
June 26, 2014, Vol. 18, Issue 25
New Haven A Busy Sailing Port of the 1870’s

“In the 1870’s, New Haven ranked amongst the top ports.  1870’s 100 sailing ships at the docks and 100 or so waited at moorings for dock space or the correct northerly winds (usually at first light) to catch a tide out.  The port was next to a major railroad junction and connecting rail lines for both north and west.  By 1895, 31,000 vessels entered 9,000 still under sail – 8,000 were barges.  But the harbor was open to coastal storms and despite a barrier bar, every 10 years huge losses from storms hit shipyard navigation (ferries/steamships) very hard.

Captain Charles Townsend (named one) President of Yale, Theodore D. Woolsey, Mayor A.B. Bigelow, made recommendations to Congress for a harbor of refuge and breakwaters were included.  The Rivers and Harbors Act of 1879 authorized the Army Corps to build two riprap breakwaters, east and middle breakwater, which were completed in 1894.  The Portland Gale of 1898 damaged port facilities again realizing that the southern exposure was still unprotected.  So, in 1904, two additional breakwaters were authorized but only the western wall was built.  Each is 3,000 feet long by 12 feet above mean high tide two-ton slabs three feet thick were carved from Branford “pink” granite, 15 million tons in all” (Don Shine, Historian Corner West Haven Voice, June 26, 2014, Vol. 18, Issue 25).

Appendix #5

Eelgrass Niantic Bay Dieoff of 1983

In July of 1984, Patricia Foley, Chairman of Waterford – East Lyme wrote the University of Connecticut Marine Advisory Service, Dr. Lance Stewart, head of the program where I worked.  The commission was concerned about the decline of eelgrass as years of research by Nelson Marshall had included observations linking the bay scallop population to the presence of eelgrass.  This is the text of the letter and my response to an area of concern adjacent to Pine Grove on August 24, 1984 and later January 1986.

{Letter text – July 24, 1984}

Dear Mr. Stewart:

There is concern among Commission members about the lack of eelgrass in an area east of the water tower at Camp O’Neill where it once was plentiful.

Would you be able to take some bottom samples, looking for lime or herbicides deposited in that area?  A map is enclosed with the area in question marked in red. 

If I can be of further assistance, you may contact me at 26 Laurel Hill Drive South, Niantic, CT 06357.

Very truly yours,

(Mrs.) Patricia Foley, Chairman

{Tim Visel response – August 24, 1984}

Dear Chairman Foley:

Your letter of July 24th has been referred to me by Dr. Stewart.  Observations of eelgrass decline are not unusual, especially if circulation of sedimentation patterns change.  In addition, competition from blooms of green seaweed such as sea lettuce, Ulva lactuca, can also limit the growth of eelgrass.

Due to the fact that Niantic Bay has such a long residence time for nutrient loading, this may be an important consideration.  I have enclosed a publication titled “Nutrient Enrichment of Seagrass Beds in a Rhode Island Coastal Lagoon” for your interest.


Timothy C. Visel
Regional Marine Extension Specialist

At the time, I came to the conclusion that the decline of eelgrass was a nutrient (human caused) enrichment problem.  In later years, I was to learn that Niantic River had three inlets, two of which long closed by a road and a railway causeway.  In fact, it had an interesting environmental history and was pointed out by colleagues, that nutrient pollution is only one of the several possible explanations including natural fluctuations in eelgrass populations themselves.  By 1986, I had broadened the investigation to include “the buildup of organic matter on the bottom” (July 1986) as contributing to the higher oxygen debts due to the increased buildup of organic matter on the bottom.”  In this case, it was the accumulation of oak leaves as a factor in acidic conditions connected to a growing problem in winter flounder exhibiting fin rot disease (DEP Public Statement T. Visel proposed regulations regarding winter flounder, Section 26-159a-8).

The presence of multiple inlets in the Niantic River over time opened and then closed or “healed.”  This allowed periodic habitat reversals from natural energy events (storms).  There now appears to be a climate and energy connection to water quality and residence time for nutrients.  The decline of bay scallops had nothing in common with the decline in eelgrass – in this case of this area quite the opposite in fact.  The impact of human source nitrogen also was misleading – in fact the deposition and putrification of oak leaves was more “damaging” in releasing ammonia in shallow areas than aqueous nitrogen compounds from us.  Over longer time periods, little habitat association of eelgrass to bay scallop pollutions could be determined. 

A response of January 8, 1986 contained this section:

January 8, 1986

Dear Chairman Foley:

Last year, you contacted me regarding declines in the eelgrass population on the west side of Niantic Bay.  Since then, I have learned about the devastating decline of eelgrass beds in Chesapeake Bay from plankton blooms.  It seems that nutrient pollution creates a bloom of unicellular algae that may cover eelgrass blades blocking sunlight.  In addition, suspended silt particles may cling to the algae, forming a “slime” or gelatinous coating on the eelgrass blade killing the plant.  Lastly, the plankton blooms may be so intense so as to diminish light intensity reaching the eelgrass plants.

Sincerely yours,

Timothy C. Visel
Regional Marine Extension Specialist

Appendix #6
In Times of Heat Scallops Decline
The Sulfur Cycle of a Coastal Marine Sediment
Bo Barker Jorgensen, Sept 1977
Limnology and Oceanography Pg. 814-832

“Due to the activity of heterotrophic organisms, reducing conditions are maintained in most coastal sediments below a thin, oxidized surface layer.  This stratification provides the basis of a transformation of inorganic sulfur compounds through a cyclic series of redox processes.  In the anoxic sediment, sulfate is reduced to sulfide by the respiratory metabolism of sulfate reducing bacteria.  Much of this sulfide is trapped in the sediment by precipitation with metal ions, but some may remain dissolved in the pore water and reach the oxic and photic surface layers of the sediment. Here it is oxidized back to sulfate via intermediate oxidation steps, partly by a spontaneous chemical reaction, and partly by catalysis by chemoautotrophic or photoautotrophic sulfur bacteria.  These processes have a strong influence on the chemical environment in the sediment.  They mediate a significant part of the energy flow in detritus food chains connected to anaerobic decomposition (reported here), and the balance between oxygen and sulfide is an important factor for the distribution of benthic organisms (Fenchel, 1969).  In the early diagenesis of anoxic sediments, the transformations of inorganic sulfur also play a dominating role (Goldhaber and Kaplan, 1974).”

Appendix #7
Niantic Bay Eelgrass Transplants Fail in 1988-1989
“Increasing Scallop Population Considered”
The New London Day – November 30, 1988

In April 1988, Dr. Fred Short of the University of New Hampshire submitted a proposal to replant a section of the Niantic River with eelgrass shoots.  This transplant was made in conjunction with the Waterford – East Lyme Shellfish Commission and Project Oceanology under the direction of John Scillieri.  The results of the eelgrass transplant made from the help of area students was not a success and John Scillieri expressed concerns about future transplants in an article titled Increasing Scallop Population Considered that appeared on 11/30/88 in the newspaper New London Day - Lynn Banner author.  Below is a segment of that article which reported on the eelgrass transplant project.
Within a year after planting most of the transplants had perished (comments to Tim Visel) according to John Scillieri.
“John A. Scillieri, instructor of the Project Oceanology summer student research program, questioned the feasibility of planting large beds of eelgrass.  Scillieri supervised the eelgrass and scallop studies of junior high school and high school students last summer and presented their findings to the commission.  He said it took eight or nine people 10 hours just to plant the test bed, which was only one-fifteenth of an acre in size.
While students were monitoring the bed, it showed no signs of slowing the water current or increasing the oxygen level, Scillieri said.  Slower currents aide scallop reproduction.  “Without evidence that eelgrass is helping the scallop population, planting more would be expensive,” he said.  Estimated coasts for planting are $15,000 an acre.  Instead, Scillieri suggests purchasing seed scallops and culturing them until they are about an inch across in size before releasing them in the river.”
In cold and insufficient nitrate levels (food availability), transplants replaced storm-driven seed.  They helped.  In the 1990’s, in extreme heat and massive brown tides, they were much less effective – my view, Tim Visel.
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« Reply #1 on: November 30, 2021, 07:15:07 PM »

Just wondering, does anybody EVER have enough time in the day to read these marathon posts? These posts are waaaaaaay too long. I'm sure they are full of good information, but in the future, can you please post the Cliff's notes or just a basic synopsis? These posts are almost as long as Williecrab's endless crab reports, and those desperately need Cliff's notes as well. Probably even more than these.
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