Secrets of the Bay
Do we really know what lives below the surface of Narragansett Bay? And can history teach us to protect our most valuable treasure?
Photography by Michael Cevoli
Cupped in the palm of my right hand lies a windowpane flounder, barely as wide as a silver dollar, and not as thick. I can feel the tender dampness of its pale white belly. Its scales glow a mottled chestnut brown, its edges are fringed with delicate lace. And in my left palm rests a miniature sea bass, not quite two inches long, its round black eyes staring, its muscular little body tightly packed into its scaly dark skin.
Jeremy Collie, the University of Rhode Island professor in charge of this fish trawl, has placed the tiny fishes in my hands, grinning, just moments after releasing them from the net at the stern of URI's research vessel, Cap'n Bert. He’s plucked them from a pile of squirming, panting, flopping fish, scrambling crabs, seaweed and starfish, the latest in a set of weekly trawl samples that go back more than fifty years, one of the oldest data sets of its kind in the world.
Collie and graduate student Elisabeth Henderson work as fast as they can to sort through the pile, filling up buckets with flat adult flounders, each as big and round as a dinner plate; a dozen graceful sea robins with fins like wings; one beefy calico-colored oyster toadfish; multitudes of feisty spider crabs, lobsters, squid and more — revealing a glimpse into the rich and varied life beneath the surface of Narragansett Bay.
It's a mysterious world down there, hidden from our everyday view. But scientists like Collie and Henderson are collecting data every day and analyzing it in new ways, searching for fresh knowledge and insights. They're finding out more about how the Bay has changed over thousands of years, and how it's been affected by the humans who exploit it. It's a complex tale, stretching the depths and the limits of what science can tell us. But the incentive to learn is pressing, as we strive to keep the Bay healthy and productive for generations to come.
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