A fortunate combination of forces and resultant events has given Narragansett Bay its varied marine life. The glaciers gave it form, determined the courses of its tributaries, and arranged the deposition and characteristics of its dominant bottom sediments. The ocean filled the basin, and in rhythmic daily cycles continued to mix and change the waters. The streams provided dilution of the ocean's saline solutions. The sun is always the prime mover. As the earth tilts toward the sun and away from it in orbit, the seasons change and water temperatures rise and fall, as does the temperature of the air above the surface.
All manner of wonderful things result. Rising temperatures trigger the migratory movements of the pelagic fishes (the fish of the open ocean that are not bottom dwelling, such as the sea herring and menhaden), stir to activity the winter-dormant resident populations, and stimulate the reproductive processes. And as the temperatures begin to fall toward winter lows the pelagic species move out of the Bay, some only a few miles offshore and others hundreds of miles to the south. Even the tiny microscopic forms which make of its water a rich soup for hungry plankton feeders respond to these natural seasonal patterns. Although there are other factors, some of them man-made, the seasonal temperature changes seem to be the common denominator in the lives and habits of all the Bay's subsurface residents.
In this complex world beneath the surface, every inhabitant, no matter how large or how small, must forage for food. Without food, there are no reproductive cycles and no propagation. The search for food is ceaseless and brutal. For each level of life there appears to be another level which must eat it to survive, except for certain large forms which appear free from most natural enemies. Nature has a system of checks and balances which controls even these: overgrazing, for instance, can increase the numbers of grazers to a point where the food supply is drastically reduced; this results in a reduction of the consumer population, which permits the animals that constitute the food supply to regenerate. The system seems to work; the links in the food chain remain in place, except when there is outside interference.
From what we know, man has always found Narragansett Bay rich in marine plants and animals sufficient needs. The Indians along the shores harvested the shellfish and speared and netted a wide variety of fish centuries before European colonists arrived. Roger Williams is most eloquent in his descriptions of the marine life of the Bay in his book, A Key into the Language of America. He made this "generall Observation of Fish": "How many thousands of Millions of those under water, sea-Inhabitants, in all Coasts of the world preach to the sonnes of men on shore, to adore their glorious Maker by presenting themselves to Him as themselves (in a manner) present their lives from the wild Ocean, to the very doves of men, their fellow creatures in New England."
Williams found all sorts of fish and shellfish of importance to the Indians. Some he thought were similar to species known in England. When he could, he attempted to put into writing the names the Indians called them. Some of the excerpts from his book make interesting reading and show that, with a few exceptions, the Bay's marine life in the seventeenth century was similar to the fish and shellfish of today. For example:
Cod. Which is the first that comes a little before the Spring.
Lampries. The first that come in the Spring into the fresh Rivers.
Aumsuog. Afish somewhat like a Herring.
Basse. The Indians (and the English too) make a daintie dish of the . . . head of this fish; and well they may, the braises and fat of it being very much, and sweet as marrow.
Sturgeon. Divers part of the Countrey abound with this Fish; yet the Natives for the goodnesse and greatnesse of it, much prize it and will neither furnish the English with so many, nor so cheape, that any great trade is like to be made of it, untill the English themselves are fit to follow the fishing. The Natives venture one or two in a Canow, and with an harping Iron, or such like Instrument sticke this fish, and so hale it into their Canow; sometimes they take them by their nets, which they make strong of Hemp....
Osacontuck. Afat sweetfish, something like a Haddock.
Breame. Of this fish there is abundance which the Natives drie in the Sunne and smoake; and some English begin to salt, both wages they keepe all Deere; and it is hoped it may be as well accepted as Cod at a Market, and better, if once knowne.
Whales. Which in some places are often cast up: I have scene some of them, but not above sixtie foot long: The Natives cut them out in several! parcells, and give and send farre and neere for an acceptable present, or dish . . .
Moamitteaug. A little sort oafish, hake as big as Sprats, plentiful! in Winter.
Paponaumsuog. A winter fish, which comes up in the brookes and rivulets; some call them Frostfish,from their comming up from the Sea into fresh Brookes, in times of frost and snow....
Clams. This is a sweet kind of shelfish which all Indians .... Winter and Summer delight in; and at low water the women dig for them this fish, and the natural! liquor of it, they boils, and it makes their broth . . . seasonable and savory . . . and for that the English Swine dig and root these Clams wheresoever they come, and watch the low water (as the Indian women do), therefore of all the English Cattell, the Swine . . . are most hateful! to all Natives, and they call them filthy cut throats, etc.
Poquauhock. A Horse-fish. This the English call Hens, a little thick shellfish, which the Indians wade deepe and dive for, and after they have eaten the meat . . . they breake out of the shell, about halfe an inch of a blacke part of it, of which they make their Suckauhock, or black money, which is to them pretious.
Meteauhock. The pertwinckle. Of which they make their Wompans, or white money, of half the value of their Suckawhock, or blacke money....
Some of the seventeenth-century species may not be here today. The sturgeon, for instance, if the same as the sturgeon found in European waters, is not recognized among the Bay's present residents. Possibly the English did learn how to catch them and ate them all up.
Narragansett Bay, because of its location, contains both northern, cold-water forms and southern forms of marine life. Marine biologists have observed for years that Cape Cod is a rough boundary in this respect.
Soft-shell clams and hard-shell clams, or quahaugs (an adaptation of the old Indian name, "Poquauhock"), illustrate this boundary effect. Narragansett Bay has both. The hard-shell clams are found in only a small number of areas north of Cape Cod. Soft-shell dams, on the other hand, our "steamers" and clambake favorites, flourish along the northern shores but are found in only a few places south of Cape Cod (Narragansett and Chesapeake Bays, for example).
The mouth of the Bay is only about 150 miles from the meandering Gulf Stream, and this relationship adds an exotic group of visitors to Rhode Island waters from time to time. Occasionally a segment of the northward-flowing tropical Gulf Stream water will break away and drift shoreward, bearing its marine life with it. At such times the lower Bay and coastal ponds receive some locally rare marine forms.
In 1906, H. C. Tracy, in a report on rare fishes to the Rhode Island Commissioners of Inland Fisheries, listed tarpon, sand launce, crevalle, threadflsh, dollarfish, lookdowns, tripletail, triggerfish, fllefish, smooth puffer, and flying fish as Gulf Stream visitors to the state. These still visit the Bay. He observed that most were juveniles and theorized that they came from eggs floating in the Stream; the adults, being stronger, were able to stay behind. It is not uncommon for juvenile barracuda to appear in coastal ponds, and beach strollers now and then scoop up a pail of sea horses. The latter event almost always brings an excited call to the local newspaper.
The edge of the continental shelf is not far away, the continental slope beginning about 90 miles offshore, and this provides Narragansett Bay with other seasonal residents which return to the slope waters for spawning In studies done by Saul B. Saila, of the Graduate School of Oceanography at URI, it was found that lobsters, which are not normally migratory, can travel great distances if they are displaced from their home grounds. Tagged slope lobsters were released in the Bay; some were retrieved in Rhode Island Sound, apparently on their way back to the slope, and others made it all the way, a distance of more than 100 miles.
Narragansett Bay has a rich variety of marine life that is native to it. The winter flounder, or the blackback, is Rhode Island's most abundant saltwater fish, according to URI researchers. It eats large amphipods and polychaetes, spawns in the salt ponds and sections of the Bay where it was born, moves off into deeper waters outside the Bay as temperatures rise in the summer and returns in the winter.
Conveniently for Rhode Island bottom fishermen, the exodus of winter flounder coincides with the arrival of the summer flounder, or fluke, which arrives in June and stays until November, although there are years when the fluke doesn't appear.
The tautog, "blackflsh" to the fishermen from Long Island south, stays in Rhode Island waters year round. The thick-lipped and blunt-toothed tautog like the mussel beds and rocky outcroppings in the Bay in the warm weather months, using their powerful jaws to grind up small crustaceans and mollusks. Sea bass and cunners may share their feeding grounds. As winter approaches, the tautog move out of the Bay into deeper coastal waters and are reported to lie virtually dormant on the bottom during cold months.
The single most characteristic inhabitant of Narragansett Bay is not a fish but a shellfish. Of the species edible to man, the quahaug is the most numerous and most widely distributed. Quahaugs thrive best in a mix of sand, mud, shells, and small rocks, according to marine scientists, but can also be found in single-sediment mud, clay, sand, and gravel bottoms. When conditions of sediment-mix, temperature, and food (phytoplankton; in particular, small diatoms) are most suitable, concentrations of from 150 to 300 bushels per acre of bottom have been measured. Throughout the quahaug grounds—just about all of the bottom down to a water depth of 50 feet— densities average about 100 bushels per acre.
When early spring comes to Narragansett Bay and the shad bushes bloom, the alewives arrive and move up the small tributary streams to spawn. The thick-bodied herring, called "buckles" by some Rhode Islanders, used to be accompanied by big, female shad laden with roe, but in recent years the shad are less numerous. The water temperature has to be about 58° F for the alewives to move in from the sea. Although the size of the herring runs fluctuate, there are still good locations for them, such as Gilbert Stuart Brook, at the head of the Pettaquamscutt River in North Kingstown; Buckle Brook in Warwick; and the Palmer River in Barrington.
By late May or early June, the summer immigration is in full swing. Bluefish have appeared from offshore spawning grounds to stay until water temperatures fall below 58° F. They are probably after menhaden, members of the herring family, which can come into the Bay in great numbers when the water temperature climbs above 50° F to filter feed on plankton and small crustaceans. The sharp-toothed bluefish will eat almost anything that swims. The food list includes mackerel, other herring, hake, butterfish, and squid. The juveniles devour fish eggs, copepods, and the larvae of mollusks and crustaceans.
Striped bass arrive about the same time, moving along close to the shore in search of small fish. crustaceans, and invertebrates. They have come from distant wintering grounds, most as far away as Chesapeake Bay, and will stay in local waters until the water temperature drops to about 45° F.
This is the season for a host of warm weather visitors. The butterfish show up in search of annelid worms, small fish, and crustaceans, as do the soup. Squeteague, voracious eaters like the blues, also appear in May, and at about the same time the mackerel move in from offshore and arrive at the mouth of the Bay. American eels enter the salt ponds and freshwater streams and remain until the strange fall migration of the females begins over hundreds of miles back to the spawning grounds in the Sargasso Sea.
The blueshell crab, which, because of efficient paddles at the ends of one pair of legs, is one of the best swimmers among the crustaceans, joins the procession and enters the warmest shallow-water areas of the Bay and the salt ponds to mature and prepare for the spawning cycle offshore in the cold months. The conchs, or channeled whelks, begin to stir and scrape long trails across the sandy bottom in the quest for food. Lobsters crawl out of their burrows and rocky homes when the water temperature rises above 40° F. and by midsummer are ready to molt again, and grow a larger, more loose-fitting suit of armor.
Outside the Bay, there is considerable coming and going. Squid leave the continental shelf waters and travel inshore in search of food but do not enter the Bay. In early May, schools of bluefin tuna show up to eat the squid and other fish. As temperatures continue to rise, swordfish, which prefer 61°F or higher, appear from distant oceanic wintering grounds to dine on much the same fare as the tuna. The haddock, cold-water fish, stay offshore, and sea herring, also preferring colder water, travel north. Whiting, on the other hand, swim south to find warmer spawning grounds.
There are sharks in Narragansett Bay, but no records exist of a shark attack on a human being. The Bay sharks are adjudged occasionally annoying but completely harmless. There has been no authenticated record of a shark attack in New England, waters in the past 30 years.
Arriving in the Bay in June are the sand shark, sometimes up to twelve feet long but usually four to five feet long, and the dusky shark about six to nine feet long. Two related species, the smooth and spiny dogfish, frustrate the sport fishermen by eating their bait and fouling their gear. The smooth dogfish is in the Bay in June and the spiny dogfish only when temperatures are between 43° and 59°F.
Some rare visitors are the brown shark the sharp-nosed shark and the basking shark, all harmless. Outside the Bay, a wide variety of oceanic sharks can be found, the most common being the thresher, which can grow to 20 feet in length.
It would take a thick volume to describe all of the Bay's inhabitants, seasonal and permanent. The list would include the sea robins, blowfish, the big angler or gooseflsh, which appear to be all mouth and head, the skates, Jonah crabs, spider crabs, antediluvian horseshoe crabs, hermit crabs, and fiddler crabs, razor clams, ribbed and blue mussels, mud snails, oyster drills, and moon snails limpets by the millions, several kinds of jellyfish, small sponges, soft corals, and many more. The annelid worms are of varied forms, among them the extensive polychaete or bristle worm group. Some build marvelous tubes of glued sand and gravel or of mud. All engage in eating and reproducing in an endless cycle. Most are available to be eaten.
This munching of one another can go on only because the food chain has an extensive foundation—the phytoplankton. The minuscule zooplankton "animals" graze on the phytoplankton "plants" and contribute to the general welfare by excreting phosphates and nitrates which are utilized by new generations of phytoplankton. The zooplankton support the larvae and juveniles of many species of fish and some adults as well.
Most abundant of the phytoplankton are the diatoms, microscopic one-celled organisms of various intriguing shapes. Both soft-shell clams and quahaugs rely on the diatoms for the bulk of their diet. Of the zooplankton, the most numerous are the copepods, tiny crustaceans.
These, then, are some of the subsurface inhabitants. Oysters and bay scallops, which were once harvested in quantities in the Bay, virtually disappeared in the 1950s. There are efforts to reestablish the oyster population through aquaculture, and as for the scallops, an eelgrass blight has ended and they are beginning to return, especially in Point Judith Pond, the state's largest saltwater area outside Narragansett Bay, and in other salt ponds.
Soft-shell clams too almost disappeared for a time during the mid-twentieth century. Although windrows of tiny juveniles washed up on Bay beaches, the adults couldn't be found in worthwhile concentrations. Then they began to reestablish themselves at half a dozen nearshore locations where mud/sand mixtures were right.
At and above the surface another extensive group subsists on the subsurface food chain. These are the waterfowl, some of them permanent residents, others appearing in the fall and spending the winter, or merely passing through on their way to winter homes in the south. There are many diving ducks, which seek their food beneath the surface, and dabblers who eat vegetation at or near the surface. Huge rafts of ducks have utilized Narragansett Bay for centuries. Including the mute swans and mergansers, there are 35 kinds of waterfowl in Rhode Island during various times of the year. Some stay on the freshwater streams and ponds, but most can be found on the Bay. In some years, more than 50,000 scaup have been counted on the Bay during the winter months.
Among the other feathered residents, the herring gull is always present, scavenging the shores and water for anything edible. The gulls are adept at digging quahangs, and they will crack open the thick shells by precision "bombing" of seawalls and jetties. They are joined by great black-backed gulls, laughing gulls, and terns in the summer. During the warm months, certain southern species such as egrets and ibis nest on a few protected rocky islands, and cormorants are plentiful, to be found drying their outstretched wings on rocks and pilings. Occasionally, unusual varieties of seabird life appear—a group of black skimmers, perhaps, or the 1976 appearance of a Siberian smew on Aquidneck Island. The unusual visitors are quickly spotted because the Bay is under constant scrutiny by an exceptional number of sharp-eyed and experienced bird watchers.
The shores, especially the sandy and muddy stretches, and the marshy regions in the coves and salt ponds provide a summer home for an extensive group of shorebirds ranging from great blue herons and little green herons to turnstones, yellowlegs, and sandpipers, all at work on nature's common challenge, the search for food.
In 1904, Edgar Mayhew Bacon, in his book Narragansett Bay, Its Historic and Romantic Associations and Picturesque Setting, described the ospreys, or fish hawks, of the time: "Uncounted fish hawks sweep across these waters, or occupy nests that consume almost as much raw building material as the cottages of the human fishermen. Every very tall tree near the water seems to be pre-empted by these feathered aborigines, and if one is not averse to noise he may stick up a long pole with one or two cross-pieces nailed upon the top, and be pretty sure that before a season goes by there will be a structure upon it that looks like a composite of hay-rick and wood pile."
Frequently, cartwheels were placed on poles to form the base for an osprey's nest and Bacon suggested that Rhode Islanders let naive visitors assume that the clever fish hawks had carried the cartwheels there.
Ospreys almost disappeared from the entire Bay region in the years after World War II. Naturalists gathered evidence demonstrating that DDT in the water was to blame, resulting in soft-shelled eggs and failure of the young to hatch. With the ban on DDT and perhaps for other reasons, ospreys have begun to reappear, not yet in the old numbers but sufficient to inspire hope for these beautiful, soaring birds. The mammals of the Bay and its shores do not seem to be as numerous as the birds and fishes. Along the water's edge, especially in the marshes, there are small rodents and muskrats and raccoons, and at the mouth of the Bay visiting harbor seals. Now and then deer are observed swimming in the Bay, generally between the islands of Patience and Prudence.
Judging by the old accounts, the shores and all of the islands once were heavily forested. Settlement and intensive agriculture changed the landscape long before twentieth-century man decided that the shoreline was a valuable resource. With the decline in agricultural use, second-growth forest and brush have returned to much of the shore from mid-Bay to the entrances wherever man's developments have not interfered. A surprising amount of undeveloped shoreline still remains in the lower regions and on the islands, although the tall trees of the early Colonial period have vanished.
This is Rhode Island's prime resource, the focal point for numerous human activities in the past and in the present. Let us now look at the ways in which man has used it.