Innovation Ecosystem

Why the sea is boiling hot? Fish don’t lie, and fish don’t vote

A conversation with Topher Hamblett, the interim director of Save The Bay, as the urgency of climate change engulfs Narragansett Bay

Photo by Richard Asinof

Topher Hamblett, the interim director of Save The Bay, at Save The Bay headquarters in Providence.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 7/17/23
Part One of an in-depth interview with Topher Hamblett, the interim executive director of Save The Bay, at an inflection point when it comes to how Rhode Island plans to address the urgent challenges of the climate threat.
What is the connection between the toxicity of fossil fuels and the manufacturing of plastics – and what steps can Rhode Island take to limit the spread of chronic diseases as a function of protecting environmental justice communities? What are the opportunities to expand the reach of low-cost, high-quality Corsi-Rosenthal air filters developed by Joseph Braun and his team at the Brown School of Public Health to improve the performance of students in Rhode Island’s public schools? How can the arc of justice be expanded to view improvements in maternal and children’s health as a function of building resilience to expanding the saltwater marshes and river estuaries throughout the watershed of Narragansett Bay? Can we create an index of healthy drinking water as a quality of life measurement in Rhode Island?
There is something deliciously absurd to the response by some rich landowners in their attempt to restrict access to oceanfront property by hiring private security forces to keep people off their alleged patch of sand, given that within the next few years, the contours of the shoreline of Narragansett Bay promise to change shape completely as water temperatures rise, the saltwater marches recede, and the ebb and flow of tides change the contours of the shoreline.


PROVIDENCE – More than 250 swimmers crossed Narragansett Bay on Saturday morning, July 15, participants in the annual two-mile, open water swim from the Naval War College in Newport to Potter Cover in Jamestown, led by Olympian Elizabeth Beisel, celebrating Save The Bay’s advocacy efforts to protect and improve the 1,705-mile watershed.

The tumultuous weather events of the last month – flooding, rainstorms, heat waves, and landslides – have underscored the urgency of the critical work that Save The Bay, the nonprofit advocacy group founded in 1970, has been conducting around resilience and adaptation.

Simply put, all of life in Rhode Island is defined by Narragansett Bay, its salt marshes, its fisheries, and its tributaries. And, Narragansett Bay is changing rapidly, with its salt marshes predicted to shrink by more than 50 percent in the next few decades.

Hamblett, the newly appointed interim director of Save The Bay, is in the proverbial hot seat. Hamblett’s task is daunting: to attempt to rouse Ocean State residents from their doldrums into taking  action, responding to the accelerating threats of rising ocean water temperatures, receding shorelines, and depleted fish habitats. All aboard?

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Topher Hamblett, who has served as head of advocacy for Save The Bay, when assumptions about the future of Narragansett Bay are being swept away in waves of torrential flooding

ConvergenceRI: We are at a point of inflection when it comes to talking about the future of Narragansett Bay and the urgency of the climate crisis and the ways in which the messaging may need to change. What does it mean to “save the Bay?” The annual Save The Bay swim is three days away.
HAMBLETT: The messaging on climate change is one of urgency.

ConvergenceRI: If you had a billboard, what would it say?
HAMBLETT: Great question. There are two fundamental components to climate change. One is reducing greenhouse gases. The other is adaptation. And both are urgent.

Save The Bay has focused – and will continue to focus and emphasize – the adaptation side. On the greenhouse gas reduction side of things, we’ve supported the Act On Climate law and other related legislation here in Rhode Island. And, there is a lot of energy, a lot of resources, being poured into mitigation.

There are now resources being dedicated to adaptation and those are critical for the adaptation of Narragansett Bay. We are losing most of our salt marshes to sea rise.

ConvergenceRI: What is the percentage of salt marshes that are being lost?
HAMBLETT: By the end of this century, we will have lost more than half of all our salt marshes.

ConvergenceRI: What does translate to in terms of…
HAMBLETT: …acres?

ConvergenceRI: …In terms of consequences?
HAMBLETT: Salt marshes are the nurseries of life in Narragansett Bay.

ConvergenceRI: The nurseries of life?
HAMBLETT: Yes, nurseries of life. Juvenile fish, shellfish, bird life – all use salt marshes as their habitat. We have to save what we can. And, there are opportunities, geographic specific opportunities, to save salt marshes.

Or, to help them to adapt. As the seas rise, there are places along Narragansett Bay where marshes can migrate upland and inland.

And, those places are the Palmer River, areas of the lower Taunton River. We are doing something now that we were not doing 10 or 15 or 20 years ago, which is actually working with land trusts to secure parcels of land near these flood plains, near these low-lying river areas, so marshes can migrate inland.

ConvergenceRI: How much have you secured in terms of land parcels?
HAMBLETT: We are in the early stages of this. I can’t, off the top of my head, give you a number. But I can get back to you.

ConvergenceRI: The opportunity to collaborate, when you are talking about adaptation, not only working with land trusts, but with different groups, is required. Are there particular groups that you are focusing on collaborating with, as you move forward?
HAMBLETT: To start, with marsh migrations, [we are working with] local land trusts, Warren Land Trust, and the Rehoboth Land Trust, to name two.

ConvergenceRI: Places such as Touissett, in Warren?
HAMBLETT: I think of Touissett as a bluff…

ConvergenceRI: It’s like a peninsula.
HAMBLETT: What I am saying is that, I think, physically, I’m not sure that marsh migration is possible in Touissett, because of the topography. It’s not going happen in places where there steep rocky shores.

And, I think, working on a larger scale with Nature Conservancy, on some of these issues, which are very important, we are working to get the resources to support these kinds of efforts. There is the Ocean State Climate Adaptation and Resilience Fund, or OSCAR. Are you familiar with OSCAR?

ConvergenceRI: A bit, yes.
HAMBLETT: A couple of years ago, we got the OSCAR legislation passed to establish a fund for climate adaptation on public lands for state and municipal uses.

Three years ago, the General Assembly passed the legislation – but didn’t fund it. Two sessions ago, the General Assembly put $4 million into the OSCAR Fund, and this summer, the regulations are now set, so that OSCAR funds will be available in September, I think, for cities and towns to tap into.

ConvergenceRI: And so, you actually may get to spend it?
HAMBLETT: Yes, to actually get to spend the money. And, the great thing about OSCAR, which is kind of unique, is that there are not any matching fund requirements, which is very appealing to cities and towns that don’t have a lot of money laying around to put into matches. And, at the same, these state funds can leverage a lot of federal funds that do require a match.

We’re excited about the OSCAR Fund finally being deployed. And, beyond marsh adaptation, Richard, there is a lot of work to do along the shorelines, because rising seas and rising waters mean more coastal erosion.

We’re seeing astronomically high tides going into neighborhoods, going into streets, parking lots, including parking lots in public access areas, for beaches all around Narragansett Bay.

We do a lot of work, in effect, re-grading some of the shorelines around the Bay, to help preserve these places of public access. There is so much work to be done.

Moving beyond adaptation
Hamblett then switched gears in the interview, moving from the challenges of addressing the loss of saltwater marshes to the problems related to rising water temperatures.

HAMBLETT: One of the more challenging components of climate change, too, is that the waters are warming. The fisheries management becomes more challenging. We are losing some species, like lobster and winter flounder; those are in decline.

We are seeing species like scup on the increase, and we are seeing more and more tropical species appearing in Narragansett Bay. We have actually put some of those species in our aquarium for periods of time.

ConvergenceRI: When we talk about “urgency,” there is a sense, because we are human, we tend to see things as a gradual progression.  Our belief is that things will continue to change at the same rate of speed. What has become clearer this summer is that the change is not happening in a gradual fashion: We are having these huge rainstorms and our infrastructure is overwhelmed.

In rural states like Vermont and in rural parts of New York State and western Massachusetts, with the onslaught of water, the change is happening quicker and in a much more severe way than can be anticipated by change and adaptability. My question: How do you change your messaging, when you are looking at long-term adaptability, but when we no longer have a long-term framework. Things are happening more quickly than perhaps anyone anticipated.
HAMBLETT: They are.

ConvergenceRI: Was that a good way to phrase the problem?
HAMBLETT: I think that’s right. And, just in the last two weeks of news, nationally, between heat waves and floods, and landslides, I think that is a good way to phrase it, actually. Beyond the urgency, I think the acceleration that we are seeing in climate change impacts just creates more urgency.

And now, using your example of floods, we are still using these antiquated stormwater management systems that don’t have the capacity to take all these huge fluxes of rainwater that are coming in, inches over hours of time.

While there is urgency, there also needs to be this rethinking of how we manage water. And while flooding is probably not seen as a Narragansett Bay issue, flooding is very important to people, period.

And so, we have to incorporate flood management into our work, too. It’s really important. That’s why, to move from adaptation, the other term that is commonly used is resilience.

How do we make Narragansett Bay resilient to climate change? And, there are a few components to that, too. We have to have a long-term goal of restoring river connectivity, with the rivers that are part of the Narragansett Bay watershed. There are hundreds of dams that can be removed and should be removed, both for river health but also for flood management. I think that maybe it may seem to be counter-intuitive to many people that removing dams is actually good for flood management.

These dams are old, and when water builds up behind these dams, when we get intensive storms, those dams are in danger of breaching. And, the impacts of that downstream can be catastrophic.

So, restoring the connectivity [of rivers] means, among other things, taking out dams, restoring flood plains and wetlands in those river systems, which are ecologically valuable but can also help reduce the impacts of heavy flooding that we are seeing and will continue to see.

ConvergenceRI: When you talk about resiliency, there is an organization that Buff Chace has put together, The Providence Resilience Partnership. He’s been actively working with the federal delegation in acquiring money. Do you see his work as a focus of collaboration? Or, are you competitors for a limited amount of resources?
HAMBLETT: We are not competitors. That work is very important. The Providence Resilience Partnership is very focused on the city. And, rightfully so. Just think about what is at stake. Think of the Port, think of downtown. And, it’s not simply a matter of building walls. This city, the waterfront, is going to look very different in 50, 75 years than it does today.

[See links below to ConvergenceRI stories, “In the gathering storm on climate, how do we act together?” and “If not now, when?”]

ConvergenceRI: Or, in five or 10 years, would be my guess.
HAMBLETT: In terms of what is built and what has been taken down. And all that stuff.

I think that the Providence Resilience Partnership is a good idea. And resources are needed to help the city plan for its future.

ConvergenceRI: So, you are working in collaboration, not competition?
HAMBLETT: Definitely not in competition.

ConvergenceRI: I want to go back to the idea of a billboard. Because we are forced to try to create messages that everyone can see and say: “There it is! I get it. I understand it.” But, in most cases, they don’t.

I was wondering: I often think of images, and the images that get projected. So, if you could turn a photographer like Mike Cohea loose, he does all those brilliant images of the State House with the Independent Man and the moon rising, and Narragansett Bay… If you had a visual image that you wanted to present, here we are in 2023, for Save The Bay, which is 53 years old, what would it be?

Have you thought about how best to craft such a message? You have the annual swim, which is a really important visualization. I hope I am not being too pushy here about images. I expect that you have thought about this a lot, particularly because you are now in charge. What type of imagery do we need to develop to reach the younger generation?
HAMBLETT: I think the younger generation is actually ahead of the rest of us.

ConvergenceRI: Why?
HAMBLETT: I think that they have grown up with climate change. They’ve been seeing it their whole lives. And, there is real anxiety around it. Understandably. Again, I am going to stay focused on Narragansett Bay.

I think of the images of Market Street in Warren flooding out during spring tides, not even during Nor’easters, but just spring tides. So, you see the low-lying areas of Warren sitting in the Palmer River, and that is a jarring image.

That is certainly one image. I have had the experience of being in Waterplace Park during a high tide and seeing juvenile menhaden literally coming up through the storm grates and covering the sidewalks of Waterplace Park.

ConvergenceRI: There was the recent incident where juvenile menhaden arose and all the sea gulls went wild...
HAMBLETT: [The experience I was recalling] was a few years ago, which occurred during a tidal event. What you are describing happened this spring.

ConvergenceRI: What an image to capture and portray. Fish don’t lie [emphasis added].
HAMBLETT: And, fish don’t vote, either. Save The Bay has always been a voice for Narragansett Bay. We are a people’s voice for the Bay. For the life in it, and for the people who depend on it – and who love it.

ConvergenceRI: How do you translate that? To succeed, you have to be involved in electoral politics. And work with the General Assembly.

ConvergenceRI: You say: “Fish don’t vote.”
HAMBLETT: But fishermen vote.

ConvergenceRI: How do you make that translation? What a great headline: “Fish don’t vote. Do you?”
HAMBLETT: I like that. The General Assembly makes policy. I will say that I am encouraged by what I’ve seen over the last few years in the General Assembly. There are legislators who have been working on these issues for some years. And, they have been joined by a newer generation of legislators. The fact that The Act On Climate got passed as quickly as it did says a lot. The fact that the OSCAR Fund legislation got passed – and funded – says a lot.

There are more and more legislators who are interested in dealng with the real urgency of climate change and Narragansett Bay issues.

ConvergenceRI: When it comes to protecting Narragansett Bay, a lot of that has to do with enforcement – of making sure that the laws are enforced and that there are the resources to make sure that the people who violated those laws get prosecuted. Do you have ongoing discussions with Attorney General Neronha and his staff on how best to move forward – and what is the best strategy and policy.
HAMBLETt: We do. The Attorney General is very interested in enforcement. I will say that the state – the DEM [R.I. Department of Environmental Management] and the CRMC [R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council] – lack the resources they need for robust enforcement.

ConvergenceRI: What do they need?
HAMBLETT: They need two things. They need people, and they need the political will.

ConvergenceRI: Can you quantify what you mean when you say, “They need people?”
HAMBLETT: I believe the CRMC has only two enforcement staff. They need more for the 420 miles of coastline that we have. The DEM, it’s hard to really know, because the DEM uses the term “compliance,” and we have been advocating for a restoration of their enforcement capacity for some years. They have added some new inspectors over the last couple of years, but they need more.

There is still not a culture of deterrence. That is one of the reasons why enforcement is so important. Number one, it is to protect the environment, it is to protect public health, it is to protect worker safety. But it is also to create that climate of deterrence.

It’s also unfair to – you know, the vast majority of businesses – that require permits, comply with the law, and do what they are supposed to do.

If there is not adequate enforcement, those businesses that do violate the law are at an advantage economically, they are not investing the money in stormwater treatment.

And, the other thing you need to do [is create a culture of deterrence]. I also think it is bad for Rhode Island’s business climate.

Business owners need to know that there is a fair and level playing field when it comes to enforcement. They need to know that if they comply, that they won’t be at a [competitive] disadvantage [compared] to those that don’t comply.

I do think that there is a deep-rooted mindset in the body politick in Rhode Island that enforcement is “quote unquote” bad for business.

In PART Two, the ConvergenceRI interview with Topher Hampblett delves deeper into the challenges that Save The Bay is seeking to carve out in shaping the political will to address the urgent challenges around protecting Narragansett Bay.

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