Book-of-the-Month: Ocean Country

Book review contribution by COA volunteer Kathleen Weathers

“We are all connected, and all have a social responsibility to not only educate ourselves, but to act.”

Kathy Weathers

Liz Cunningham’s part environmental exposé, adventure story, and memoir reads like a great letter to a friend. Carl Safina, noted conservationist and author, wrote the introduction. The book’s subtitle, “One Woman’s Voyage from Peril to Hope in her Quest to Save the Seas,” is the nutshell summary of in-depth explorations into ocean health. Cunningham illustrates five areas around the world that share the same problems and solutions, transcending national borders, hence Cunningham’s word choice of “country” in the title. She takes the reader on a journey from the Islands of Turks and Caicos, the California coast and the Coral Triangle, which include thousands of Pacific islands stretching from Indonesia to East Timor. The expedition continues on to the Mediterranean and the Silver Bank, known for its breeding ground of humpback whales, just north of the Dominican Republic.

Three simple questions guide Cunningham’s interactions with fishermen, policy-makers, conservationists, sea nomads, scientists, and yes, Parisian chefs:

  1. Why is the ocean so important?
  2. How can we live without leaving a trail of destruction behind us?
  3. Given our interconnected destiny with other creatures, how do our lives need to change?

You’ll learn how Coral Triangle fishermen were supported in changing their harvesting practices from using dynamite (with obvious catastrophic long-term consequences) to sustainable methods, by gaining appreciation of an ecosystem, and creating a forum where all members agree to abide by the “new” approach. This new approach often resembles traditional methods that have been once abandoned. Cunningham’s interview with one of the forum members makes all the difference in how we learn about the process of change. We hear directly from active fishermen faced with problems that threaten their livelihoods and food sources, problems with which our own Ocean State fisherman can identify.

We read other stories of turtle poachers becoming eco-tourism guides, and the creation of SeaWeb Seafood Summit, the world’s premier conference on seafood sustainability (Seafood Summit June ’19 in Bangkok). We learn fascinating facts about how Manta rays have the largest brain-to-body ratio of any fish, how the size of the Tokyo fish market is equal to 43 football fields, and how 2.6 billion people depend on fish not just as a protein source, but as their sole (pun intended) food.

Cunningham’s consistent discovery and message throughout the book is that every human being has a role to play. We are all connected, and all have a social responsibility to not only educate ourselves, but to act. Volunteering with Clean Ocean Access (COA) is a great way for citizens of the Ocean State to become one with our “ocean country” and to be part of the global effort.

Get Involved with COA

Ocean Country is a highly recommended read if you: breathe, eat, enjoy water in its various forms; if you are concerned about the degradation of our environment and need shoring up (pun intended), or if you are new to the issues. Bring your curiosity about world cultures and read how seemingly big systemic issues enmeshed in economies can be tackled by small connective actions. Check out the “Resources” section at the back of the book. Cunningham gives a shout out to volunteering “for an organization you feel passionate about.” Chances are if you are reading this, you are connected to COA in a meaningful way. Think about who else might benefit from this connection and bring them aboard.

For more information on ocean science issues and topics discussed in the book visit:

Liz Cunningham’s Website

College of the Atlantic

SeaWeb – A project of The Ocean Foundation

Meet Our Environmental Science Intern: Emma Gettman

When it comes to water quality monitoring, no one knows the waterscape better than Emma Gettman. As an environmental science intern at Clean Ocean Access (COA) this fall semester, Emma has helped to improve coastal water quality on Aquidneck Island through the water quality monitoring and beach cleanup programs.

Emma is an Ocean State native and loves exploring the underwater world day and night. Growing up in North Kingstown, Rhode Island, she remembers making sand castles with her dad and loves night swimming.

“I’ve always loved the ocean and wanted to work at an organization where I can help make a difference,” says Emma, who is senior at the University of Rhode Island’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences, pursuing a degree in environmental economics with a minor in sustainability.  

Emma spent a semester studying abroad half way around the world at Lincoln University in New Zealand, where she worked alongside PhD students researching genetic changes in soil microbes as a result of invasive species. Her genuine curiosity and scientific research skills led her to pursue an internship with COA in September 2018. In addition to monitoring water quality and helping run beach cleanups, Emma has also helped write reports, enter data, and track marine debris collected in the marina trash skimmers.

A typical Thursday morning for Emma entails waking up in the early morning and driving out to different access points across Aquidneck Island, where she then collects water samples. These samples are then delivered to the Rhode Island Department of Health for further analysis and testing of Enterococci, bacteria found in human and animal intestines that indicate the presence of fecal matter and potential risk of harmful diseases in water systems.

COA has been monitoring water quality year-round since 2006, helping to improve water quality in our favorite swimming spots around Aquidneck Island. In fact, COA volunteers and environmental science interns, like Emma, continue to monitor water quality September through May, when state-wide monitoring is not performed.

“I’m interested in advancing a sustainable and healthy environment, and I enjoy learning about different conservation strategies,” says Emma, who will be graduating from URI this December. After graduation she hopes to do more traveling and engage in environmental work that allows her to continue educating the public about environmental sustainability.

Report finds single-use plastic makes up 70 percent of debris in marina trash skimmers

Clean Ocean Access recently released its annual Marina Trash Skimmer Report detailing the success of the Marina Trash Skimmer (MTS) program over the past three years, as well as the development and expansion of the program in southern New England, which will include the installation of new MTS units in Providence, Rhode Island and New Bedford, Massachusetts this coming spring.

In 2018, the four MTS units on Aquidneck Island successfully removed 5,885 pounds of marine debris from coastal waters, including 4,223 individual items of debris. That is equivalent to nearly three tons of debris ranging from material related to shoreline and recreational activities to smoking and medical/personal hygiene activities.

“As our staff empties the skimmers, it is eye opening to see the amount of trash removed from the harbor, as well as the different types of items,” says Sara Mariani with the City of Newport’s Harbormaster Office, one of the program partners for the MTS unit located at Perotti Park in downtown Newport. “The program is a daily reminder that we must change our behavior to improve the health of Newport Harbor, as well as the Narragansett Bay and beyond.”

Between April and October of this year, COA conducted 36 site visits of the four MTS units located across Aquidneck Island, and performed detailed data collection at each location. Itemized debris counts indicate that single-use plastic makes up 70 percent of material collected in the MTS units. This low-to-no-value material includes items, such as plastic food wrappers, plastic water bottles, plastic caps, lids and straws. The remaining 30 percent of materials collected in the MTS units include materials related to smoking and tobacco use, such as cigarette butts, tobacco packaging, filters and lighters.

The MTS program launched in 2016 when COA received grant funding from 11th Hour Racing to install the first two MTS units on the East Coast. The following year, COA expanded the MTS program with the installation of two more units on Aquidneck Island. Since the launch of the program, COA-operated MTS units have removed a total of 20,615 pounds and over 27,000 individual items of debris from our coastline.

“The trash skimmers provide us with important data about the pollution that ends up as marine debris in our coastal waterways,” says Max Kraimer, marine debris specialist at COA. Kraimer works to leverage, facilitate, and establish MTS technology and research on the East Coast. He also leads trainings and educational outreach events with local schools and community groups.

Over the past three years, the MTS program has educated and engaged 959 individuals, including elementary school students, college graduates and senior-level scientists studying marine debris.“We’re able to use the technology to educate the public about ocean pollution, bringing visibility to the problem of marine debris and inspiring communities to make environmentally-responsible decisions on land that improve the health of our ocean,” Kraimer adds.  

The success of the MTS program, made possible by 11th Hour Racing, has led to increased growth and awareness of the technology throughout southern New England. In spring 2019, COA plans to launch two more MTS units in Providence, Rhode Island and New Bedford, Massachusetts. COA will install an MTS unit in partnership with the City of Providence and the waterfront bar, Hot Club, helping to improve water quality in the Providence River and educate Providence public school students on the issue of marine debris. The second MTS unit is in partnership with New Bedford Community Boating Center overlooking Clark’s Cove in New Bedford harbor.

“By partnering with Clean Ocean Access and the New Bedford Port Authority on the installation of a trash skimmer, we will not only be helping to clean our local waterway, but we’ll be helping to raise awareness of the marine debris issue and encourage everyone to engage in positive change,” says Andy Herlihy, executive director of New Bedford Community Boating Center, an 11th Hour Racing grantee and community outreach center that teaches positive life values to Greater New Bedford’s at-risk youth through boating.

“The skimmer will be front and center on our waterfront, where it will be highly visible to tourists and residents alike. The ocean has historically and continues to be one of our city’s greatest assets and we all need to do our part for its health,” adds Herlihy.
COA extends its sincere appreciation to the MTS program partners and sponsors, including 11th Hour Racing, The City of Newport, New England Boatworks, Sail Newport, Bioprocess H2O, as well as to the volunteers and citizen scientists who help make the program successful.