By Angela Surrusco
Imagine catching a glimpse, here in Narragansett Bay, of the bright yellow fins and bold stripes of a strikingly beautiful butterflyfish you have only dreamed of encountering while on vacation in the Bahamas.
Did you know that species like this really can be found right here in Rhode Island? Believe it or not, Narragansett Bay is becoming a new home for many non-native species that are swept up from warmer southern waters to New England via the Gulf Stream currents.
Some of these animals make it back home through the season, while others die in our cold winter waters. However, the gradual warming of our waters is changing all that, making the Bay more and more hospitable to these “tropical travelers” further into the fall and winter seasons.
Over the past 50 years, our average water temperature has warmed by 4℉, and these tropical, non-native fish have been arriving earlier in the summer and lasting later into the winter. Why does that matter? Well, non-native species—of animals and plants— are also called “invasives,” because they can often cause problems for local ecosystems. The new populations disrupt our natural balance and find themselves in a position to compete with the species that belong and reside in the Bay, which are now at risk.
The lionfish, for instance, is a stunning fish with long, spiky fins that allow it to camouflage and stalk prey such as smaller fish, shrimp, and crabs. With the help of a venomous spine, they would defend themselves from potential predators in their native regions, such as sharks, which are not present here. But here, lionfish are able to prey on the animals of the Bay, unchecked with no predators.
This brings the question of what we do to adapt to these shifts and save as many fish as possible. The fish that get caught in the Bay mostly originate between South Carolina and the Bahamas, but can be found in other tropical and subtropical areas as well.
Thanks to many good fishermen who bring the tropical fish they catch by accident to Save The Bay’s Exploration Center and Aquarium, these beauties live long lives here, without endangering our local marine life, and serve as a wonderful educational tool for community members.
Tropical fish are attractive to divers and snorkelers because of their beautiful colors, patterns, and features. At the Exploration Center and Aquarium, visitors can see many topical travelers up close in several exhibits, including the “Bay of the Future” exhibit. This 12-foot-long tank can hold about 350 gallons of water and showcases some of these incredible and unexpected critters.
You may first notice the spotfin butterflyfish, which gets its name from the unique dark spot that appears on its dorsal fin. A similarly extraordinary and colorful fish that will catch your eye is a striped burrfish, a creature that almost looks like it belongs in “Finding Nemo.” Among the rest, you can find scamp groupers, permit jacks, bandtail puffers, and Atlantic moonfish.
Spreading awareness of these tropical travelers is crucial for us to be actively working together to protect the environment. If you are interested in witnessing these species for yourself, or are intrigued by these significant environmental changes, you do not have to travel far. The Save The Bay Exploration Center & Aquarium is located on Easton’s Beach in Newport.
Winter hours include Friday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The Exploration Center features three touch tanks and more than 40 species exclusively from Narragansett Bay, creating a remarkable and interactive experience for children and adults alike.
Angela Surrusco is a communications intern with Save The Bay.