The Block Island Maritime Institute: Finding its niche

Mon, 12/30/2013 - 3:00pm

Organizations that quietly go about their business, doing good works in a low-key manner over a long period of time, are often the victims of their own success. If they are quietly successful, it’s easy to take them for granted and believe they might not need any help.

The Block Island Maritime Institute (BIMI) falls into that category.

This is unfortunate, because, after talking to those who work with the group have an infectious passion for the work they do, one suddenly finds a need to help.

Sarah Nahabedian is one such person. Ask her about BIMI. She’s genuinely excited about her work. The BIMI board of directors hired Nahabedian to be the Institute’s Director of Operations in 2012. As BIMI President Wendell Corey said of the hire, “that was the best decision we’ve ever made.” She mentions her often pleasant experiences with people who have just discovered what BIMI is all about. “Most people get really excited about [our program] when they hear about it,” she said. BIMI has been doing its work on Block Island for well over a decade.

The organization began as a sailing school with the Block Island Club, and was a boat rescue organization in 1998. But that work was unable to sustain itself. For the better part of the last 10 years, the group’s work has been geared towards educating the public, especially young people, about the values of aquaculture, marine biology and related sciences, as well as enlightening them to career paths based on those sciences and the maritime heritage of Block Island. Nahabedian mentioned that in her high school, “out of 400-some students in my class, I was the only one to continue my studies in those [particular] fields.”

With continued fundraising efforts, BIMI hopes to be able to do more on Block Island. “It’s such a wonderful place,” Nahabedian said. She said the challenges in broadening their reach not only include fundraising, but also in finding more good people to help out, and getting the community on board and “impassioned” about the island’s ecology. BIMI hopes to partner with Sue Gibbons at the Block Island School to start an oceanography and aquaculture curriculum for island students in the near future.

Nahabedian also mentioned her desire to develop research about the Great Salt Pond, to learn “more about what comes out of the pond: are we damaging the environment, and is it healthy enough to harbor quahogs?” Shellfish are a key ingredient to water quality and to the island’s general ecosystem. According to Corey, who has a background in oceanography, a single oyster can filter 50 to 100 gallons of water in one day, cleaning the water in its environment.

“This a large reason is why the Chesapeake Bay (an estuary between Maryland and Virginia that has waters flowing into it from six states, including Pennsylvania and New York) has its problems. They nearly depleted their shellfish populations,” Corey said.

The point is that the shellfish populations of Block Island rank among the most important species on the island.

BIMI’s cooperation with Roger Williams University and the University of Rhode Island, as well as the aquaculture lease run by Perry Phillips and Dave Deffley, as well as Chris Littlefield’s lease and Chris Warfel’s Sun Oyster Farms, have collectively preserved the healthy size of the shellfish populations on the island. Additionally, the Shellfish Commission has worked constantly to keep the recreational shellfishing flow uninhibited. They are able to sustain their shellfish populations in Andy’s Way and Cormorant Cove with revenue primarily from the sale of shellfishing licenses.

There is little money to be made from shellfish farming, at least not nearly enough to warrant the work that it entails. In turn, this is why BIMI finds its work to be so important. Raising awareness about this aspect of Block Island’s ecosystem is key. Corey said that BIMI is beneficial to Block Island because, with “so many vacationers coming out to the island, the young kids have a place to go for a new learning experience.”

Furthermore, it’s yet another passage through which people have an opportunity to support the island. He finally insisted, “awareness about Block Island’s ecosystem is important because [its maintained environment] is the reason people come to the island in the first place.”

Having mostly retired their sailing and boat rescue programs years ago, BIMI is now fully focused on educational programs regarding science and aquaculture on Block Island. Programs that continue in full swing heading into the summer of 2014 include the Dolphin Kids’ Program and the ten-week lecture series at the Smuggler’s Cove building. The lectures include informational sessions about aquaculture, oceanography, and anthropology. In a fascinating Block Island Times article earlier this year, Jack Lynch wrote about the launching of the restored whaling ship Chas. W. Morgan. A lecture regarding this re-launching of the historic Morgan was sponsored by BIMI and held at the Smuggler’s Cove building, and welcomed over 50 attendees. Lectures like these will continue this summer on Tuesday nights at the Smuggler’s Cove building.

The Dolphin Kids’ Program, led by Jack Lynch and now joined by Nahabedian, will enter its ninth consecutive year in 2014; it cooperates with New England inner-city schools to bring gifted children to Block Island for a week-long educational tour. Nahabedian mentioned that she hopes to add boat tours to the program this summer to explore the aquaculture leases on the island. The Dolphin program in particular is Lynch’s own pride and joy these days. When asked why he does it, Lynch will simply say, “I’m 73 years old, I’ve been around... I just feel the need to give back, to be frank, and this is the best way I feel I can do that.”

Pete Tweedy, Vice Chair of the Shellfish Commission, has displayed a great interest in the growth of BIMI. He shares interests with BIMI, which are simply to reach out and educate people on Block Island and beyond about this island’s wonderful ecosystems. “Money is one thing,” he said, “but we really just want to get more people involved and get them to realize, ‘hey this is really cool’.” Tweedy gathered some excellent ideas for the growth of BIMI’s outreach programs during a visit to a Roger Williams University recently. The school has apparently inquired about becoming more involved in the education programs here. Wendell Corey mentioned the possibility of turning the Smuggler’s Cove building into a full-time educational center. Tweedy went even further to suggest putting the Coast Guard Station to use for that purpose.

BIMI has plans to build upon its core mission. It has built a solid education system, has had excellent volunteers and interns, has created a successful shellfish farming program, sponsored others, and has made strides in research on Block Island just in the last couple of years.

But the group wants to keep moving ahead.

If anyone is interested in becoming involved or joining their efforts in any way next summer, contact the Block Island Maritime Institute via e-mail at or visit the website at