By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
NORTH KINGSTOWN – Thomas Kutcher stands in the shimmering sunlight of a very warm spring afternoon, inhaling the distinctly fishy aroma of work boats tied up at the Town Dock, at the end of Main Street.
It is like sweet perfume to this man who has found his greatest delights growing up on Narragansett Bay, specifically the Warren River; he became an accomplished surfer – his favorite spots were off Bonnet Shores and Narragansett Pier – swimmer and boater.
“I love the little skiffs,” he says, smiling, and adds that he has a fondness for restoring small vessels. “I started when I was 13. I bought the neighbor’s boat and did the fiberglass [repairs] myself. My father was from North Providence and not a boat guy, but my mother grew up on the Bay. Her family used it [to feed their eight children] during the Depression.
“I grew up listening to her stories.”
Kutcher, 46, who lives in North Kingstown with his wife and two children, ages four and two, will be honoring Narragansett Bay – and all it represents to him personally – in his new position as Baykeeper for Save the Bay. He’s been on the job since April 9, the day after Easter.
Everything in his life’s experience has prepared Kutcher for the role that will put him on the frontlines of the myriad issues the environmental-activist organization has been tackling since 1970, when they began pulling sewage-clogged Narragansett Bay back from the brink of death.
Kutcher is familiar with the functions of the Coastal Resources Management Council, which Save the Bay was instrumental in founding; he has had direct involvement with the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM.) He understands the importance of keeping healthy fish stocks, something learned while working on the loading dock of the Point Judith Fishermen’s Co-op.
Each crew member had to “push 400 pounds of fish and ice,” stacked on a dolly in four 100-pound crates, up a ramp to fill a 40-foot tractor trailer. “We filled five to six trucks a night,” he says.
Kutcher’s education arms him to negotiate the sometimes-choppy waters of public opinion and government policy.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and management from the University of Rhode Island and is pursuing a master’s degree there. He served an internship with the National Estuarine Research Reserve, a project funded by DEM and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA.)
Before accepting Save the Bay’s offer, Kutcher worked on wetlands issues for the Rhode Island Natural History Survey’s water resources office.
“I’ll be advocating for a clean, healthy, sustainable Bay,” he says of the new assignment. “The role [of Baykeeper] has evolved since John Torgan took it 18 years ago.” Torgan left last November for an executive post with the state chapter of the Nature Conservancy.
“I have a different skill set,” Kutcher continues. “They’ll put me where I’m most effective.” He believes he’s the right man at the right time.
“I have faith,” Kutcher says. “It was a rigorous hiring process. I think I’m going to like it [although] it will be a learning curve.”
He already has a fan club at home – his wife, Jess, a former track star whose running prowess sent her to nationals, and his children, both of whom he’s proud to say “love fish and clams.”
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN.