Ecosystems photo
Clean Air
Clean and Plentiful Water
Livable Communities
Healthy Ecosystems
Viable Resource
Open Space
Healthy Ecosystems

The health, diversity, and integrity of Rhode Island's ecosystems will be restored, protected, enhanced and sustained.

Preserving Rhode Island's natural habitats within their component ecosystems is central to the Department's strategy to maintain the state's unique quality of life. Activities from outdoor recreation to commercial fishing depend on healthy ecosystems that can sustain our fish and wildlife resources. Our forests contribute to erosion control and clean air. Wetlands and coastal dunes protect upland properties from storm damage and erosion. Wetlands also store and spread out stormwater during heavy rains, preventing flood damage while filtering pollutants from storm water.

The Department, works with many partners to manage, preserve, and restore plant, animal, and aquatic species. Protecting and restorating terrestrial and aquatic habitat, protecting open space to establish corridors for wildlife, better watershed management, and growth planning preserve a variety of natural areas and wildlife for commercial and recreational use.

Rhode Island habitats are particularly vulnerable due to the state's small size and advanced stage of urbanization. Fresh and salt water systems and wetlands have been degraded by industrial pollution, bacterial contamination, and excess nutrients. About 23% of the 1300 known native plant species in Rhode Island are becoming rare or are threatened or endangered. Similarly, 28% of the state's native vertebrate species, including mammals, fish, and birds, are rare or endangered. Eelgrass beds, valuable nursery and feeding grounds for commercial and recreational fish species, have been reduced to about one hundred acres. Approximately 4,000 acres of Narragansett Bay have been filled over the past 300 years. Restoring critical habitats, including wetlands, is vital to restoring native plant and wildlife species.

Forest Ecosystems
The Department works with landowners, communities, and non-profits to manage forested areas, and protect critical habitat. The Department preserves forest land either through acquisition of key parcels or through the purchase of development rights. For more information, see The Abundant Open Space and Recreational Opportunities chapter in this report. In 1999, the DEM continued to monitor species of concern. The Department surveyed 63 osprey nests with 109 fledglings produced; 90 active beaver colonies; banded 500 geese, and attached radio tags to 14 ruffed grouse.

Coastal and Freshwater Ecosystems and Habitat Restoration
In 1999, DEM, collaborated with URI to identify freshwater wetland restoration opportunities. Along the coast, DEM,US Fish and Wildlife Service, URI and other partners, continued to map and prioritize opportunities to restore salt marsh and eel grass habitat. The state's habitat restoration program over the next two years will be an effort of the Interagency Coastal Habitat Team run jointly by DEM and CRMC. DEM and CRMC mapped all completed, ongoing, and potential restoration projects, and listed priorities with estimated costs and draft operating principles for administration. This work helped build support for habitat restoration legislation that would enable Rhode Island to receive substantial new federal funding.

A bill introduced by the late Sen. John Chafee would authorize over $300 million for restoration projects over three years. Under the Chafee bill the federal money will go only to states that have adopted restoration program legislation and matching state funds to pay for 35 percent of each project. The Department also pooled resources with twenty-one partners to match $3 million in North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) funds from the North Cape oil spill settlement, generating $13,454,515 to protect 2,370 acres of critical wetland and upland habitat in Rhode Island.

Other activities in 1999 include enforcement actions that led to restoration of 40,000 square feet of pond, 200,375 square feet of swamp, and 335,412 square feet of regulated perimeter wetland. DEM also started the South Shore Habitat Inventory and completed the Narragansett Bay Habitat Inventory in cooperation with Save the Bay and the City of Warwick. On a larger scale, the Department began the Narragansett Coastal Wetland Restoration Analysis Inventory with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, UMass and URI. DEM also continued to participate in the Narragansett Bay Cooperative Study with the National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, URI, Roger Williams University, and the Narragansett Bay Estuarine Research Reserve.

Fisheries Management
There have been dramatic changes in the dominant species in Narrangansett Bay since DEM began trawl surveys 20 years ago. Although the overall abundance has remained the same, formerly abundant species that had great value to the commercial and recreational fishery have declined. Such species as winter flounder, windowpane flounder, sea robins and tautog have declined while lower value herring, butterfish, bay an schovies and squid have increased. Similar trends have been seen with shellfish and other bottom dwelling species such as crabs and lobsters. Quahogs, the dominant shellfish in the Bay, has declined while lobster and crab have increased. The total number of lobsters belies the fact that this species, too is threatened since lobsters are being caught as soon as they reach legal size. The Department, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (AMFSC) and the Mid-Atlantic and New England Fisheries Councils, manage fisheries by setting catch limits during a given season, restricting length of seasons, and prohibiting harvest until fish have gone through a reproductive cycle. There are divergent views as to the need for an overhaul of federal laws governing fisheries management. DEM and the MFSC are developing management plans for American eel and horseshoe crab populations, as well as working with the lobster industry on an interstate management plan for the American lobster. The Department continued eleven research projects worth $1.76 million to provide data to comply with Fishery Management Plans under the Sustainable Fisheries Act. This includes construction of a 61-foot research vessel. DEM marine staff supported stakeholders through the Rhode Island Marine Fisheries Council.