Rhode Island Saltwater Fishing
Restoration and Preservation of the
Narrow River Ecosystem
By Lauren Farley, RIDEM Planning and Development and John Lake, RIDEM Marine Section
The Narrow River is a saltmarsh located in Narragansett, RI and has long been regarded for the excellent fishing opportunities it provides to locals and visitors alike. Generations have enjoyed angling from boat and shore in this unique coastal feature. Following Superstorm Sandy in 2012, it was increasingly apparent that the marsh was sinking at a higher rate than expected and in fact in danger of disappearing. Poor surface drainage results in large pools of water remaining on the marsh surface even at low tide. The marsh grasses in these areas remain submerged by the tide, effectively drowning the plants. These plants are crucial to prevent erosion and stabilize the banks of the marsh. As the grasses die and the marsh erodes, the soil from the banks fills in the River resulting in restricted tidal flow, poor flushing and elevated temperatures in the summertime. Sustained high water temperatures drive sensitive fish out of the water body and reduce the amount of oxygen dissolved in the water. The geography of the Narrow River does not afford the marsh space to expand and migrate as it erodes making it necessary for an alternate approaches to keep the marsh from sinking.
Salt marshes are extremely important ecosystems and play a critical role in commercial and recreational fisheries. They also provide natural buffers against storm surge and play an invaluable role in filtering storm water and providing natural flood protection and erosion control. Located within Narrow River, the John H. Chafee National Wildlife Refuge is a large swath of marsh in the southern part of the estuary owned by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The refuge provides crucial habitat for countless species of fish, shellfish, plants, mammals and birds. Many highly sought after recreational fish species use the Narrow River as a nursery when freshly hatched or as a place to forage and breed as adults. Winter Flounder, Striped Bass, Bluefish, and Northern Kingfish can provide some tension on the line for the savvy angler. Juvenile winter flounder, black sea bass, alewife, and tautog utilize the eel grass beds of the Narrow River as a haven from predation and to feed. For these reasons the USFWS, The Nature Conservancy and more than a dozen organizations including the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management joined forces to develop a restoration plan for this Rhode Island landmark.
Crews mobilized in November, 2016 to embark on the ambitious plan to restore the marsh and make it more resilient to coastal storm surge and the impacts of sea-level rise. The project focused on 30 acres of the eastern shore of the Narrow River Estuary in and around the Chafee Refuge. Designated areas from Middlebridge to Sedge Island were dredged using specialized equipment and innovative techniques. The deeper dredged areas will allow for existing eel grass beds to expand as well as provide a cool-water refuge for fish. Utilizing a method called thin-layer deposition, the dredge spoils were spread on the marsh, elevating it nearly six inches. Full revegetation of the marsh will take about two years and existing plants are expected to re-establish. Additional plantings will be added with the help of partners and volunteers. Another restoration technique being employed at the site is called “runneling”, a trenching technique which creates shallow channels on the marsh surface to improve drainage. Living shoreline techniques which involve the use of coir logs (large burlap tubes filled with coconut husks) and mesh bags filled with oyster and clam shells placed on the bottom adjacent to the shoreline are also being explored as methods to mitigate the erosion of the marsh banks. Federal funding for Hurricane Sandy recovery supported this project along with a $1.4 million cooperative agreement between the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Nature Conservancy.