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Habitat Enhancement

Saltwater Marine Fishing Regulations Rhode Island Saltwater Fishing

Progress of Ongoing Fish Habitat Enhancement Projects in Rhode Island State Waters

By Eric Schneider, Principal Marine Biologist and Patrick Barrett, Fisheries Specialist, RI DEM Division of Marine Fisheries

Fish Habitat Enhancement Work in the Coastal Ponds Along RI’s South Shore

As reported in the 2018 RI Recreational Fishing Magazine in an article entitled, “Improving juvenile fish populations by enhancing fish habitat – evaluating the use of oyster reefs as a tool to increase fish productivity”, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RI DEM), Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) are partnering on a multi-year research program in collaboration with Drs. Jon Grabowski and Randall Hughes of Northeastern University to determine if the practice of establishing oyster reefs in shallow coastal waters can be used as a tool to improve the abundance and productivity of juvenile recreationally important fishes such as black sea bass, tautog, scup, summer flounder, and winter flounder. For context, studies in the Mid-Atlantic have shown that creating oyster reefs can increase the abundance, growth, and survival of juvenile finfish (e.g., Grabowski et al. 2005, Peterson et al. 2003, zu Emgassen et al. 2016), and work in the Gulf of Mexico found an increase in fish and invertebrate biomass (e.g., Humphries and La Peyre 2015) on restored reefs compared to unenhanced habitats. Despite these successes, this approach has not yet been evaluated in a temperate region of the Northwest Atlantic. That is, until now.

Since this work began in 2014, we have constructed 8 fish habitat enhancement (FHE) reefs in Ninigret Pond and 9 FHE reefs in Quonochontaug Pond. The general approach has been to conduct habitat and fish monitoring survey work prior to creating the FHE reefs, in order to establish a baseline for future comparisons; construct the FHE reefs and seed them with juvenile oysters; and then conduct post-enhancement surveys to determine if there are changes in fish assemblages. In both ponds, we continue post-enhancement monitoring to evaluate fish assemblages utilizing the FHE reefs and associated control sites, as well as monitor the health of the FHE reefs themselves.

Although we’re still analyzing data, preliminary results show that species diversity has increased at the FHE reef sites in Ninigret and black seabass and tautog abundance has increased at FHE reefs compared to pre-enhancement (i.e., these sites before the FHE reefs were constructed) and control sites (i.e., adjacent sites where no FHE reefs were built) in both Ninigret and Quonochontaug Ponds. This initial response is generally consistent with our expectations, as well as results from other studies (e.g., Grabowski et al. 2005). Continued monitoring and data analyses will better inform our understanding of the usefulness of this technique for other areas in Rhode Island and the Region.

For more information please contact Eric Schneider (RI DFW) at Eric.Schneider@dem.ri.gov or William Helt (TNC) at William.Helt@TNC.org.

Fish Habitat Enhancement Work in the Providence and Seekonk Rivers in Upper Narragansett Bay

In 2016, the RI Recreational Fishing Magazine included an article entitled, “Enhancing and Restoring Urban Fish Habitats – New Life for the Providence and Seekonk Rivers?” described the start of a project to assess whether there are locations in the Providence and Seekonk Rivers that have improved to a state that may allow for fish habitat enhancement or restoration techniques.

For background: historically the head of estuaries, like the Providence and Seekonk Rivers in Narragansett Bay, contained some of the highest quality and important habitats for fish. Over time these habitats became degraded due to decades of impacts from poor water quality. Recent advances in stormwater management as well as dramatic improvements in the treatment of wastewater (e.g., by municipal wastewater treatment facilities) has improved the water quality in these areas. This begged the question, has the fish habitat improved in the urban Providence and Seekonk Rivers and are there now locations where restoration and/or enhancement practices may now be appropriate? That question is the focus of the collaborative study between the RI DMF and TNC.

Beginning in 2016, RI DMF and TNC began to collect information about the benthic habitat and fish utilizing these areas. To document the fish assemblages in these areas, we are hauling a beach seine and setting fish pots at 12 locations from Conimicut Point up through the head of the Seekonk River. To assess the benthic habitat in these areas we are towing an underwater sled equipped with a video camera and water quality sonde. These videos are later analyzed to classify the substrate and habitat, as well as document the current state of the benthos in these areas at a given time. The habitat information captured by the video are used in combination with fisheries data to help determine potential locations for habitat restoration and enhancement practices.

For example, this information has been extremely helpful in evaluating the potential for creating an artificial reef at the Sabin Point Fishing Pier. More specifically, DMF in partnership with TNC are in the process of obtaining permits to install a small artificial reef to enhance habitat and fishing opportunities at the Sabin Point Fishing Pier in East Providence. As part of this work, DMF and TNC will be conducting pre- and post-enhancement monitoring to evaluate the effectiveness of artificial reefs as an enhancement tool in RI state waters. We expect this project will serve as a model for artificial reef projects in RI by improving habitat, increasing local abundance of fish, and providing societal benefits through increased fishing opportunities.

For more information about the Providence and Seekonk River Survey work please contact William Helt (TNC) William.Helt@TNC.org. For more information about the Sabin Point Artificial Reef Project please contact Patrick Barrett (RI DFW) Patrick.Barrett@dem.ri.gov.

Literature Cited:

Grabowski, J.H., Hughes A.R., Kimbro D.L., and M.A. Dolan. 2005. How habitat setting influences restored oyster reef communities. Ecology 86, 1926–1935.

Humphries A.T. and M.K. La Peyre. 2015. Oyster reef restoration supports increased nekton biomass and potential commercial fishery value. PeerJ 3:e1111; DOI 10.7717/peerj.1111.

Peterson, C. H., J. H. Grabowski, and S. P. Powers. 2003. Estimated enhancement of fish production resulting from restoring oyster reef habitat: quantitative valuation. Marine Ecology Progress Series 264, 249–264.

zu Ermgassen, P.S., Grabowski, J.H., Gair, J.R., and S. P. Powers. 2016. Quantifying fish and mobile invertebrate production from a threatened nursery habitat. Journal of Applied Ecology 53(2), 596-606.