Sabin Point

Saltwater Marine Fishing Regulations Rhode Island Saltwater Fishing

Sabin Point Artificial Reef

By Patrick Barrett, Fisheries Specialist, RI DEM Division of Marine Fisheries

Since 2017, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management Division of Marine Fisheries (RIDEM DMF) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) have been monitoring the Upper Narragansett Bay and Providence River to characterize the habitat and to identify suitable locations for fish habitat enhancement projects. This research recently led to the first fish habitat enhancement project to use artificial reefs since the demolition of the Old Jamestown Bridge (Gooseberry Island and Sheep Point Reefs; completed in 2007), and the first project to use Reef Balls™ in the state of Rhode Island. The work was funded largely through the federal Sport Fish Restoration Program, administered by RIDEM, with additional funds raised by The Nature Conservancy, including a grant from the RI Saltwater Anglers Association.

On October 25th, 2019, the Providence River benthos was improved by the Sabin Point Artificial Reef. Over two days, 64 Reef Balls™ were carefully lowered to the bottom of the bay, creating 4 distinct patch reefs (4 x 4 clusters) that range from 120 to 225 feet from the end of fishing pier at Sabin Point Park in East Providence. The Sabin Point artificial reef is divided into two nearshore and two bayside patch reefs designed to provide equal access to anglers (e.g., both shore and boat anglers), something that’s historically uncommon in artificial reef work.

To date, most projects completed along the coast have taken place miles offshore, in large scale deployments, that use a variety of repurposed materials such as natural (i.e., rock, shell, trees, etc.) and man-made (e.g., tugboats and subway cars) structures. In 1870 South Carolina deployed the first documented US artificial reef and used log huts to build them; in 1935 New Jersey and the Cape May Wilford Party Boat Association sunk four vessels of the coast of Cape May that became so popular that the Pennsylvania-Reading Railroad offered a discounted 1-day round trip to bring anglers from Philadelphia to Cape May; and in 1950 the Shaefer Brewing Company donated 14,000 wooden barrels filled with concrete to make a reef near Fire Island, NY (McGurrin et al. 1989 , Stone 1985). From beer cases to charter boats, ingenuity continues to drive the field of artificial reefs.

Compared to other states, Rhode Island’s venture into the world of artificial reefs is relatively new. After the era of sinking anything and everything, from tires to large ships, the use of prefabricated modules became cheaper to deploy and allowed for a more standardized approach to artificial reef research. The 1970s marked this transition, as well as Rhode Island’s first introduction to the enhancement technique. Rhode Island’s first deployment focused on determining if pre-fabricated modules can be used as a tool to increase the carry capacity of lobsters in areas devoid of natural shelter (Sheey 1976). Additional research and mitigation projects to restore fish habitat continued in Rhode Island during the early 2000s; including the Dutch Island (2003), McAllister Point (2004), and Sheep Point and Gooseberry Island reefs (2007). The Sabin Point reef has built on the success of these projects among others along the coast, and will continue to add to the science of artificial reef creation in Rhode Island waters Following the examples of other successful reef projects, the Sabin Point reef has adopted the of use specifically-designed, well-tested concrete reef structures, deployed on a small scale with the goal enhancing local fish habitat in estuarine waters (Bohnsack 1994, Lindberg 2006, Jordan 2005, Rosemond 2018).

The Sabin Point project will enhance fishing in the nearby Sabin Point waters, which currently provides fishing access but little structure for demersal reef fish like tautog and black sea bass. Through this work we’re aiming to enhance the size and abundance of targeted species (e.g., tautog, black sea bass, scup) that are available to catch at this location. The artificial reef structures will be colonized by algae and invertebrates, promoting the base of the food web that will ultimately support more mid-trophic level sportfish. Research on Reef Balls™ have been shown to create more robust benthic habitats, ultimately attracting more fish to the reef. The reef will also provide shelter and food resources for sub-legal size sportfish and aggregating forage fish, promoting both the growth and survival of these individuals (Powers 2003, Caddy 2011). The complexity of the reef community is expected to develop over time, however, in just two weeks, initial colonizers were already documented setting up on the reef. Divers from RIDEM DMF and TNC will continue to monitor the succession of the reef multiple times a year.

As artificial reef work continues to grow in RI we are looking to identify the value associated with artificial reef habitat. The Sabin Point project will be used as a pilot study for the use of Reef Balls™ in the RI waters and to identify monitoring guidelines for future artificial reef projects. The reef will be fished once a month from May to October and additional dive surveys will be completed throughout the year to monitor the reef colonization and productivity. We are also interested in determining the relative habitat value produced by creating artificial reefs in the bay, both from a biological and social standpoint. From our work we will establish fish habitat linkages by comparing productivity estimates on artificial reef in relation to sand flat controls, and other important finfish habitats (e.g., Oyster Reefs, Kelp, and Eelgrass). The permitted reef area can be found on the updated NOAA Nautical Chart 13224 (Providence River and Head of Narragansett Bay) denoted as the Fish Haven on the south side of Sabin Point Park. For more information on the Sabin Point Artificial Reef and literature cited, please contact Patrick Barrett (patrick.barrett@dem.ri.gov; RIDEM DMF) or Will Helt (william.helt@tnc.org; TNC).

Photo taken during post installation inspection dive November 2019