State of the Beach/State Reports/RI/Beach Ecology

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Rhode Island Ratings
Indicator Type Information Status
Beach Access86
Water Quality64
Beach Erosion8-
Erosion Response-7
Beach Fill5-
Shoreline Structures6 2
Beach Ecology3-
Surfing Areas48
Coastal Development{{{19}}}{{{20}}}
Sea Level Rise{{{21}}}{{{22}}}


To the casual observer, beaches may simply appear as barren stretches of sand - beautiful, but largely devoid of life or ecological processes. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Sandy beaches not only provide habitat for numerous species of plants and animals, they also serve as breeding grounds for many species that are not residential to the beach. Additionally, beaches function as areas of high primary production. Seaweeds and other kinds of algae flourish in shallow, coastal waters, and beaches serve as repositories for these important inputs to the food chain. In this way, beaches support a rich web of life including worms, bivalves, and crustaceans. This community of species attracts predators such as seabirds, which depend on sandy beaches for their foraging activities. In short, sandy beaches are diverse and productive systems that serve as a critical link between marine and terrestrial environments.

Erosion of the beach, whether it is “natural” erosion or erosion exacerbated by interruptions to historical sand supply, can negatively impact beach ecology by removing habitat. Other threats to ecological systems at the beach include beach grooming and other beach maintenance activities. Even our attempts at beach restoration may disrupt the ecological health of the beach. Imported sand may smother natural habitat. The grain size and color of imported sand may influence the reproductive habits of species that utilize sandy beaches for these functions.

In the interest of promoting better monitoring of sandy beach systems, the Surfrider Foundation would like to see the implementation of a standardized methodology for assessing ecological health. We believe that in combination, the identified metrics such as those described below can function to provide a revealing picture of the status of beach systems. We believe that a standardized and systematic procedure for assessing ecological health is essential to meeting the goals of ecosystem-based management. And, we believe that the adoption of such a procedure will function to better inform decision makers, and help bridge the gap that continues to exist between science and policy. The Surfrider Foundation proposes that four different metrics be used to complete ecological health assessments of sandy beaches. These metrics include

  1. quality of habitat,
  2. status of ‘indicator’ species,
  3. maintenance of species richness, and
  4. management practices.

It is envisioned that beach systems would receive a grade (i.e., A through F), which describes the beach’s performance against each of these metrics. In instances where information is unavailable, beaches would be assigned an incomplete for that metric. Based on the beach’s overall performance against the four metrics, an “ecological health” score would be identified.


The Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Program states as one of its goals "to protect the scenic and ecologic value of beaches."

Policies to protect the ecology of sandy beaches, barrier beaches, and dunes include:

  • Alterations to beaches adjacent to Type 1 (conservation areas) and Type 2 (low-intensity use) waters are prohibited except where the primary purpose of the project is to preserve or enhance the area as a natural habitat for native plants and wildlife. In no case shall structural shoreline protection facilities be used to preserve or enhance these areas as a natural habitat or to protect the shoreline feature.
  • On barrier beaches (barriers) classified as undeveloped in Table 4, the Council's goal is to preserve, protect, and where possible, restore these features as conservation areas and as buffers that protect salt ponds and the mainland from storms and hurricanes.
  • Alterations to undeveloped barriers are prohibited except where the primary purpose of the project is protection, maintenance, restoration or improvement of the feature as a natural habitat for native plants and wildlife. In no case shall structural shoreline protection facilities be used to preserve or enhance these areas as a natural habitat or to protect the shoreline feature.
  • New development is prohibited on Moderately Developed Barriers except where the primary purpose of the project is restoration, protection or improvement of the feature as a natural habitat for plants and wildlife.
  • Alteration of the foredune zone adjacent to Type 1 and 2 waters is prohibited except where the primary purpose of the project is non-structural protection, restoration, nourishment, or improvement of the feature as a natural habitat for native plants and wildlife. In no case shall structural shoreline protection facilities be used to preserve or enhance these areas as a natural habitat or to protect the shoreline feature. The Council may also permit the establishment of accessways (e.g., dune walkover structures) on foredunes provided that all requirements of this section are met.

Rhode Island has established policies to regulate vehicle use on barrier beaches.

The Division of Fish and Wildlife protects, restores, and manages the fish and wildlife resources of the state. The Division is responsible for operating and managing 24 wildlife management areas totaling over 46,000 acres.

The Division is responsible for setting seasons, size limits, methods of taking, and daily limits for the harvest of all wildlife as well as all recreational and commercial fisheries in the state. They are divided into three separate sections: Marine Fisheries, Freshwater Fisheries, and Wildlife Management. Each section is responsible for specific program activities. These activities include fisheries and wildlife research and management, habitat restoration, land acquisition, and education and information.

Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program

Pursuant to the State Appropriations Act of 2002 (Public Law 107-77), the Secretary of Commerce established a Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program (Program) for the purpose of protecting important coastal and estuarine areas that have significant conservation, recreation, ecological, historical, or aesthetic values, or that are threatened by conversion from their natural or recreational state to other uses. The Program gives priority to lands that can be effectively managed and protected and that have significant ecological value.

The law further directs the secretary to establish guidelines that would make project selection within the Program a more objective and nationally competitive process. To meet this directive, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) publishes Program guidelines that establish the Program's eligibility, and procedural and programmatic requirements for participation. Coastal states that submit grant applications under the Program must develop a NOAA approved Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Plan (CELCP). The CELCP provides an assessment of priority land conservation needs and clear guidance for nominating and selecting land conservation projects within the state.


The Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council administers the Coastal and Estuary Habitat Restoration Program and Trust Fund. This program has funded two dune restoration projects since 2003. A key document is the Rhode Island State Coastal and Estuarine Habitat Restoration Strategy.

Piping Plovers

Piping Plover

The piping plover is a small, sandy-colored bird that breeds on beaches from Newfoundland to North Carolina. The birds stay in this area from approximately late March until mid-September, when they fly south for the winter. Piping plovers build their nests in the sand on the beach near the base of the dunes, and lay a clutch of four eggs that hatch in about 25 days. Unfortunately, human pressures from increased coastal development and recreational beach use have had a detrimental effect on piping plover populations. According to the most recent estimate, there are fewer than 1,800 breeding pairs on the Atlantic coast. The US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) Rhode Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex lists several threats that have been forcing the population into decline:

  • Commercial, residential, and recreational development have decreased the amount of coastal habitat available for piping plovers to nest and feed.
  • Human disturbance often curtails breeding success. Foot and vehicular traffic may crush nests or young. Excessive disturbance may cause the parents to desert the nest, exposing eggs or chicks to the summer sun and predators. Interruption of feeding may stress juvenile birds during critical periods in their development.
  • Pets, especially dogs, may harass the birds.
  • Developments near beaches provide food that attracts increased numbers of predators such as raccoons, skunks, and foxes. Domestic and feral cats are also very efficient predators of plover eggs and chicks.
  • Stormtides may inundate nests.

The piping plover has been protected as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act since 1986. USFWS began efforts to manage the Rhode Island population in 1992, and the number of nesting birds has increased from 10 pairs in 1992 to 71 pairs in 2010. The nesting pairs produced 130 fledged chicks, which is a productivity rate of 1.83, surpassing their goal of 1.50 from the Atlantic Coast Piping Plover Recovery Plan. A review of the 2010 nesting season can be found here.

The Nature Conservancy of Rhode Island is also working to protect the piping plover. In 1989 the group purchased the Goosewing Beach Preserve, which includes nesting habitat for the piping plover. The Nature Conservancy has been managing the breeding population in the preserve for the past two decades. During the nesting season, the Goosewing Beach Preserve Manager and a Plover Warden monitor the population and educate visitors about these birds and other sensitive species.

More sources of information about the piping plover in Rhode Island include:

  • A brochure about the piping plover by the USFWS
  • A Web page on the Friends of the National Wildlife Refuges—Rhode Island website dedicated to piping plovers

A collection of reports, databases, and data layers prepared by consultants for the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative offers a birds-eye view of sandy beach and tidal inlet habitats within the U.S. Atlantic Coast breeding range of the endangered piping plover based on imagery from Google Earth, Google Maps, state agencies, municipalities, and private organizations. By comparing the location, status, and condition of potential plover breeding grounds from Maine to North Carolina during three distinct time periods -- before Hurricane Sandy, immediately after the storm, and three years after post-storm recovery efforts -- these inventories provide a habitat baseline that can help resource managers plan for future change.

The University of Rhode Island has published a Rhode Island Coastal Plant Guide and here is a list of invasive plant species.

The Nature Conservancy of Rhode Island opened the Benjamin Family Environmental Center in 2010. The Center is located at the Goosewing Beach Preserve, a protected area of coastal salt ponds, barrier beaches, and dunes. Visitors learn about local flora and fauna, and are encouraged to become better environmental stewards.

Friends of the National Wildlife Refuges-Rhode Island has a Barrier Beach Curriculum, a set of information and classroom activities to teach Rhode Island beach and coastal ecology.

Other Coastal Ecosystems

Greenwich Bay Special Area Management Plan

Greenwich Bay provides vital shellfish habitat, shoreline access, boating opportunities, scenic views, and historic significance to the citizens of Rhode Island. Pollution from stormwater runoff, failing septic systems, and over-development threatens the water quality needed to support those uses. Residents, marinas, yacht clubs, shellfishing operations, restaurants, and other commercial enterprises depend on a healthy Greenwich Bay.

A productive estuary taxed by pollution, Greenwich Bay has been the subject of significant attempts to address water quality and other issues. Research done as part of the Greenwich Bay Initiative has identified sources of pollution and analyzed the physical processes taking place in the bay. Continued water quality issues and a desire to expand on the efforts of the Greenwich Bay Initiative led to a call for a Greenwich Bay Special Area Management Plan (SAMP).

The Coastal Resources Management Council is coordinating with Warwick, East Greenwich, government agencies, and community organizations to prepare the Greenwich Bay Special Area Management Plan. The SAMP is built on government cooperation and community participation. It is adopted into state and local law and recommends policies and actions that government can undertake to protect a complex natural resource that is part of a larger watershed ecosystem. The SAMP provides several mechanisms to coordinate separate governmental bodies, with its overall goal to promote effective coordination among the management authorities within the watershed. The SAMP will describe the present status of the bay, characterize its watershed, identify sources of pollution, and recommend steps to help government work with communities to restore, protect, and balance uses of Greenwich Bay for this and future generations.

Update: Rhode Island has completed the Greenwich Bay Special Area Management Plan. As part of the plan CRMC was able to reclassify waters in Apponaug and Warwick Coves from Type 3 to Type 1 and 2. This reclassification restricts marina expansion and other development along the reclassified shorelines.

Rhode Island has also developed Special Area Management Plans for Salt Pond Region, Pawcatuck River Estuary, Metro Bay and other areas.

The South Shore Habitat Restoration Project identified the need to restore eelgrass beds to areas of the shoaled tidal deltas in Winnapaug, Quonochontaug and Ninigret Ponds. The participants agreed that anadromous fish passageways should be restored for Cross Mills Stream and Factory Pond Stream. See a presentation on this project.

NOAA's Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps provide a concise summary of coastal resources that are at risk if an oil spill occurs nearby. Examples of at-risk resources include biological resources (such as birds and shellfish beds), sensitive shorelines (such as marshes and tidal flats), and human-use resources (such as public beaches and parks).

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coastal Services Center, in partnership with NatureServe and others are developing the Coastal and Marine Ecological Classification Standard (CMECS), a standard ecological classification system that is universally applicable for coastal and marine systems and complementary to existing wetland and upland systems.

Contact Info

Robert Ballou
Acting Chief, Division of Fish & Wildlife
Department of Environmental Management
4808 Tower Hill Road
Wakefield, RI 02879
(401) 789-3094
fax 783-4460

Grover Fugate
Executive Director
Coastal Resources Management Council

Division of Coastal Resources
Donald McGovern, Chief
Port of Galilee
301 Great Island Road
Narragansett, RI 02882
(401) 783-5551
fax 783-7285

State of the Beach Report: Rhode Island
Rhode Island Home Beach Description Beach Access Water Quality Beach Erosion Erosion Response Beach Fill Shoreline Structures Beach Ecology Surfing Areas Website
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