An Assessment and Action Plan

Six years have passed since we first answered the question “How’s the Bay doing?” in the landmark report State of The Bay 2000. While we have made tremendous progress toward our mission, new challenges to water quality and ecosystem health offset the gains of effective protection and restoration programs.

This edition shows that, despite considerable progress in some of the indicators, the Bay has declined slightly from an overall score of 4.5 in 2000 to a 4.3 today. The negative trend is driven by sharp declines of fish and shellfish resources, and a spreading area of low dissolved oxygen and unusually warm water temperatures creating a “dead zone” on the bottom.

"These results are tangible, measured proof that Narragansett Bay needs better planning and more conscientious stewardship. But our assessment also shows that we can make a difference. The indicators that are moving in the right direction are evidence that our investments in the Bay and its watershed pay off. We need to continue those trends while applying ourselves to the areas that are in decline. State of The Bay 2006-2007 is relevant only if we use these benchmarks to focus a plan of action that harnesses the energies and resources necessary to achieve the Bay people want."

-- Curt Spalding, Executive Director, Save The Bay

The health of Narragansett Bay is dynamic, and there is still no simple way to interpret all the data on its ecology. To say it is “better” or “worse” oversimplifies an incredibly complex system of living and non-living attributes. We now recognize that the Bay’s living ecosystem extends beyond the watershed, and that the living component must be managed regionally. These factors must be taken as a whole to answer the question in a meaningful way.

With a focused message about nutrient pollution, the 2000 State of The Bay report put the writing on the wall for the years that followed. The ’03 fish kill in Greenwich Bay and several other clam kills underscore the fact that hypoxia, or low dissolved oxygen, is the single greatest threat to Bay health. Increasing water temperature has exacerbated the nutrient pollution problem and shifted the assemblage of plants and animals away from the classic native species and toward those that tolerate warmer water and less oxygen. Beach closures have increased due to bacteria associated with rain-related sewage overflows. Habitat loss and degradation continue to threaten the fragile gains so hard-won through better policy, management, and law.

The higher scores in certain indicators reflect real gains on several fronts. Toxic pollution from industry has been further reduced. Nitrogen from wastewater is decreasing thanks to improvements at key treatment plants around the watershed and it is expected to drop further as more facilities come on-line with advanced treatment processes. The combined sewer overflow (CSO) abatement efforts in Providence will certainly result in a cleaner river and Upper Bay in the near future.

Despite these achievements, Narragansett Bay is still far from being a healthy estuary. The decade-long time frames established for water quality and habitat improvements are simply not aggressive enough to stay ahead of emerging threats. Better management and more investments are necessary.  

We are only now beginning to implement the improvements identified after the 2003 fish kill and we have yet to realize the benefits in the Bay. Save The Bay’s mission is to ensure a course of restoration and to ensure that the Bay’s health and our ability to use and enjoy it are protected. Only then can we realize our dream of a more healthy and more valuable Narragansett Bay.

The next steps are outlined in Save The Bay'sThe Bay Agenda.

The rating system

In the 2000 State of the Bay report, we rated the Bay on ten categories, or indicators of Bay health. An eleventh indicator, Public Access, is new in this report. Each indicator is rated on a scale from 1 to 10 with 10 being the most healthy Bay we can imagine and 1 being the worst, most polluted or degraded conditions. These ratings are based on:

  • Available data from Bay-related research including historic records, scientific and academic publications, and the results of Save The Bay’s own monitoring efforts
  • Interviews with scientists and local people knowledgeable about specific aspects of Bay health
  • A comprehensive review of the best available information to date

Indicators: For the sake of consistency, the composite rating is based on the same 10 indicators used in the 2000 report. The 11th indicator, Public Access, is not included.   




Nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus are essential for the plankton that form the basis of the Bay’s food web. Sources include rivers, the atmosphere, the ocean, and especially wastewater. Excessive nutrients can cause an imbalance leading to algae blooms and low dissolved oxygen. Murky water and decomposing algae can diminish dissolved oxygen, eelgrass, and other sensitive marine life.


There is no doubt that nutrient pollution from wastewater is a prime culprit in the fish and clam die-offs that occurred in the last several years. While it is true that other factors such as increasing water temperatures, heavy rain events, and other natural factors play a role, wastewater is the ingredient that makes the Bay bottom foul and uninhabitable for many creatures in the summer. The documented fish and clam kills indicate that this condition has worsened, but new laws and policies calling for a 50% reduction in nitrogen loading to the Bay from RI treatment plants by 2008 will help to abate this problem. Several facilities have already switched to advanced practices that remove nitrogen, and others have committed to doing it over the next two years.


All major wastewater treatment plants in the Narragansett Bay Watershed (RI and MA) need to remove nitrogen, especially those in the Providence, East Providence, Worcester and Woonsocket areas. Communities that are on septic systems or cesspools should connect to sewers if sewer lines are available. In high-value habitat areas, septic systems that limit nitrogen should replace standard systems. Upgrading septic systems will help reduce a major non-point source of nutrient pollution and bacteria.




Dissolved oxygen is required by nearly all species of marine life. Oxygen gets into the water from both physical processes (wind and tidally-driven mixing) and biological processes (photosynthesis). Maintaining a healthy level of dissolved oxygen is critical to the survival of fish, shellfish, lobsters and other marine life.


Dissolved oxygen levels clearly have gotten worse since 2000. Since the first State of the Bay report, researchers have documented widespread areas of low dissolved oxygen each summer, especially in the Upper Bay, Mount Hope Bay, and in dredged channels. Fish and shellfish die-offs are the tip of the iceberg; low oxygen conditions prevent the Bay from reaching its potential in terms of species diversity and ecological health and resilience. Making matters worse, despite the well-publicized fish and clam-kill events, there is still no comprehensive environmental monitoring program conducted by the states and information must be cobbled together from multiple sources to paint this grim picture.

The approach we recommend for nutrient pollution will also help mitigate dissolved oxygen problems. Monitoring is a key component, so strong investment in a comprehensive environmental monitoring program is a key step. Since warm water holds less oxygen than cold water, efforts to abate global warming will also help here, such as switching to renewable energy sources, reducing air emissions, and practicing energy conservation at all levels. New navigation dredging (other than maintenance dredging) should be avoided to prevent the creation of new hypoxic or “dead zones.”



The conventional measure of pollution in the Bay is the presence of bacteria associated with sewage. These bacteria, including e.coli and enterococci, may indicate recent releases of raw sewage into the water and may be associated with other pathogens like viruses and other organisms that can cause infections in bathers or people who eat uncooked contaminated shellfish.


Beach closures generally increased in the time period 2000-2006, corresponding to heavy rain events during summer. State beach monitoring efforts improved dramatically, in part leading to the higher numbers of closures. For example, in the very wet summer of 2003, 454 beach closures were ordered, while in the relatively dry season of 2005, there were only 65. Now that comprehensive monitoring is in place, the challenge is to identify and address the sources of bacterial pollution.

The States of Rhode Island and Massachusetts need to work more closely with coastal municipalities to fix sewer overflows, stormwater runoff, and other sources of bacterial pollution to bathing beaches. The implementation of the Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) abatement project in Providence should allow the permanent closure line for swimming to move north into the Providence River, opening hundreds of acres to swimming and eventually to shellfishing. Concerted efforts are needed in Newport, Middletown, Portsmouth, Narragansett, Barrington, and Warren to ensure reopening of conditionally and permanently closed areas as soon as possible.





Bottom fish include year-round residents of Narragansett Bay such as winter flounder and tautog that occur on or near the bottom. These also include the classic “groundfish” species such as cod, pollock, hake, and other flounders.


These native, high-value bottom fish of the Bay have declined to historic lows with few exceptions. Winter flounder, long regarded as a trademark species of the Bay and a leading indicator of Bay health, showed some encouraging signs of recovery with a strong year class in 2005, although stocks are still abysmal compared to historic levels. Even at these low levels, commercial and recreational overfishing is still a problem for winter and summer flounder, tautog, and many other bottom-dwelling species. Other factors impacting the health of bottom fish include warmer water temperatures, nutrient pollution, low dissolved oxygen and the degradation and loss of critical spawning habitat.

Strict measures to address overfishing need to be developed and implemented immediately for the entire suite of bottom fish species. Catch limits should be strictly enforced and must allow the rebuilding of all overfished stocks until they are once again sustainable. Strong steps to address nutrient pollution, temperature, and oxygen will here again have great benefit to the bottom fish.



Migratory fish include those that spend part of the year in the Bay but migrate along the Atlantic coast such as Atlantic herring, menhaden, bluefish, striped bass, alewives, anchovies, eels and shad.


This category is quite broad, and there is considerable variation in the stock status of these species. Several species have declined sharply here, most notably the alewives and blueback herring, which declined approximately 95% since the last edition of this report (2000). Similarly alarming trends afflict American eel coastwide. The declines in these species are likely the result of the ecological shifts caused by increased water temperatures in combination with overfishing and nutrient pollution. Striped bass, bluefish, and menhaden, while also clearly overfished coastwide, have made strong comebacks in the Bay during this same time period, probably as a result of improved local management and environmental factors.

As with the bottom fish, much more stringent management practices are warranted. Special protected areas and no-trawl zones would benefit these species. Policy makers need to enact stronger menhaden management measures, especially in specific areas of Narragansett Bay, where efficient commercial seiners may eliminate whole schools of adult menhaden. While Atlantic Coast stocks of menhaden may remain at fishable numbers, it makes sense to protect certain areas of the Bay to allow recovery of the adult populations that both filter out plankton and provide forage for a world-class recreational fishery. Herring and alewife fisheries were finally closed in 2006, and need to be monitored closely. Efforts to address climate change, nutrient pollution, and dissolved oxygen problems will similarly benefit this broad category of fish species. Concerted efforts to restore historic river herring runs through fish passage and dam removals are essential to rebuild decimated stocks of these once-abundant species.



Shellfish and crustaceans of the Bay include quahogs, soft-shelled (steamer) clams, scallops, lobster, crabs, mussels, oysters and others.


Shellfish and lobster stocks and landings have declined sharply in the period 2000-2006. Between 2000 and 2004, inshore lobster landings in RI declined from 1500 metric tons to about 500 metric tons, a 66% decline in just four years. This decline is thought to date back to a lack of juvenile lobsters settling in nearshore waters in the 1990s, combined with overfishing, shell disease, and the toxic effects of several oil spills. Quahogs are down off historic levels, though there is some evidence of slight recovery in the past few years based on improved management in conditionally closed areas. Softshell (steamer) clams are generally increasing, but billions were killed by low dissolved oxygen, high temperatures, and nutrient pollution in the summer of 2003, and millions more died in the summer of 2006 due to similar conditions. Oysters have declined dramatically in the past six years, possibly due to disease. Scallops are virtually extinct from the Bay, although they were scarce in 2000 as well. Blue mussels, while still abundant, have suffered massive losses associated with high temperature and low oxygen periods in the Bay.

Conservation, protected areas, restoration, and water quality improvements all must be implemented to improve shellfish stocks. Lobster fishing must be even more severely restricted if there is any hope of retaining a viable commercial fishery in the future. Restoration aquaculture of clams, oysters, and scallops should be implemented on a broad scale, including establishing spawning populations in uncertified waters. This will help natural propagation of shellfish, and the filter-feeding of these animals will have the added benefit of improving water quality and creating improved habitat in general.



Marine mammals found in Narragansett Bay include harbor, harp and hooded seals, Atlantic white-sided dolphin, harbor porpoises, and a few species of whales.


Marine Mammal populations in winter continue to improve in Narragansett Bay, as evidenced by seal count data and highly successful seal watch programs. The seal herd in the Bay is currently estimated to number around 200. The relatively strong numbers may be a result of improved management in the Canadian Maritimes and improved stocks of Atlantic herring, a favorite winter forage in Southern New England. Populations have been increasing regionally since the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972.

Year-round environmental education programs such as Save The Bay’s seal watches are a great family activity, and education and research efforts help to better protect and manage these magnificent creatures. Strong fisheries conservation measures will further benefit marine mammals. Contrary to some rumors, seals are not believed to be significantly depleting any fish stocks; rather, the declines in certain stocks are almost certainly related to fishing pressure, pollution, and climate change.



Eelgrass is a flowering seagrass that lives rooted in the sediment completely underwater (it is not a marsh grass). It forms one of the most diverse and productive habitat-types found in North America, and it provides critical habitat and cover for scallops, winter flounder, quahogs, and many other species.


Eelgrass beds once covered thousands of acres of Bay bottom and extended from the mouth of the Bay at the Atlantic Ocean all the way up into Greenwich Bay and even the Providence River and Mount Hope Bay. Today, only about 100 acres remain in the Bay, and the majority exist only in high-energy systems near the ocean such as off Newport, Jamestown, and around Prudence Island. In recent years, Save The Bay has had limited success transplanting eelgrass to areas further up in the Bay, and there is some new evidence of natural recovery in the coastal ponds and a few other areas around the lower Bay. While some of our transplants failed due to high water temperatures, algae blooms and predation by crabs, other sites have been highly successful, not only surviving but spreading into adjacent areas.

A combination of nutrient pollution reduction and aggressive restoration efforts are needed to continue restoring historic eelgrass beds. More stringent regulations to protect eelgrass and its habitat are also needed to protect fragile gains. Again, warmer water temperatures may be to blame in the death of eelgrass in the Upper Bay, so efforts to address climate change will also help its recovery as a whole.



Salt marshes and coastal wetlands include the low-lying grassy areas flooded by the tide. These are among the Bay’s most valuable-and threatened- habitats. They serve as nursery and spawning grounds for 63 species of fish and many birds in Narragansett Bay. They stabilize the shoreline, buffer the effects of storms, and help to filter polluted runoff.


Not much has changed in our salt marshes since the 2000 edition. More than 70% of the watershed’s historic marshes and coastal wetlands have been lost to filling and coastal development. Of what remains, more than 60% are threatened by restrictions in tidal flow, invasions of Phragmites (common reed grass), and sea level rise. Fortunately several major marsh restoration projects have been completed since 2000, and this has improved the condition of some existing habitats.

Funding for marsh restoration must continue. Existing marshes must be effectively conserved. This will take a strong and functional Coastal Resources Management Council, so addressing that agency’s structure and function is key to the future of our wetlands.  Nutrient pollution and sea level rise are also significant threats to marshes, so broad-scale efforts to address these will also benefit salt marshes.



Public access to the shore is the phrase used to describe the ways by which the public may legally reach and enjoy the coastal areas and resources of the State. Examples include: state and local beaches and parks, municipal waterfront areas, state designated fishing areas, boat launching ramps, bike paths, mooring areas, marinas, state fishing ports, and public rights of way. 


Rhode Island guarantees its citizens the right to swim in the sea and gather seaweed or fish from the shore. The most recent state report on public access identifies 344 popular public access spots among many hundreds along the RI Coast.  These include 42 public saltwater beaches monitored by the Department of Health, ten of which are state beaches providing approximately 6 miles of access.

Nevertheless, getting access to the shoreline can be difficult, particularly in urban areas.   The legislature has set a goal of identifying at least one public right of way for each mile of shoreline, with a goal of 420 sites.  While the number of designated public rights of way has stood at about 220 for several years, the number of sites under review has increased recently.  Public access along newly developing waterfronts is an area of both concern and potential, but new buffer policies for urban waterfront redevelopment in the Upper Bay create the possibility of continuous public access along urban waterfronts. 

Preserving and creating lateral access along the shoreline is getting more difficult as a result of sea level rise, erosion and hardening of the shoreline. One hundred and thirty-three miles of the Bay’s shoreline are lined with riprap walls, bulkheads and other manmade structures.  Establishing coastal buffers rather than armoring the shoreline can provide many benefits including public access, habitat, stabilization of the shoreline, and filtering of runoff. 

Take opportunities for increasing the public access associated with public and private coastal properties, such as the new fishing pier being constructed from the old Jamestown Bridge and Save The Bay’s new Save The Bay Education Center.  Expand access as the urban waterfront is redeveloped and take advantage of improved water quality in the Upper Bay after the CSO project is completed to open additional beaches there. 



A composite score of 4.3 tells us that we have a long way to go to realize our mission of a clean and healthy Bay that people can enjoy. It’s true that we have made great progress in certain areas, but we have allowed other key resources to decline and the Bay is under greater pressure today than it was six years ago.

We now have a better understanding of what is needed to make the Bay healthy. This report makes some strong and even controversial recommendations. In order to Save Narragansett Bay, we need to change old habits and ways of thinking. We need to invest real resources to meet these goals. The citizens of our watershed must make the Bay a top priority in public policy to ensure that it is clean and safe for future generations. We cannot afford to let it slip further. It is incumbent on all of us to make our best effort starting right now.


Selected Sources for State of The Bay 2007

Bay Journal, “State of Narragansett Bay-Special Report”, Narragansett Bay Estuary Program, Summer, 2006

41 N, RI Sea Grant, Summer, 2006, see

Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) “Rhode Island Fisheries Stock Status- An Overview,” August, 2004

RIDEM Plan for Managing Nutrient Loading to Rhode Island Waters, 2005

RIDEM List of Impaired Waters 303 (d),

RIDEM Public Access to Shoreline Recreational Fishing in Narragansett Bay Report

RIDEM Fish Kill Report 9/2003

Narragansett Bay Commission, Annual Reports, 2000-2006

The Warming of Narragansett Bay, By Scott W. Nixon, Steve Granger, and Betty Buckley, 41 N Online, 2003

Allard Cox. M. (ed.). 2004 Public Access to the Rhode Island Coast.  Rhode Island Sea Grant. Narragansett, RI 84pp.

Publications of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission

Publications of the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council at : CRMC. Annual Report on Rights of Way (2004 – 2005)
DEM Division of Parks and Recreation, Beach Length and Parking Lot Capacities

Narragansett, R.I. : University of Rhode Island, Graduate School of Oceanography, Division of Marine Resources, Coastal Resources Center, 1983

Nixon, Scott W The ecology of New England high salt marshes [microform] : a community profile / by Scott W. Nixon ; prepared for National Coastal Ecosystems Team, Office of Biological Services, Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of the Interior Publ info Washington, D.C. : Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Dept. of the Interior, [1982]

Nixon, Scott W., 1943- Between coastal marshes and coastal waters : a review of twenty years of speculation and research on the role of salt marshes in estuarine productivity and water chemistry / Scott W. Nixon Publ info Narragansett, R.I. : URI, Marine Advisory Service, Publications Unit, 1980

Oviatt, Candace Ann  The demersal fish of Narragansett Bay : an analysis of community structure, distribution and abundance / by Candace A. Oviatt and Scott W. Nixon. -- Kingston : University of Rhode Island, 1974

Olsen, Stephen B Title A summary and preliminary evaluation of data pertaining to the water quality of upper Narragansett Bay / by Stephen Olsen and Virginia Lee Kingston : University of Rhode Island, Coastal Resources Center, 1979

Saila, Saul B Suggestions regarding management planning for some vertebrate and invertebrate resources of Narragansett Bay / Saul B. Saila, Aimee Keller [Providence : Narragansett Bay Project, 1992]