R.I.'s Coastal Salt Ponds Need to be Protected

By SARAH SCHUMANN/ecoRI News contributor

NORTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Rhode Island’s coastal salt ponds feature less prominently in Ocean State identity than the more centrally located Narragansett Bay. But these unique saltwater ecosystems, formed by oceanwater breaching the state’s beaches, represent a valuable resource with irreplaceable benefits to both people and wildlife.

At the annual conference of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey held April 28, scientists, regulators and amateur naturalists gathered to celebrate and evaluate these special but often overlooked water bodies.

“These ponds are not only critical from an ecological aspect,” Salt Ponds Coalition Executive Director Mark Bullinger said. “They’re critical from an economic aspect and from the perspective of enjoyment of the salt pond resources.”

The recent conference shed light on current threats to these important resources, such as the low oxygen levels detected in Green Hill and eastern Ninigret ponds. And it provided a forum to consider solutions, such as improving septic systems in order to reduce groundwater nutrients, or increasing water flow between the ponds and the open ocean via creation of more-permanent breachways.

The conference also offered an opportunity to challenge conventional wisdom — for example, the assumption that the invasive reed grass, phragmites australis, is detrimental to salt marsh ecosystems.

"Phragmites is not evil. Phragmites marshes are functioning ecosystems," marsh ecologist Judith Weis said of the much-maligned species. In fact, Weis said, phragmites is better poised to adapt to rising sea levels than the native marsh grass spartina alterniflora.

“I’m concerned where they’re coming in and lowering the marsh to support spartina,” Weis said, referring to efforts to restore the native marshgrass. “In twenty or thirty years, they’re going to be flooded. Having phragmites there may enable the marsh to survive.”

Climate change is one of many changes occurring in Rhode Island’s salt marshes. Another is the expansion of oyster aquaculture.

Fifteen oyster farms, encompassing 69.4 acres, now occupy Rhode Island’s salt ponds, said Dave Beutel of the Coastal Resources Management Council. Although recent studies indicate that these oyster farms do not alter the ecology of the salt ponds, such farms are not always welcomed by coastal residents and recreational users of the ponds.

“Social carrying capacity, not ecological capacity, is the issue,” Beutel said, noting that much of the aversion held toward oyster aquaculture in Rhode Island’s coastal salt ponds stems from widespread misconceptions that aquaculture operations are larger and more numerous than they really are.

For Bullinger, such misinformation about the salt ponds is a major factor impeding effective management of these important natural resources.

“There are a lot of people within the local populations who either don’t know about the salt ponds, don’t care about the salt ponds or don’t know about the issues affecting them,” Bullinger said. "People look at the ponds and they’re still pretty. It’s been a challenge to get a constituency that’s concerned.”

Bullinger and others lauded the Rhode Island Natural History Survey’s efforts to raise awareness about these unique water bodies through the one-day conference.

The conference also honored former Audubon Society director Al Hawkes, winner of the Distinguished Naturalist Award for a lifetime of raising awareness about the natural world, and Ray Hartenstine, winner of the 2010 Golden Eye Award for an extraordinary field find. Hartenstine was the first person to locate an invasive species, the Oriental shrimp, in Rhode Island waters.