Condos for fish: R.I. installs artificial reef off Sabin Point
By Alex Kuffner
In Narragansett Bay, much farther north than you might expect, the state has installed concrete «reef balls» to host tautog, black sea bass and scup. It’s a sign — swimming being another one — that decades of work have improved the environmental health of the Upper Bay.
EAST PROVIDENCE — The makings of the first artificial reef in Rhode Island are pieces of molded concrete that look something like misshapen Wiffle balls.
A crane barge lowered a cluster of so-called «reef balls» into place off Sabin Point Park on a recent afternoon, marking another small step in the recovery of Narragansett Bay.
Much has been written about the huge improvements in water quality in the Bay over the past decade following construction of a sprawling stormwater storage system under Providence and implementation of tighter regulations on sewage treatment plants. Some of the biggest strides have been made in the Providence River and the Upper Bay, where pollution was worst.
The water has gotten so much cleaner and clearer that the Department of Environmental Management has relaxed restrictions on shellfishing in northern parts of the Bay. The DEM and other groups are also working toward reopening the beach at Sabin Point to swimming after it was closed as long as a century ago.
And now the state agency is working in partnership with The Nature Conservancy to restore marine life to those same waters off the Riverside section of the city by building an experimental reef in a one-acre area just south of the public fishing pier there.
They chose the site because Sabin Point has easy fishing access, but the waters nearby have fewer fish than they could. It was historically a good spot to catch winter flounder, but the species has seen an overall decline in the Bay, in part due to rising water temperatures, and Sabin Point isn’t as popular with anglers as it used to be, according to the project partners.
They hope that the array of 64 reef balls will become home to important recreational fish, such as tautog, black sea bass, a species that is thriving in Rhode Island, and scup.
«Fish are still here. They’re not gone,» said Pat Barrett, a fisheries specialist with the DEM. «We’re looking to enhance what’s already here.»
The site is north of the shellfish closure line in the Bay, so the reef won’t get in the way of commercial quahoggers. It’s also far from the navigation lane, so it’s not expected to interfere with boat traffic.
The location was approved by the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council last June after a public hearing. The Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association supported the application, saying in a letter that it expected the reef «to improve the fishing experience at the park.»
«RISAA agrees with the applicant that this location is currently underutilized by the recreational fishing community, most likely due to the lack of quality fish habitat,» the association said.
But at least one regular user of the fishing pier is worried that the site isn’t far enough offshore. Lori Green, a 25-year resident of Riverside who has caught striped bass, bluefish, tautog and other fish from the pier, said the reef is well within casting distance.
«It’s right in the strike zone. You’ll get hung up on them,» complained Green, who stood on the pier holding her fishing rod while workers with North Kingstown-based Specialty Diving Services installed the first group of Reef Balls on Thursday.
«This is a very good idea, but it’s too close to the dock,» she continued.
Barrett said that the DEM and The Nature Conservancy were conscious about not interfering with fishing when they determined the location of the reef. They wanted it to be close enough to the pier to enable anglers to reach the fish that will hopefully congregate around the new bottom structures, but far enough that lines won’t get entangled.
«It’s a fine balance,» he said. «The idea is that people will be able to fish the edges of the reef.»
Keith Gonsalves, chairman of the East Providence Conservation Commission, was also on the pier as construction began. He said the work will help continue the recuperation of the Bay.
«What a wonderful thing,» he said.
Gonsalves, a 62-year-old Riverside resident, grew up in nearby Kent Heights, where he played in the water near Pomham Rocks Lighthouse.
«I remember going in the water as a kid and it smelled. There were globs of oil and junk floating around,» he said. «I see a difference here now.»
The project, whose installation was finished Friday, is costing $47,000, with most of the money coming from the federal Sport Fish Restoration Program and the rest from The Nature Conservancy and the Anglers Association.
The reef balls were fabricated in Florida by Sarasota-based Reef Innovations using a durable marine-grade mix of concrete that has a 500-year lifespan. Each one measures 4 feet in diameter, stands 2 feet, 9 inches high and weighs 1,300 pounds. They were shipped to Quonset Point in North Kingstown and then brought by barge to Sabin Point.
The concrete balls have been used to make artificial reefs at thousands of sites around the world, including one in Connecticut and another in Massachusetts, according to Reef Innovations. Studies have shown that they can increase the abundance and diversity of fish.
The DEM and The Nature Conservancy will do dive surveys and conduct other follow-up monitoring and compare the results to a control site off Gaspee Point in Warwick. If all goes well, more artificial reefs could be built in other parts of the Bay.
Over the last five years, as bacteria counts and potentially problematic nutrient levels have fallen in the Upper Bay, The Nature Conservancy has been conducting fish surveys in the area. The results have been encouraging so far.
«There are a lot more fish in this part of the Bay than people thought,» said Will Helt, coastal restoration specialist with the group.
Although there’s no data to compare the numbers to anything from before the changes in stormwater and sewage management, Helt and Barrett said it makes sense that the improvements in water quality are supporting more marine life.
The artificial reef probably wouldn’t have even been considered if the advances hadn’t occurred.
«That was the beginning of the process,» Barrett said. «I don’t think people were taking it so seriously without those improvements.»