URI Coastal Institute-led study provides resources to help R.I., Mass. manage $14 billion Narragansett Bay Watershed

Institute teams with bi-state partnership to launch comprehensive report, website to foster public dialogue

KINGSTON, R.I. – Sept. 30, 2019 – The Narragansett Bay Watershed is at a crossroad. State agencies, nonprofit organizations and individuals have ratcheted up efforts to maintain the health of the watershed, while at the same time its natural resources are threatened by a multitude of forces. Officials, regulators, planners and concerned citizens are regularly tasked with making effective decisions about the watershed by balancing economic and environmental concerns.

The University of Rhode Island Coastal Institute and its partners in Rhode Island and Massachusetts have teamed up to provide decision-makers with a trove of economic data resources – a comprehensive 267-page report detailing key industries in the watershed and an easy-to-use website – to inform public decisions on resources and uses of the Narragansett Bay Watershed. Data and information in the suite of science-based resources describe and illustrate the watershed’s economy.

“The Narragansett Bay and its watershed are critical to the Ocean State’s economic, environmental and social prosperity,” said Rhode Island Governor Gina M. Raimondo. “Thanks to this effort by URI’s Coastal Institute, both Rhode Island and Massachusetts now have access to a wide range of economic data about the watershed, helping us to improve how we use and manage shared resources for future generations.”

The Narragansett Bay Watershed Economy Project examines the watershed’s economic value through the lens of 13 key local industries driving more than $14 billion in revenue and expenditure, and supporting more than 97,000 full- and part-time jobs. The report is available online at www.nbweconomy.org.

The key industries documented in the Watershed Economy Project include aquaculture, beaches, commercial fishing, defense, ports and maritime trade, recreational boating and fishing and tourism. Findings include:

  • The number of R.I. aquaculture farms increased by 91 percent (acreage by 90 percent), while nationally saltwater aquaculture farms declined by 27 (acreage by 34 percent) between 2005 and 2013. Rhode Island aquaculture sales increased 489 percent to more than $2.8 million (in 2016 dollars), compared with 26 percent nationally. As of 2015, Rhode Island had 70 aquaculture farms – about 28 in the watershed – using 275 acres.
  • Defense is the highest paying industry in Rhode Island. Private sector employees earned an average of $74,500 annually in 2013, civilian employees working for the U.S. Department of Defense earned an average of $97,000 annually, and Naval Undersea Warfare Center employees earned $114,000. With 17,497 in 2013, defense had the second highest employment of the watershed’s 13 key industries; Rhode Island and Massachusetts tourism employed more than 60,000.
  • The watershed is nationally ranked in automobile imports. In 2015, the Port of Davisville was a top-10 importer in the country at 269,000 automobiles (new and used), a 27 percent increase from 2014, the sixth consecutive year to show an increase in imports.
  • More than 200,000 recreational fishermen generated more than $158 million in retail sales in the watershed, supporting 2,200 jobs and generating $18 million in state and local tax revenue, according to 2011 data from the American Sportfishing Association.
  • Commercial fishing remains relatively constant over the past few years, with three Rhode Island ports having a combined 1,500 commercial vessels as of 2015. The ports landed about 77 million pounds of fish and shellfish in 2016, a catch valued at about $78 million.
  • Forestry in the watershed has supported more than 5,000 jobs – 3,000 in Rhode Island in 2013, 2,000 in Massachusetts in 2006 – generating $225 million in wages.

The Watershed Economy Project is the result of a grant-funded, multi-year partnership among entities from both states, and is overseen by the URI Coastal Institute. “Much of what we hear about the watershed is that it is valuable. How valuable? A challenging question that we have attempted to codify in precise monetary terms. Along the way, we hope that Rhode Islanders and their Massachusetts neighbors will see their love of the watershed reflected in monetary and aesthetic summaries, related jobs, current day restoration efforts, and join in giving attention to the future of this magnificent ecosystem in light of climate change,” said Judith Swift, director of the URI Coastal Institute. “Essentially, we are telling the watershed’s story without the limits of political perspectives and state lines and we want people to know that they, too, can play a role as the story progresses.”

Understanding the watershed’s economy can be particularly complex because data generally reflect state lines, rather than environmental boundaries. “We made a significant effort with this project to secure data that illustrate the economic picture within watershed communities as closely and clearly as possible,” said Emi Uchida, lead project researcher and professor in the URI Department of Environmental and Natural Resource Economics. “The work takes us further into understanding better than we have the opportunities and challenges for the watershed.”

It is increasingly important, say decision-makers, to consider the watershed approach when seeking to maximize lasting benefits to the region’s environment and economy. “The people and places of the Narragansett Bay Watershed in Rhode Island and Massachusetts are connected by their history, rivers, and ways of life,” said Mike Gerel, director of the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program. “We need data and tools that can empower informed and balanced decisions on a regional basis.”

A project report and executive summary, produced by the URI Coastal Institute, summarize data for 13 industries in the watershed and provides information on geography, demographics, history, and guidance on how the public can use the information in decision-making. A companion website includes a data dashboard and a series of studies. Limited hard copies of the full report are available, and printed copies of the executive summary will be widely shared.

This project was supported, in part, by an award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Southeast New England Program to Mass Audubon. Additional project partners include the URI Graduate School of Oceanography, the URI Coastal Resources Center, the Natural Capital Project at Stanford University, and the George Perkins Marsh Institute at Clark University.

“We are pleased to participate in this effort because it makes so much sense, and has been needed for a long time. Natural systems don’t obey political boundaries, and it’s refreshing and logical to look at regional economics from a watershed perspective,” said Mass Audubon Assistant Director of Advocacy Heidi Ricci. “We will definitely be using the data and tools in our outreach to local and regional decision-makers, and we hope that understanding the value of nature will provide support for sustainable land use.”

The Coastal Institute was founded to provide Rhode Island with a neutral setting where knowledge is advanced, issues discussed, information synthesized, and solutions developed for the sustainable use and management of coastal ecosystems. The Coastal Institute is dedicated to increasing our understanding of the relationships between human activity and the condition of the coastal environment and its resources. Working in partnership with local, state, federal, and international agencies, the Coastal Institute strives to use this understanding to contribute to the solution of the complex problems of human use and development in coastal environments.

For more information about the Narragansett Bay Watershed Economy Project, contact Judith Swift at (401) 524-1427 or jswift@uri.edu.