Coastal Tourism Tested by Climate Change

Second Beach, Middletown. Photo © John Supancic

by Pearl Macek

Visit Misquamicut State Beach in Westerly or Easton’s Beach in Newport on any sunny day in June, July, or August, and it is an ocular overload. From beachgoers toting umbrellas to coolers to beach chairs, the beaches are a flurry of colorful activity in the summer. It is no surprise that state and municipal beaches are an important revenue stream for the state and its coastal towns. According to Robert Paquette, chief of Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental Management (DEM) Division of Parks and Recreation, between May 7 and Labor Day of 2015, beachgoers paid $3.83 million to park at state beaches, an increase of 1.5 percent from the previous year.

While the state had been seeing an increase from year to year in revenues from beach parking, Paquette says, in 2016 the fees were rolled back to the 2011 rates and attendance subsequently increased 35 percent over 2015. Paquette explains that attracting visitors to Rhode Island’s beaches can increase patronage of nearby shops and restaurants. “I see (state beaches) being more important as a place to generate the economy, not the place to look for the revenue,” he says.

And it has helped that the water in Narragansett Bay is healthier than it has been in years. This means fewer algae blooms and beach closures. Findings of a study published last year, which was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and led by Candace Oviatt, a professor at the University of Rhode Island (URI) Graduate School of Oceanography (GSO), showed that nutrient levels in the bay are half of what they were in the 1990s.

Jennifer McCann, the director of the U.S. Coastal Programs at the Coastal Resources Center (CRC) at URI GSO and extension director for Rhode Island Sea Grant, says the health of the bay is “directly linked to our economy.” McCann cites a report concluding that while employment in the private sector declined overall in the state between 2008 and 2013, employment in the marine trades industry grew by 1 percent and annual coastal tourism expenditures increased from $1.8 billion to $1.92 billion in that same timeframe. “The value of the bay is key. We need to make it a priority,” she says.

While these numbers are encouraging, the health of coastal tourism is at the mercy of some incredibly powerful forces. “Our biggest threat is the hurricanes,” says Paquette about the beaches along Rhode Island’s coastline. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spent $3.1 million restoring Misquamicut State Beach, which “got totally destroyed” after Superstorm Sandy.

Of course, storms threaten tourism at more than just the state’s beaches.

Rep. Lauren Carson represents the city of Newport and lives in the Point neighborhood, which is prone to flooding during unusually high tides as well as during storms. In 2015, Carson headed up a commission that looked into the economic impact of sea level rise and coastal flooding. The group focused on three case studies: the Providence Port, the Newport waterfront, and the South County marine and tourism industries.

“I recognized that it was a huge topic. Certainly not something that 15 volunteers could achieve in seven or eight meetings. But I thought that we could at least begin to shine a spotlight on another aspect of flooding and sea rise that hasn’t really come into bloom yet,” Carson says.

The commission’s recommendations, published in May 2016, included the creation of a flood audit program that would incentivize property and business owners to ensure that their homes and establishments are able to withstand flooding as well as educate members of planning commissions and zoning boards about the risks of flooding and sea level rise.

When Carson looked at the economic impact and vulnerabilities of the marine and tourism industries, she realized there was a lot at stake. “The aggregate numbers for the maritime industries, the aggregate numbers for the tourism industry, it was very clear that there was a tremendous amount of assets at risk,” Carson says.

One of those businesses preparing for climate change is the Newport Shipyard, whose general manager and dock master Eli Dana says they have seen a steady increase in business over the years. “Last year we had a very good year, and this year is significantly better than that,” he said. Newport Shipyard can dock approximately 30 boats over 100 feet and between 20 and 30 under 100 feet in length. Dana said that the political and social instability in Europe as well as the increased awareness of Rhode Island as a boating destination, thanks to events like the Volvo Ocean Race stop at Fort Adams in 2015 (which contributed $47.7 million to the state’s economy), has led to a steady increase in business. “These folks are capable of going all over the world, so it’s nice when they come spend a lot of time with us,” he says.

“Whenever we do projects, we try to take into account that storms are getting worse,” says Dana, adding that the shipyard may replace docks this winter and will likely build taller pilings to accommodate higher water levels caused by storm surge and higher tides.

These concerns about sea level rise and flooding are familiar to Evan Smith, CEO and president of Discover Newport. “I think it’s an important conversation to have because [Newport is] not alone in this—just about every community that is within a certain geographic distance of the coastline is going to face these challenges in decades to come.”

Smith says that there is one pressing concern for business and homeowners that will only get worse: the cost of flood insurance. “The cost of insurance has actually forced some people out of business, and  I think as it continues it is going to be extremely detrimental to people who operate a business on or near the water. And so, in the next couple years, I anticipate that rates in the coastal flood zone are only going to go up, and that is really going to impact small businesses’ ability to actually make a profit,” he says.

Recreational fishing contributes hundreds of millions of dollars to the RI economy. IStock photo

Rhode Island’s recreational fishing industry is also seeing some climate-related changes. According to a NOAA report, recreational anglers contributed $300 million to the state’s economy in 2014. “It’s something that I wouldn’t want my wife to hear, but it’s a lot of dollars per pound for recreational fishermen. It’s over $100 that we put into the economy for every pound of fish that we harvest,” says Rich Hittinger, first vice president of the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association (RISAA). “So we look at it as recreational fishing is a big economic boost for the state and the region.” RISAA has over 5,000 members, and Hittinger sees a steady stream of fishing enthusiasts coming to Rhode Island, mostly from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. “More than half of the people that fish
in Rhode Island are from out of state,” Hittinger says.

Hittinger says that while the fishing is good, he and other fisherman have noticed a difference in what they catch. Where they used to catch summer flounder, “we get a tremendous amount of black sea bass, and black sea bass used to be much more common off of New Jersey and Maryland,” he says, “and now we have a much bigger population in Rhode Island waters than they have down in that area.”

Whether this increase in black sea bass is entirely due to warmer waters, Hittinger is unsure, as he says all fish populations naturally increase and decrease in a cyclical manner, but he does believe increasing temperatures have some effect.

Hittinger says that it is “unfortunate” that recreational fishermen are allowed to catch just three black sea bass per person, per day, according to DEM’s catch restrictions.

Although Hittinger says he fully supports catch limits and protecting local fish populations, he says catch regulations are often “out of sync” with population shifts, and that there should be a “sense of urgency” in keeping these regulations up to date.

Hittinger says that by allowing more black sea bass to be caught, perhaps more anglers would be interested in buying permits to fish.

Jason McNamee, DEM’s chief of marine resource management, agrees that the increase in black sea bass in the waters off Massachusetts and Rhode Island is dramatic. “Over the past couple of years we’ve seen some of our highest abundance estimates for black sea bass,” he says. However, he adds, black sea bass are managed by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, and due to a problem with the official stock assessment that was done for the species, the council could not accept the assessment and therefore “they default to this really conservative management structure.”

“Hopefully we’ll have—fingers crossed—an approved stock assessment that would be in play for 2017 management,” McNamee says.

“From the DEM standpoint we’ve made this a really high priority … we keep working at it because it’s frustrating for us as well. There’s a lot to complain about there.”

Gaining a better understanding of what recreational anglers are catching is one of the goals of the Rhode Island Party and Charter Boat Association (RIPBCA), whose president, Rick Bellavance, says that “the charter boat industry is a great thing for the state,” but more needs to be done to monitor boats’ catch. “We don’t have a very good handle on what we take out of the water,” he says.

In 2014 and 2015, RIPBCA partnered with the state of Rhode Island in a pilot program that developed an electronic catch measurement system which, according to Bellavance, is now being used on charter boats up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Bellavance said that he uses the system, which is basically an app on a tablet, not only because it is much easier than filling out paperwork after every charter but because it also provides useful data that can hopefully be used in the future to preserve fishing grounds.

While Rhode Island’s marine and coast-related tourism industries make significant contributions to the state’s economy, there is still work to be done in order to ensure that they are fortified against the effects of climate change and environmental damage, and are able to adapt. But Jennifer McCann says that Rhode Islanders are observing changes in their natural environment and supporting a variety of local and state efforts, such as Carson’s, that are identifying at-risk areas and planning strategies to address vulnerabilities. “The whole state has been recognized as a leader in climate resiliency,” says McCann. “We’re moving in the right direction.”

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