Why Restore Habitats?

Narragansett Bay and its watershed are alive with special places-from the rocky shoreline of Brenton Park in Newport, to the urban wilds of the Woonasquatucket River in Providence, to the quiet wetlands of Broad Meadow Brook in Worcester. Each of these areas is a unique habitat, supporting an abundance of plants and animals adapted to that particular location. Some of the Bay's most important coastal habitat types are seagrass, coastal wetlands and rivers that support anadromous (sea-run) fish. Together, they form a vast and complex web of biodiversity-thousands of species of plants and animals, millions of individual organisms that, together, make up the rich and valuable ecosystem of Narragansett Bay. From striped bass and lobster to osprey and great blue herons, the Bay's fish and wildlife depend on this mosaic of healthy coastal habitats.

For as long as humans have lived in the Narragansett Bay watershed, we've been using and changing its ecosystem to suit our needs. In 1621, according to the Taunton River Journal, Edward Winslow and Stephen Hopkins observed native people using a weir or fish trap to catch "an abundance of bass" on the Nemasket River-a practice that was undoubtedly ancient, even then. European colonization accelerated the pace of change throughout the Bay region as forests were cut for agriculture and streams were dammed to power small sawmills and gristmills.

The rise of American industry, beginning in the late 18th century at places like Slater Mill in Pawtucket, R.I., led to large-scale changes of Narragansett Bay's natural habitats. Nearly every river and stream in the watershed was dammed for industrial power; today there are about 500 dams in Rhode Island alone. As the mills grew, so did urban centers throughout the state-wetlands were filled to expand the cities; railroads and roads were built along the shore; shipping channels and ports were dredged as ships grew larger. Wastewater treatment plants were constructed in Providence in the late 19th century-a great improvement to the city's public health, but one which dumped millions of gallons of polluted wastewater into the Bay each day. World War II took a toll on the Bay's natural habitats, as shoreline areas such as Quonset Point and Melville were developed for military use. In the post-War area, inland and coastal wetlands were filled to build the interstate highway system, marinas were developed and residential construction gobbled up land throughout the watershed.

The result was a drastic decline in Narragansett Bay's fish and wildlife. Bay scallops, for example, are dependent on underwater seagrass for habitat-as water pollution caused seagrasses to decline, the Bay's once-valuable scallop fishery collapsed. Mill dams prevented sea-run migratory fish from returning to their spawning grounds, causing the local extinction of Atlantic salmon and leading to large declines in river herring and American shad. Habitat degradation is believed to be a factor in the collapse of winter flounder populations on Narragansett Bay-particularly thermal pollution and other habitat impacts from the Brayton Point Power Station in Swansea, Mass., as documented by the R.I. Dept. of Environmental Management.

In recent years, new approaches have been developed to help fix these kinds of impacts to coastal habitats, in order to restore fish and wildlife and improve environmental quality-benefiting ecosystems and communities. The Narragansett Bay Estuary Program is a leader in habitat restoration on Narragansett Bay-working with state, federal and non-governmental partners to restore rivers, wetlands, seagrass beds and other natural aspects of the Bay's ecosystem. Here are some of our recent and ongoing projects.

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