Case Study: Ocean Special Area Management – Ecosystem-based Management Strategies in Rhode Island

Case Study Ocean Special Area Management – Ecosystem-based Management Strategies in Rhode Island

Rhode Island

2006 – 2010

Special Area Management Plans – SAMPs are ecosystem-based management strategies designed to preserve and restore ecological systems. Recognized at the federal level as a regulatory document, SAMPs are developed and implemented in coordination with local municipalities, as well as government agencies and community organizations. Plan elements incorporate the best available science and are amended as new research and issues arise (Armbsy Carnevale et al., 2010).

There is an increased demand for the potential placement of many structures and activities in Rhode Island’s offshore waters. The major driver for development of the Ocean SAMP was the determination by the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources that investment in offshore wind farms would be necessary to achieve Governor Donald Carcieri’s mandate that offshore wind resources provide 15 percent of the state’s electrical power by 2020. The justification behind renewable energy development in Rhode Island includes diversifying the energy sources supplying electricity consumed in the state; stabilizing long-term energy prices; enhancing environmental quality, including the reduction of air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions; reducing the state’s reliance on fossil fuels; and creating jobs in Rhode Island in the renewable energy sector (Armbsy Carnevale et al., 2010).

In response, the RI Coastal Resources Management Council proposed the creation of a SAMP as a mechanism to develop a comprehensive management and regulatory tool that would engage the public and provide policies and recommendations for appropriate siting of offshore renewable energy (Armbsy Carnevale et al., 2010).


The Rhode Island Ocean Special Area Management Plan is an example of how a region can work to develop a framework for managing natural resources and human uses in offshore waterways. The project was prompted by the push to move to 16 percent renewable energy (with 15 percent offshore wind) by 2019 and because of it Rhode Island was able to site the first offshore wind farm in the United States, The Ocean SAMP is a framework that can be developed in other coastal zones for decision making ensuring that the preservation and restoration of ecological systems shall be the primary guiding principle upon which environmental alteration of coastal resources will be measured.

Best Practices

  • Share accurate project information with the public in an appropriate and timely manner
  • Stakeholder participation ensures that a broad range of issues, concerns, and creative ideas are heard and examined throughout the SAMP process.
  • Understand and respect major uses and the biology/habitat of the Ocean SAMP study area as decisions for the incorporation of future activities are determined
  • Management and regulatory decisions should be based on the best available science and on ecosystem-based management approaches
  • Monitoring in Ocean SAMP contributes to implementing a systematic process for continually improving management policies and practices in an environment exposed to constant change

Full Case Study Description
The waters off Rhode Island’s coasts are an important and highly valuable environmental, economic, and cultural hub for the people living in this region. Rhode Island’s offshore waters are an ecologically unique region and host an interesting biodiversity of fish, marine mammals, birds, and sea turtles that travel throughout this region. Through maintenance of oral traditions and unbroken cultural practices, Indigenous people in Rhode Island have retained an active cultural connection to parts of the Ocean SAMP study area and adjacent coastal places for thousands of years (Armbsy Carnevale et al., 2010).

To promote, protect, enhance, and honor these existing human uses and natural resources of Rhode Island, while encouraging marine-based economic development, and facilitating the coordination of state and federal decision making, the CRMC has produced the Ocean SAMP. Using the best available science and working with resource users, researchers, environmental and civic organizations, and local, state, and federal government agencies, the Ocean SAMP provides a comprehensive understanding of this complex and rich ecosystem as well as describes how the people living in this region have long used and depended upon these offshore resources. Rhode Island has a long and valued tradition of studying and preserving historical and cultural heritage on land. The Ocean SAMP represents the first comprehensive effort to study the state’s underwater and maritime cultural heritage outside of Narragansett Bay (Armbsy Carnevale et al., 2010).

Waterfront uses
Rhode Island’s offshore waters have been used for maritime commerce, exploration, transportation, and military purposes for over 400 years. While none of Rhode Island’s cargo ports or naval facilities are within the Ocean SAMP area, cargo ships, support vessels, and military craft traverse the Ocean SAMP area enroute to the Rhode Island ports of Providence, Quonset/Davisville, and Newport in Narragansett Bay, and the Massachusetts port of Fall River (which includes Fall River and Somerset) in Mount Hope Bay (Armbsy Carnevale et al., 2010).

Much of the maritime activity in the Ocean SAMP area was, and still is, fishing. Commercial fishing in this area dates to the 17th century and has been a viable industry since then, characterized by a diversity of target species and gear types. Vessels passing through the Ocean SAMP area to or from Narragansett Bay gain access to the commercial port facilities of Quonset/Davisville and Providence, R.I., and Fall River, Mass, as well as to passenger ferry, cruise ship, and Navy port facilities in Newport and Quonset/Davisville. There are two main shipping lanes running the Ocean SAMP area: the approach to Narragansett Bay and the approach to Buzzards Bay. Within this sample area, there are also two restricted Navy areas (Armbsy Carnevale et al., 2010).

The Ocean SAMP area and adjacent coastal communities have a long history as centers of marine recreational activity and as seaside tourism destinations. Recreational boating is one of the most popular uses of the Ocean SAMP area, attracting Rhode Island residents and tourists to the water for sailing, power boating, and fishing and diving activities. Recreational fishing is also one of the most popular activities among recreational boaters within the Ocean SAMP area. It is also important to note a long-running sailboat racing tradition that takes place within the SAMP area, as well. Offshore wildlife viewing also takes place in the Ocean SAMP area. Currently there are eleven cruise ship companies that visit the Rhode Island communities. Various shore-based activities take place adjacent to the Ocean SAMP area. These activities affect the coastal communities of Block Island, Charlestown, Little Compton, Narragansett, and Westerly and are important centers of recreation and tourism activity as Rhode Island’s beaches, parks, and open spaces are some of the state’s most appealing features (Armbsy Carnevale et al., 2010).

The Ocean SAMP will serve as the regulatory, planning, and adaptive management tool to uphold CRMC’s regulatory responsibilities and promote a comprehensive ecosystem-based management approach to the development and protection of Rhode Island’s ocean-based resources within the Ocean SAMP study area. It is the intent of the SAMP to contribute to the mitigation of, and adaptation to, global climate change as well as to facilitate coordination mechanisms between state and federal agencies and the people of Rhode Island (Armbsy Carnevale et al., 2010).

The process to develop the Ocean SAMP as well as establish policies and regulations is guided by goals and principles that were developed in coordination with the Ocean SAMP researchers and stakeholder group. The goals for the Ocean SAMP are to:

  1. Foster a properly functioning ecosystem that is both ecologically sound and economically beneficial.
  2. Promote and enhance existing uses. Through scientific and anecdotal research, better understand the existing activities taking place within the Ocean SAMP study area.
  3. Encourage marine-based economic development that considers the aspirations of local communities and is consistent with the state’s overall economic development, social, and environmental needs, and goals.
  4. Build a framework for coordinated decision-making between state and federal management agencies.

The 2010 Ocean SAMP not only provided for the siting of the nation’s first offshore renewable wind farm but serves as a successful framework for protecting coastal ecosystems, involving stakeholders, and coordinating between state and federal management agencies.

Marine resources
Ecologically, economically, and culturally, Rhode Island is inexorably linked to the ocean and therefore faces several challenges from climate change that are specific to the coastal and marine landscape (Armbsy Carnevale et al., 2010).

This region was selected as the Ocean SAMP study area due to the natural and human activities that take place in these offshore waters. These activities have a foreseeable effect on the people of Rhode Island, and in turn, human activities also impact the Ocean SAMP ecosystem (Armbsy Carnevale et al., 2010).

In 2005, the CRMC recognized that the uses of marine resources in Rhode Island were intensifying; that optimizing the potential of this intensification would require intentional action driven by design; and that needed intentional actions are collaborative in nature. The Rhode Island General Assembly mandated the CRMC to develop a new plan, the Marine Resources Development Plan (MRDP), to meet these new demands while protecting the natural ecosystem. The plan aims to improve the health and functionality of Rhode Island’s marine ecosystem, providing for marine-related economic development; and promoting the use of Rhode Island’s marine resources(Armbsy Carnevale et al., 2010).

Adapting to climate change
In 2004, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed the Renewable Energy Standard which mandates that the state meet 16 percent of its electrical power needs with renewable energy by 2019. In 2007, Rhode Island’s Office of Energy Resources determined that investment in offshore wind farms would be necessary for achieving Governor Donald Carcieri’s additional mandate that offshore wind resources provide 15 percent of the state’s electrical power by 2020 (Armbsy Carnevale et al., 2010).

The climate of the Ocean SAMP area has changed over the past century. The region has become wetter and there have been increases in sea level rise, air and sea temperatures, storm severity, and ocean acidity. Future climate change projections include ocean warming and changes to offshore ocean circulation patterns, stratification, nutrient distribution, and plankton productivity. Alteration of these variables is expected to affect the ecological functioning of the Ocean SAMP region, create stress on marine plants and animals, shift geographic ranges of commercially important fish species, and change the timing of biological events. Other implications, such as accelerated sea level rise, more intense storms, sea surge, accelerated rates of coastal erosion and beach migration, more rain, salinity changes, and runoff and saltwater intrusion into freshwater aquifers, all have consequences for coastal infrastructure and recreation associated with the Ocean SAMP, marine navigation and transportation, and the offshore marine ecology (Armbsy Carnevale et al., 2010).

Due to the large cost of offshore structures, the cost of offshore wind energy facilities is much more expensive than onshore, and operations and maintenance of facilities is a contributor to prohibitive costs. To encourage development of renewable energy, Rhode Island and the federal government detailed incentives to push for this development. Some of these included tax credit incentives, grants, American recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, and tax exemptions (Armbsy Carnevale et al., 2010).

Areas of Particular Concern (APCs) have been designated in state waters through the Ocean SAMP process with the goal of protecting areas that have high conservation value, cultural and historic value, or human use value from Large-Scale Offshore Development. APCs include areas:

  1. With unique or fragile physical features, or important natural habitats.
  2. Of high natural productivity.
  • With features of historical significance or cultural value.
  1. Of substantial recreational value.
  2. Important for navigation, transportation, military, and other human uses; and vi. Areas of high fishing activity.

The CRMC then proposed the creation of a SAMP as a system to develop comprehensive management and tools that would engage the public and give policies and recommendations for appropriate siting of offshore renewable energy (Armbsy Carnevale et al., 2010).

  1. Develop the Ocean SAMP document in a transparent matter
  2. Involve all stakeholders
  3. Honor existing activities (fishing, recreation, tourism, transportation, military)
  4. Base all decisions on the best available science
  5. Establish monitoring and evaluation that supports adaptive management

The Ocean SAMP has laid out enforceable policies and recommendations to guide CRMC in the development and protection of Rhode Island’s ocean-based resources within the Ocean SAMP study area. These policies and recommendations build upon existing regulations.

The CRMC shall work together with the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, NOAA, fishermen’s organizations, marine pilots, recreational boating organizations, and other marine safety organizations to promote safe navigation, fishing, and recreational boating activity around and through offshore structures and developments and along cable routes during the construction, operation, and decommissioning phases of such projects. The CRMC will also promote and support the education of all mariners regarding safe navigation around offshore structures and developments and along cable routes. The CRMC shall require where appropriate that project developers perform systematic observations of recreational boating intensity at the project area at least three times: preconstruction; during construction; and post-construction. Any assent holder of an approved Offshore Development shall collaborate with the Council when designing the proposed facility to incorporate where possible mooring mechanisms to allow safe public use of the areas surrounding the installed turbine or other structure (Armbsy Carnevale et al., 2010).

Future/Next Steps
Since it has been recognized that there is a need to conserve ocean ecosystems, managements plans need to be put in place for the future. This SAMP area has multiple uses/activities that will continue to be utilized in the future and this calls for planning. Benefits and management issues have been considered in the Ocean SAMP region and reviewed. Future uses include but are not limited to mining, liquified natural gas use, short sea shipping, marine reserves for conservation as well as for fisheries enhancement, algae and shellfish aquaculture, ecotourism, and placement of artificial reefs (Armbsy Carnevale et al., 2010).

The Ocean SAMP policies aim to accommodate and maintain a balance among the varying activities, both traditional and future water dependent uses, while preserving and restoring the ecological systems for years to come.

Key Partners:

  • The Rhode Island General Assembly
  • Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC)
  • University of Rhode Island
  • Marine Resources Development Plan (MRDP)
  • Other Stakeholders

Rhode Island Ocean Special Area Management Plan, OceanSAMP Volume 1, 2010.

Last updated 22-Oct-26


  • Northeast Atlantic

Geographic Scope

  • Ocean SAMP study area boundary includes approximately 1,467 square miles (3,800 square kilometers) of portions of Block Island Sound, Rhode Island Sound, and the Atlantic Ocean
  • The study area begins 500 feet from the coastline in state waters, from the mouth of Narragansett Bay seaward (out to three nautical miles), and all federal waters within the boundary
  • The study area abuts the state waters of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York


  • Managing natural resources with existing human uses
  • Marine-based economic development
  • State and federal decision making


  • Stakeholder collaboration
  • Assessment of natural resource ecosystem
  • Assessment of existing human uses
  • GIS Mapping

Waterfront Uses

  • Commercial fishing
  • Recreational fishing
  • Charter fishing
  • Coastal tourism
  • Passenger ferry
  • Cruise ships
  • Public access
  • Pier/docks
  • Recreational boating, kayaking, other recreational watercraft
  • Retail/commercial