Recreation and Climate in Coastal Salt Ponds

Rhode Island can expect to see some changes to its coastal recreation landscape and economy as temperatures rise rapidly with climate change.

Average temperatures for the state are expected to jump 3˚F to 10˚F by 2080, according to the National Climate Assessment.

“Weather considerably affects” outdoor recreation levels, said Emily Patrolia, a masters graduate from the University of Rhode Island, explaining how changes in weather and overall climate may impact the local economy and environment during her Coastal State Discussion Series presentation on  April 12.

Fishing is the most common use of Rhode Island’s coastal salt ponds.

Apart from predictions for sea level rise, Patrolia’s research looks at how current climate trends, specifically temperature and precipitation, affect recreation on Rhode Island’s coastal salt ponds (Point Judith, Potter, Winnapaug, Ninigret, Green Hill, and Quonochontaug) and how future climate predictions might alter activity. This information, she says, may be used to help resource managers and business owners anticipate fluctuations in use and traffic in these shallow marine embayments.

Outdoor recreation in Rhode Island generates $2.4 billion in consumer spending and supports 24,000 jobs (Outdoor Industry Association) with the spending for an average coastal visit estimated at over $200 (Surfrider Foundation). And the coastal salt ponds play a big role in coastal recreation and revenue, says Patrolia, explaining that while temperatures and precipitation are expected to increase overall, increased intensity of wind, rain, storm, and drought events can also be expected during the summer months, which may alter activity levels and local revenue from tourist operations. “I hypothesize that for at least some recreational uses, people are going to be pretty picky about weather conditions.”

Patrolia looked at how humidity, precipitation, wind, and temperature affected four types of coastal uses most commonly seen on the salt ponds:

  • Fishing (hook and line, as well as clamming)
  • Motor boating
  • Non-motor boating, including kayaking and rowing
  • Relaxing along the shore

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Based on observations and interviews, Patrolia found that not all user groups were impacted the same by various weather factors, and that tolerance levels for certain temperatures were different. For example, air temperature was a more important factor for those relaxing than those kayaking. The most resilient to elevated air temperatures, she said, are boat motorists—who also are more likely to check the weather forecast and care more about wind direction and speed. And while increased rain drove most away, it didn’t have much impact on those fishing—the most common use of the salt ponds.

But Patrolia noted some caveats. A drizzle is viewed as more tolerable than a downpour, and as weather factors are expected to increase in intensity, users may be driven out of the salt ponds more frequently. But increased air temperatures may increase activity levels—until heat rises above a certain temperature that is tolerable for most users.

Other consequences of climate change not accounted for in Patrolia’s research are sea level rise and ocean acidification, which she admitted were also very important factors affecting the recreational landscape. While it’s not certain what the ponds will look like as sea levels increase, these changes will most likely alter the landscape, and ocean acidification may undermine fishing resources in these ponds.

The scope of Patrolia’s research, however, does highlight how different user groups of Rhode Island’s salt ponds react to various factors.

“There is a difference among the different recreation user groups, which is important because when we talk about tourism and recreation we tend to lump them together,” she said. “But it’s important to think about how the different users will react to changing weather factors.”

In the short term, Patrolia hopes this research can help managers of recreational operations better estimate the volume of visitors based on the weather forecasts and what that may mean in terms of public access and facilities of state beaches, boat ramps, fishing permits, etc. But in the long-term, greater shifts and intensities in weather patterns and associated activity levels will need to be considered in terms of managing coastal recreation and preserving Rhode Island’s salt ponds.

Emily Patrolia presents impacts of climate change on recreation along with Dr. Tracey Dalton, who discusses perceptions of aquaculture as part of the 2016 spring Coastal State Discussion Series.

Meredith Haas | Rhode Island Sea Grant Communications