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Issues affecting coastal ecosystem health—ranging from coastal development, working waterfronts, and food security to sea level rise and renewable energy.



As marine and coastal ecosystems are changing at unprecedented rates from climate change, other human activities such as mircoplastics and wastewater discharge as are also impacting the biology and chemistry of these sensitive systems.


As marine and coastal ecosystems are changing at unprecedented rates from climate change, other human activities such as mircoplastics and wastewater discharge as are also impacting the biology and chemistry of these sensitive systems.



Environmental Triggers of Toxic Algal Blooms




Principal Investigator (PI):
Colleen Mouw, University of Rhode Island 

Co-PI: Audrey Ciochetto, University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography

Narragansett Bay and coastal New England have seen an increase in frequency and expansion in the time frame and species causing harmful algal bloom (HAB) events, which has led to significant shellfish closures.  

Researchers will investigate what environmental factors trigger these blooms and potential toxicity by analyzing a continuous record of phytoplankton and associated toxicity and environmental parameters. Understanding the environmental conditions associated with toxic-producing blooms will help better predict future events that can assist resource managers in making proactive management decisions to protect human health and fisheries.

Multi-Use Opportunities for Coastal and Marine Operators in Rhode Island’s Blue Economy





Principal Investigator (PI):
David Bidwell: University of Rhode Island, Marine Affairs

As new ocean uses (e.g., marine renewable energy) and existing uses (e.g., aquaculture) expand, marine managers are seeking to understand the opportunities and challenges of multiple use. Multiple use of the ocean is understood as two or more users in close geographic proximity, which can range from mere coexistence or “subsequent use” of the same space to interactive arrangements of shared infrastructure and services. The multi-use concept is new and arguably understudied in U.S. waters, and Rhode Island’s waters are ripe for research in this area. 

The goal of this project is to identify successful experiences and future opportunities for small coastal and marine operators in Rhode Island to participate in the blue economy via multi-use. The scope of this study includes small operators utilizing Rhode Island’s salt ponds, Narragansett Bay, and waters of Block Island and Rhode Island Sound. This project will enhance understanding and improve end user application of multi-use marine spatial planning tools by assessing the perceived benefits and costs, as well as the economic risks and opportunities associated with multi-use. 

Harmful Algal Bloom Modeling in Narragansett Bay




Principal Investigator (PI):
David Ullman, University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography

David Borkman, Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management

Jongsun Kim, University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography

Lewis Rothstein, University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography

Narragansett Bay is serves as a critical estuary in for fisheries, aquaculture and recreation in Rhode Island and southern New England. Previous shellfish closures from toxic algal blooms present the need for proper resource management to protect commercial fisheries and consumer health. To achieve this, researchers will investigate the biological components of the toxic-producing phytoplankton species and physical processes of circulation within the Bay to better understand what role hydrodynamic factors play in the initiation of a bloom event and it’s distribution in local waters.

Researchers will apply hydrodynamic parameters into an existing ecosystem model (Carbon Silicate Nitrogen Ecosystem) to test as a potential modeling tool for predicting of harmful algal bloom events in Narragansett Bay. 

Impacts of Rust Tides on Rhode Island Shellfish Farms





Principal Investigator (PI):
Skylar Bayer, Roger Williams University

Roxanna Smolowitz, Roger Williams University

Tim Scott, Roger Williams University

Gary Wikfors, NOAA Northeast Fisheriese Science Center

Temporal and spatial dynamics of rust tide caused by Margalefidinium polykrikoides on Rhode Island shellfish farms and resulting impacts on cultured oysters

Shellfish aquaculture on the East Coast is a $170M industry and is composed of about a thousand small farms in coastal communities. There is great concern that the occurrence of plankton blooms may be on the rise as a result of global weather changes. Rust tides, which are associated with the plankton species Margalefidinium polykrikoides, are becoming more frequent from Chesapeake Bay to Cape Cod–causing mortality of larval and juvenile bivalves as well as declines in growth in adults. When and where rust tides appear are not well understood, especially in Rhode Island coastal lagoons and parts of Narragansett Bay.

To better track and predict rust tides, this project introduces the application of environmental DNA (eDNA) methodologies to better identify plankton species and create a dataset specifically relevant to Rhode Island coastal environmental and economic health issues. The methods developed for environmental DNA monitoring for M. polykrikoides and the results from these studies will be important for strategic, economically feasible and effective mitigation techniques developed by the industry and research partners.

Using World's Longest Plankton Data Series To Predict Harmful Algal Blooms




Principal Investigator (PI):
Tatiana Rynearson, University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography

Co-PI: Patricia Thibodeau, University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography

This project aims to use the Narragansett Bay Long-Term Plankton Time Series database–the longest-running time series of its kind in the world– to examine long-term trends in harmful algal bloom (HAB) events over a 60+ year period, and identify associated environmental conditions. 

Researchers will utilize over 60 years (1959 to present) of weekly phytoplankton count data collected in Narragansett Bay to determine historical trends to investigate species the triggere current HAB events in the Bay as well as those that have the potential to do so in the future. Outcomes include a fully curated 60+ year phytoplankton time series that will be publicly available and accessible for local as well as international collaborators and stakeholders. Aquaculture farmers will inform and test our prediction outcomes. This project will increase understanding issues related to estuarine ecosystems and marine environments by determining long-term trends of HABs as well as provide important context for current and future changes of HABs within a climate context.

Identifying Harmful Algal Bloom Species and Triggers for Toxin Production





Principal Investigator (PI):
Matthew Bertin, University of Rhode Island College of Pharmacy

Bethany Jenkins, University of Rhode Island College of Environment and Life Sciences

High-resolution time series for deciphering the Pseudo-nitzschia species and environmental drivers that produce domoic acid in Narragansett Bay

Continuing previously Sea Grant-funded work on harmful algal bloom (HAB) ecology in Narragansett Bay with respect to the phytoplankton species Puesdo-nitzhcia and its production of the neurotoxin, domoic acid, this project builds on previous findings and takes innovative approaches to determine the ecological drivers of bloom events and domoic acid production–a major problem for both environmental health and economic health for Rhode Island stakeholders. 

The development of new genetic tools has allowed identification of distinct phytoplankton species assemblages that recur seasonally and correspond with increases in domoic acid concentrations in phytoplankton samples. These tools will aid researchers in further developing genetic and analytical tools to answer ecological questions with respect to the drivers that lead to specific Pseudo-nitzschia (P-n) species assemblages and trigger domoic acid (DA) production.


For more information or application questions please contact Alan Desbonnet at


Rhode Island Sea Grant has funded scientific research relevant to the Narragansett Bay and Rhode Island Sound in service of residents who conserve, enjoy, and make these coastal and marine resources.

The funded projects advance scientific knowledge through the publication of peer-reviewed journal articles.

Current and past publications can be accessed through the National Sea Grant Library.

National Sea Grant Library