Coastal State Series


Photo ©Jesse Burke

Current Events

Past events


The Coastal State Discussion Series is a forum dedicated to highlighting current scientific research focused on marine issues impacting Rhode Island coastal communities and environments.

All events are free and all are encouraged to join!





For more information about this series, please contact Meredith Haas at

Recent Events

September 15, 2022


Can Oysters Overcome Coastal Stressors and Disease?

Scientists are investigating how, and if, oysters can be bred for disease resistance or disease tolerance and what that could mean for a multi-million dollar industry and the coastal environment.

The U.S. eastern oyster aquaculture industry is rapidly expanding with a value that has increased over 10-fold in some Atlantic states in the last 15 years. In addition to their economic value, oysters also provide tremendous ecosystem services and are the focus of intensive restoration efforts.

However, commercial seed for farms or restoration is limited to specific environments and vulnerable to disease. Changes in the climate are also expected to further enhance these vulnerabilites and limitations.

Sea Grant funded-researchers discuss their ongoing work investigating the viability of breeding disease-resistant or disease-tolerant oysters, and what that might mean for coastal marine ecosystems.


Dr. Marta Gómez-Chiarri

Dr. Marta Gómez-Chiarri

Aquatic Pathologist and Professor of Fisheries, Animal and Veterinary Science

The University of Rhode Island

Dr. Jonathan Puritz

Dr. Jonathan Puritz

Molecular Ecologist and Professor of Biological Sciences

The University of Rhode Island

September 15, 2022


Recognizing Today’s Coatal Environment

Scientists have been studying changes to Narragansett Bay in nutrient inputs and warming waters and will discuss their latest findings.

Narragansett Bay has been touted by scientists to be the cleanest it has ever been in 150 years – a long journey to restoration from its history as a dumping ground for toxic metals, sewage, and other pollutants since the Industrial Revolution. 

With improvements in wastewater treatment facilities and controlling storm runoff, Rhode Island has been able to exceed its goal of a 50% reduction in nitrogen. Nitrogen reduction has been a steadfast focus for the state in cleaning up the Bay to reduce harmful algal blooms that lead to low dissolved oxygen levels, which can lead to fish kills, such as occurred in 2003 in Greenwich Bay. And while there are many sources of nitrogen, wastewater facilities have been identified as the primary source in Narragansett Bay.

However, some critics say that such a reduction in nitrogen has made the bay “too clean” by reducing the amount of an important food source to phytoplankton that support local fisheries.

How the Bay will fully respond to reduced levels of nitrogen with the addition of warming waters is still unknown. “We need to watch trends of [secondary impacts],” says Dr. Candace Oviatt, a professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography.

These changes in nitrogen loading into the bay and the secondary impacts of warming waters are what Oviatt and her colleagues have been exploring over the last several years in an effort to provide managers a clearer picture on the changing trends in the timing and availability of nitrogen in Narragansett Bay. This will help resource managers with forecasting and understanding changes in the bay, such as harmful algal bloom dynamics or fisheries resources (e.g. shellfish). 

Oviatt will be joined by URI Masters student Michael Potter II and Dr. Robinson Fulweiler from Boston University as part of the Coastal State Discussion webinar series to share current research findings and plans for ongoing research.

Dr. Candace Oviatt

Dr. Candace Oviatt

Marine Ecologist and Professor of Oceanography

University of Rhode Island  Graduate School of Oceanography, University of Rhode Island

Dr. Robinson Fulweiler

Dr. Robinson Fulweiler

Ecologist and Biogeochemist & Professor of Biology and a professor in Earth and Environment

Boston University

Michael S. Potter II

Michael S. Potter II

Graduate Student

University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography


April 21, 2022


Understanding the distribution and eventual fate of plastics as they travel from source to sink is a vital part of understanding probable environmental impacts in marine systems.

– Dr. Andrew Daviees, associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Rhode Island’s College of Environment and Life Sciences

Today, almost everyone in the world comes into contact with plastics every single day. These plastics are light-weight, durable, inexpensive, and easily modified, making it the ubiquitous material of the modern economy. However, in 2017 alone, ~348 million tons of plastics were produced worldwide, and production is expected to triple by 2050. The U.S. recovers less than 10% of its annual plastic production and it is the fastest growing component of municipal waste. 

Nearly 85% of all marine debris is plastic and all studied ecosystems on earth have been found to contain plastics. With a growing demand for plastics, there remain simple questions:

What do we do with this waste?

What can we replace it with?

What impacts do plastics have on human and environmental health? 

Over the last several years, researchers at the University of Rhode Island have been characterizing marine plastic pollution in a variety of habitats.

Speakers Dr. Andrew Davies and Dr. Coleen Suckling, along with Ph.D. candidate Sara Davis, discussed their work exploring the distribution of plastics, including microplastics within the surface waters of Narragansett Bay. They shared the challenges in characterizing microplastics within complex marine habitats and show early research findings as they aim to produce the first robust estimates of microplastics within Rhode Island’s coastal waters.


This free webinar is part of the annual Coastal State Discussion Series hosted by Rhode Island Sea Grant and co-sponsored by the University of Rhode Island’s College of Environment and Life Science and the Graduate School of Oceanography


Past Events


Detecting the Next Harmful Algal Bloom

April 2021



Alfred Hitchcock’s famous film, The Birds, was inspired by a bizarre event in Monterey Bay in 1961 where crazed birds were seen crashing into buildings, cars, and street signs. The culprit: domoic acid, a neurotoxin produced by a specific species of phytoplankton that, if ingested, can cause animals to become disoriented or have seizures. In humans, it can also cause seizures as well as short-term memory loss or worse in severe cases.

In 2016, an unprecedented harmful algal bloom with detectable levels of domoic acid spanned across New England, prompting a recall of over 5 tons of potentially infected shellfish in Maine and the first-ever bay-wide closure for shellfishing in Rhode Island as a precaution although toxicity never reach harmful levels. The presence of domoic acid also led to another closure of shellfish harvesting in Narragansett Bay the following year. The cause of these events remains unknown, and the implications for local economies and human health prompted research to better understand and monitor Pseudo-nitzschia, the genus of plankton responsible for producing domoic acid.

Pseudo-nitzschia have been detected for over 50 years in the Narragansett Bay Long-Term Plankton Time Series but have only been a problem recently,” says Dr. Bethany Jenkins, associate professor of cellular and molecular biology at the University of Rhode Island. “What caused these events is unknown: whether an environmental factor altered the physiology of endemic Pseudo-nitzschia or new toxin-producing strain(s) were introduced.”

Speakers, Dr. Bethany Jenkins, associate professor and marine microbial ecologist, and Ph.D. candidate Alexa Sterling from the University of Rhode Island, as well as Dr. Colleen Mouw, associate professor at URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography, will discuss their research investigating the various strains of Pseudo-nitzschia and real-time characterization of phytoplankton communities in Narragansett Bay that allows for a rapid field response to target harmful algal bloom events as they occur.


This free webinar is part of the annual Coastal State Discussion Series hosted by Rhode Island Sea Grant and co-sponsored by the Rhode Island EPSCoR C-AIM Consortium, the University of Rhode Island’s College of Environment and Life Science, and University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography.


Coastal Megaprojects

March 2021



Rhode Island is long overdue for a major hurricane. Even a brush with Superstorm Sandy in 2012, which caused $11.2 million in damages and left 122,000 Rhode Islanders without power, was not a worst-case scenario, but a reminder of our exposure and vulnerability. And a record-setting hurricane season in 2020 with 30 named storms, 12 of which made landfall in the U.S., was another reminder of how a changing climate makes rising seas and storm-flooding more devastating. 

Storm surge barriers, levees, and other coastal flood protection megaprojects are being investigated as strategies to protect U.S. cities against devastating coastal storms and rising sea levels. But these projects are large-scale and complex, often taking years to decades to complete and costing billions of dollars with long-lasting impacts on the economy, environment, and society. Additional layers of social conflict and other political factors also cast doubt on their status as practical climate adaptation options. 

Dr. Paul Kirshen, professor of climate adaptation at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and Dr. D.J. Rasmussen, an engineer and climate scientist who recently graduated from Princeton University’s School of Public Policy & International Affairs, will discuss the technical, environmental, economic, and political factors of why some coastal flood protection megastructures break ground in the U.S. while others do not, using Boston Harbor and Rhode Island’s Fox Point Hurricane Barrier in Providence–the first gated hurricane-protection structure in the U.S.– as case studies.

This free webinar is part of the annual Coastal State Discussion Series hosted by Rhode Island Sea Grant and co-sponsored by the University of Rhode Island’s Coastal Institute, Marine Affairs Department, and The Policy Lab at Brown University.



Harmful Algal Blooms May Lead to New Drug Discoveries

March 2020



An unprecedented harmful algal bloom that spanned from Long Island to Maine in 2016 prompted a recall of over 5 tons of potentially infected shellfish in Maine and the first-ever bay-wide closure for shellfishing in Rhode Island.

Researchers across the region have since been focused on better understanding the species that drive harmful blooms and the types of toxins they produce, such as domoic acid, which is a that can infect shellfish and be harmful to consumers.

Rhode Island Sea Grant hosted a virtual Coastal State Discussion led by Dr. Matthew Bertin, an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Rhode Island, who discussed ongoing work investigating why these organisms produce harmful toxins and how these compounds can be leveraged into potential drug leads for either treatment of the disease or new drugs.

“The 2016 event and the continued detection of domoic acid in the bay suggest that either species composition has shifted to more toxic strains of these species, or environmental conditions have made resident species more toxic,” says Bertin. “An increase in bloom events and domoic acid production represents a significant risk to the state’s shellfish industry and local populations as domoic acid is responsible for amnesic shellfish poisoning.”

In addition to studying the human and environmental impact of toxins such as domoic acid, Bertin and his colleagues have also been studying two cyanobacterial communities, Microcystis and Trichodesmium, in a search for new therapeutic lead molecules that could treat neuroinflammation, which is a driver in diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

“In four years, we have discovered over 30 new-to-science molecules, many with promising biological activities,” he says.



Recreational and Tourism Impacts of the Block Island Wind Farm

April 2019


The Block Island Wind Farm tested the feasibility of offshore renewable energy in the United States. Since it became operational in 2016 with five turbines producing 125,000 megawatt-hours of electricity annually, proposals for the development of other wind farms at two or three times the capacity have cropped up along the eastern seaboard.

And while offshore wind farms harness renewable energy, there are still questions about the environmental and social impacts of such wind farms, including on recreation and tourism.

“There are very different ideas of how the wind farm works, the politics that are behind it,” said Amelia Moore, assistant professor of marine affairs at the University of Rhode Island, as quoted in the Block Island Times.

Moore and colleague David Bidwell, assistant professor of marine affairs at URI, as well as Tiffany Smythe, assistant professor of maritime policy at the United States Coast Guard Academywill discuss their collaboration looking at the Block Island Wind Farm’s impacts on recreational fishing and tourism.

The goal of their work is to provide a greater understanding of the impacts from offshore wind farm development to aid decision-makers, scientists, and developers interested in offshore wind farm planning, research, and permitting processes throughout the United States.

Rhode Island Sound’s Role in Fueling Harmful Algal Blooms in Narragansett Bay

April 2019

Rhode Island Sound’s Role in Fueling Harmful Algal Blooms in Narragansett Bay



An unprecedented toxic algal bloom from Long Island to Maine in 2016 led to the first-ever shellfishing ban in Narragansett Bay. After five tons of shellfish were recalled in Maine that September, a rapid increase in a certain species of algae that produces a neurotoxin, which can infect shellfish, was observed outside of Newport Harbor the following October.

Researchers from the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography (GSO) will discuss how Rhode Island Sound may be linked to these harmful algal blooms in the bay.

Since the 2016 bloom was concentrated in the mid- and lower bay, with its longest duration in the Sound, one theory is that nutrients, such as nitrogen, are being funneled into the bay that can trigger algal blooms.

“One of the important things missing is the water coming in from the shelf. There’s a deep pool of nitrogen [offshore] in the bottom water in the summer,” said Dr. Christopher Kincaid, a GSO researcher who specializes in circulation dynamics. The knowledge gap, he says, is understanding the nitrogen budget and figuring out if, and how, this nitrogen-rich bottom water offshore is making its way to the surface waters in the bay where it can fuel harmful algal blooms. “We need a true nitrogen budget to understand circulation patterns and how that impacts the ecosystem.”

Monitoring stations have also been set up near the mouth of the bay by Dr. Lucie Maranda and her colleagues to test for the presence of the algal species that produce the neurotoxin, domoic acid, and how much, if any, is present.


Christopher Kincaid
(GSO) Professor of Oceanography specializing in marine geophysics and circulation dynamics.

Lucie Maranda
(GSO) Research scientist specializing in biological oceanography and ecosystem dynamics.

Dave Ullman
(GSO) Research scientist specializing in physical oceanography and circulation dynamics.

Kevin Rosa
(GSO) Ph.D. candidate specializing in marine geophysics and numerical modeling.


While nitrogen, which is found in fertilizer, is essential to plant growth, it can become too much of a good thing. When nitrogen from fertilizers or even sewage enters our waters, it can accelerate plant growth that can suffocate marine life and degrade the quality of our waters.

Dr. Robinson Fulweiler, a research scientist from Boston University who specializes in nitrogen dynamics, and her team have been comparing how nitrogen is cycled through various oyster habitats and how different farms at different ages impact this cycle to better understand how oysters can potentially offset too much nitrogen in the environment.

“Over the last several years, we have measured [nitrogen] cycling through oyster habitats in Narragansett Bay and Ninigret Pond,” she says, explaining this includes oyster farms, natural and restored reefs.

Their initial findings show oyster farms may alter the way nitrogen is removed from the environment and may serve as a potential means for removing excess nitrogen. Fulweiler’s research also shows that when compared to other animal production, such as beef and poultry, raised oysters have less than one percent of the greenhouse gas cost.

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