Photo by Zane Wolfang Newport Daily News

For 40 years Prudence Island has quietly served as the center of coastal research in RI

PORTSMOUTH – A light drizzle pattered into the sandy pine barrens of Prudence Island, one of the only places in the state where prickly pear cactus grows indigenously.

Prudence is one of those places where a short mile of trail can cross three or four distinct types of habitat, seemingly shifting within a few strides down a walking trail from oak forest densely carpeted with greenbrier to sandy pine barrens interspersed with blueberry shrubs and reindeer lichen to coastal marshes filled with eelgrass and seabirds. In other words, it is the perfect place for scientists to set up shop.

Perhaps that is why Prudence Island since 1980 has quietly hosted the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, one of a network of 30 coastal sites designated to protect and study estuarine systems across the country. Established through the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972, the reserves represent a partnership program between NOAA and coastal states, with NOAA providing funding and each site being managed on a daily basis by a lead state agency or university.

In the case of the reserve on Prudence, NOAA provides about 70% of the funding and RIDEM is the state partner. The site is managed by the Audubon Society of Rhode Island in partnership with RIDEM. The reserve covers 4,332 acres spread across Prudence, Patience, Hope and Dyer islands. Patience, Hope and Dyer are uninhabited, and approximately 60% of Prudence Island is included in the reserve's boundaries.

What does the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve do?

Designated to protect coastal and estuarine habitats, the reserve, which is the only one of its kind in Rhode Island, serves as a living laboratory to promote long-term research & monitoring, place-based education, stewardship, and training on the challenges facing vital coastal habitats.

One key area of study is the System Wide Monitoring Program (SWMP, pronounced “swamp”), which the NBNERR has been participating in for over 15 years to collect and document data on the short-term variability, long-term changes and effects of human activities including climate change on estuarine waters and habitats. The data can be accessed at and Notably, Education Coordinator Maureen Dewire mentioned on a recent educational tour attended by The Daily News that data shows the northern end of Prudence will become its own separate island “sooner rather than later” due to sea level rise.

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