Rhode Island:

A Blueprint For
The Blue Economy

In their own words, “Ocean State” leaders set an agenda for sustainable marine development

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This feature explores the Blue Economy through the lens of a single American state. Rhode Island is the smallest state, but has the second-longest coastline in relation to overall size of any state in the union. More relevantly, however, the connection between the state and the ocean is as strong as can be found anywhere in the US. Rhode Island is known as the “Ocean State” and that is not just a nickname. Its history has been completely defined by its relationship to the ocean. For Rhode Island, its “economy” and its “blue economy” are virtually indistinguishable.

Before we delve further into Rhode Island and the Blue Economy, some pertinent background information. First and foremost, Rhode Island is not an island (more this to follow.) The state is small, but densely populated, with one million people living in 1,500 square miles (in contrast, Alaska has three-quarters of a million people living in 663,000 square miles). Needless to say, land is in short supply. And that is before you consider that approximately 22% of the state’s land area is protected or conserved, one of the highest percentages in the country.

Given this, it may not be all that surprising that water seems to dominate every chapter in the state’s history. Rhode Island is nearly bisected by Narragansett Bay, which provides several ideal port locations, but also makes the state virtually all coastline. Every citizen lives a short distance from the ocean. Because of this, Rhode Island has a unique maritime tradition. In colonial times, it was a major shipping center that was heavily involved in fisheries, trade (including the slave trade), privateering, piracy and smuggling. There were major naval bases in Narragansett Bay in wartime, while during the Gilded Age the country’s economic and social elite raced their yachts in the bay in what would become known as the America’s Cup.

The impact of the Blue Economy on Rhode Island was not limited to salt water, either. The state has few rivers and they pale in comparison with the majestic ones of the American interior, but it was on these rivers that the American Industrial Revolution began, with their rapidly flowing waters providing power for the first textile mills.

But the Blue Economy in Rhode Island did not begin with the European colonization. The Blue Economy was just as important to the indigenous peoples in what became Rhode Island as it was to the later colonists and to those who live there today.

And this is a story best told though the “quahog.”

The quahog is a type of clam that is found along the east coast of North America, but was particularly valued by the indigenous people along Narragansett Bay, and still is a major part of Rhode Island culture today, to the point where there is a “Quahog Week,” where local restaurants try to outdo each other with new quahog recipes.

Narragansett Bay and the quahog created a Blue Economy long before the first Europeans came to its shores. Quahogs are an excellent food, providing low-fat, high-quality protein, and are a good source of selenium, iron, and vitamin B12. While quahogs can be harvested in shallow waters by wading, most are in deeper waters and boatbuilding became highly refined by the indigenous people, driven by the need to reach quahogs and other seafood further out into the Bay.

The quahog has another value – its shell. While most of the shell is white, the interior of a quahog shell often is streaked with purple and can be dazzling in appearance. Today, skilled artisans use quahog shells to make jewelry and the Narragansett people, for whom the Bay was named, did the same. They took it one step further, however, and used the shells as “wampum.” The word “wampum” is widely thought of as meaning “money” by non-indigenous people, but that is a fallacy.

This leads us to jewelry sculptor and artist Allen Hazard of the Narragansett people. In 2018, Rhode Island Public Broadcasting produced a video in which Mr. Hazard talked about the relationship between the Narragansett people and the quahog. The video can be seen here in its entirety, where he discusses how the quahog, and by extension the Blue Economy, existed before the European colonization and was every bit as pervasive in the lives of the people. From fisheries to boatbuilding to toolmaking, the ocean has impacted the people who have lived along Narragansett Bay for as long as the area has been populated.

In Their Words

In our feature, we hear from many of the leading voices in the Blue Economy in Rhode Island, including:

Sheldon Whitehouse
Sheldon Whitehouse
United States Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) gets us started. Sen. Whitehouse undoubtedly is the leading voice for the oceans in the U.S. Senate and he will give us his perspective at the federal level.
Paula Bontempi
Paula Bontempi
Dean of the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, covers a wide range of topics ranging from the fight against sea level rise to a new research vessel that is under construction.
Laura Hastings
Laura Hastings
As the former Deputy Program Director for Real Jobs Rhode Island, Laura talks about the variety of workforce development programs in Rhode Island that involve training for careers in the Blue Economy.
Susan Daly
Susan Daly
VP of Strategy, Rhode Island Marine Trades Association / Composites Alliance of Rhode Island explains how Rhode Island companies in the sector have come together to make a stronger impact on the Blue Economy.
Molly Donohue Magee
Molly Donohue Magee
Executive Director, Southeastern New England Defense Industry Alliance (SENEDIA)/Undersea Technology Innovation Consortium (UTIC), brings the defense sector role in the Rhode Island Blue Economy into focus.
Chris Waterson
Chris Waterson
General Manager, Waterson Terminal Services, talks about the impact that offshore wind is having on the ports in Rhode Island and the vital contribution this is making to the state’s blue economy.
William Cotta
William Cotta
Mr. Cotta discusses offshore wind and the state’s approach to developing the industry as a scalable competitive advantage.
Jennifer McCann
Jennifer McCann
Director, US Coastal Programs, URI Coastal Resources Center, Director of Extension, Rhode Island Sea Grant, will close out this feature. She literally has written the book, or at least the report, on the Blue Economy in Rhode Island.

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