URI’s Coastal Resources Center leads major statewide initiative on Rhode Island’s ‘blue economy’

Posted on October 16, 2018 on URI Today

KINGSTON, R.I. – Oct. 22, 2018 – The University of Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Center is leading a statewide initiative to document the Ocean State’s robust “Blue Economy’’ – the vast array of businesses, industries and institutions tied to the state’s waters. The initiative will serve as the catalyst to promote and enhance this vital sector.

“The initiative’s overall goal is to build a thriving network among Rhode Island’s ocean industries, which promotes innovation and cooperation, and leverages the public-private partnerships URI has built over decades of research, education and collaboration,” said URI President David M. Dooley. The study, backed by the Graduate School of Oceanography and Rhode Island Sea Grant, may be one of the first to compile a complete picture of the state’s ocean economy into a single source.

The “blue economy” is a wide-ranging sector comprising industries such as defense, recreation and tourism, marine construction and transportation, boat and ship building, offshore energy, commercial and recreational fishing, hatcheries and aquaculture, and research and education.

“Our state recognizes URI as an integral component to our blue economy,” said Jennifer McCann, director of U.S. coastal programs for the Coastal Resources Center and extension director of RI Sea Grant, “whether it be research from ocean engineers to oceanographers to social scientists, to helping with policy development to outreach and education. Part of our job at the CRC is to provide public service to Rhode Island.”

McCann said that Rhode Island’s blue economy is viscerally connected to other key components of the quality of life associated with the state. “Environmental and social quality are directly related and all of our efforts, including the blue economy work, emphasizes this,” she said.

The “Blue Economy” report, which was started in July, will build off existing research compiled by federal, regional and state agencies, trade and industry publications, even company websites in burgeoning industries, said McCann, who is leading the initiative.

Those various sources – while incomplete and overlapping – present a picture of a robust sector.

  • A North Atlantic Oceanic Atmospheric Administration calculation pegs Rhode Island’s ocean economy at $2.6 billion as of 2015 – 4.6 percent of the state’s total economy. NOAA reports 2,352 companies in the sector, employing 42,876 workers. But NOAA’s calculations fail to include such sectors as the state’s powerful, ocean-focused defense industry and the burgeoning offshore renewable energy industry, said Samuel Poli ‘16, a Sea Grant fellow and member of URI’s Masters of Environmental Science and Management program who is being mentored by McCann as he works on the blue economy team and researches the report. Also, NOAA calculations, he said, exclude some companies that are indirectly tied to the ocean economy, such as material or equipment suppliers for marine construction.
  • The defense industry itself had an indirect effect of $4.3 billion on the state economy in 2016, according to data from the Southeastern New England Defense Industry Alliance (SENEDIA). Between the Department of Defense and private contractors, about 11,600 were employed in defense in 2016.
  • Rhode Island’s offshore renewable energy sector – now comprised solely of Deepwater Wind’s windfarm off Block Island – employed 300 workers, Poli said, but 41 percent of the money spent on offshore wind energy is tied to continued operations. The U.S. Department of Energy projects 16,700 jobs in wind energy in the Northeast by 2028, Poli said.
  • The marine trades sectors, including marine construction, ship and boat building, marine services and supply firms, contributed $4.6 billion and nearly 27,000 jobs to the state economy in 2016, according to a study compiled by URI and the Rhode Island Marine Trades Association.

Along with existing sources, McCann said, she and her team are meeting with industry leaders, such as representatives of SENEDIA, to examine partnership opportunities, identify issues and challenges, verify data and fill in any gaps, such as companies in the sector that may have gone unreported. Among URI’s partners in the initiative is the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation.

The report will be unveiled in spring 2019. As the report is compiled, the Coastal Resources Center will partner with ocean economy institutions for three public networking events. The events will showcase the benefits different industries have on the blue economy, along with highlighting the work GSO and CRC have already done in the area of ecosystem management for coastal and ocean resources.

That work has included the Ocean Special Area Management Plan, which provided interdisciplinary, science-based solutions for offshore energy that helped make the Block Island windfarm the first offshore windfarm in the country; the Beach Special Area Management Plan, which provided guidelines to the state’s coastal communities to improve resiliency to flooding and erosion; and efforts in the state’s growing aquaculture industry, where CRC, government leaders, businesses and shellfish farm host communities collaborated to grow the industry while safeguarding environmental health and recreational opportunities.

“The cool thing about being in Rhode Island is that we are innovators,” McCann said. “The OceanSAMP and BeachSAMP – and other things we do – are being replicated in other states and countries.”

With the blue economy initiative, URI is looking to continue those successful collaborations, but also foster a cohesive network of ocean economy industries that interact on common issues and share knowledge.

“We have these strong entities within our blue economy, but nobody is really talking to each other. There’s not that synergistic activity happening in the center. You have a thriving aquaculture industry and a thriving marine trades industry. The defense industry is practically top in the world. But there’s little interaction between those entities.”

“Part of the initiative is to figure out what we have, and as we figure that out we’re also informing people, getting people together, building the network,” said J.P. Walsh, director of the Coastal Resources Center. “Through that process, it highlights the opportunities for growth, integration and collaboration. All of those things that will make the economy which we have – which is great – able to grow even further. And grow it right so it benefits the state.’’