Northeast Coastal Areas Study
Significant Coastal Habitats
Site 27 (CT, NY, RI)
I. SITE NAME: Fishers Island Sound Complex
II. LOCATION: This major estuary complex encompasses all of Fishers Island Sound and Little Narragansett Bay, including the coastline of southeastern Connecticut from the mouth of the Thames River to Watch Hill, Rhode Island, and the north shore of Fishers Island, NY.
TOWNS: Groton, Stonington, CT; Fishers
Island, NY; Westerly, RI
COUNTIES: New London, Suffolk, Washington
STATES: Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island
USGS 7.5 MIN QUADS: Watch Hill, RI-Conn 41071-37; Mystic, Conn-NY-RI 41071-38; Ashaway, RI-Conn 41071-47; Old Mystic, Conn 41071-48; New London, Conn-NY 41072-31
USGS 30x60 MIN QUADS: New Haven 41072-A1; Block Island 41071-A1
III. GENERAL BOUNDARY: This large, estuary-dominated complex includes all of the waters and adjacent shorelines of Fishers Island Sound, or that body of water lying between Fishers Island (New York) and the southeastern coast of Connecticut, and enclosed within the area east of a boundary line drawn from the mouth of the Thames River at Avery Point (Groton) to the western end of Fishers Island, and north of a line drawn from the eastern end of Fishers Island to and including Napatree Point (Rhode Island) and Little Narragansett Bay. This area is approximately 13 miles (21 km) long in a southwest-northeast direction, and from 2 to 5 miles (3-8 km) in width in a north-south direction between the mainland and Fishers Island.
There are several significant fish and wildlife habitat sites within this boundary, including all of the waters and benthic (bottom) habitats of Fishers Island Sound itself. Specific areas of regional significance include: Bluff Point and Poquonock River; Mumford Cove; Esker Point; Ram Island; Mystic Harbor and River; nearshore islands and rock outcrops between Mystic and Stonington Harbors; Barn Island Marshes - Wequetequock Cove; Sandy Point; Napatree Point; Little Narragansett Bay; Pawcatuck River; and the northern shoreline of Fishers Island. The boundaries of these areas as well as the overall complex are delineated on the accompanying map.
IV. OWNERSHIP/PROTECTED STATUS: This complex has a mixed ownership pattern of Public Trust waters, several State-owned areas, Town parks and extensive private residential lands. State of Connecticut-owned areas include Bluff Point Coastal Preserve and State Park, Haley Farm State Park, Sixpenny Island Wildlife Area and Barn Island Wildlife Area. The Town of Westerly, Rhode Island, owns Napatree Point.
V. GENERAL HABITAT DESCRIPTION: Habitats in this area range from open waters in Fishers Island Sound and its extensive beds of eelgrass (Zostera marina) to mature coastal hardwood forests of red, white and black oaks (Quercus rubra, Q. alba and Q. velutina, respectively), mockernut hickory (Carya tomentosa), black cherry (Prunus serotina) and sassafras (Sassafras albidum), and dense thickets of briers (Smilax spp.), poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) and Asiatic bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) at Bluff Point. Estuarine salt marshes in this complex are classic -- indeed, the Barn Island Marshes were the subject of some of the earliest and most important salt marsh studies in the U.S. -- and are dominated by saltmarsh cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) in low marsh areas and saltmeadow cordgrass (S. patens) in high marshes, often with a mosaic of species and communities characterized by spike grass (Distichlis spicata), black grass (Juncus gerardii) and glasswort (Salicornia bigelovii), ponds of widgeon grass (Ruppia maritima), and upland borders of marsh elder (Iva frutescens) and groundsel-bush (Baccharis halimifolia). Common reed (Phragmites australis) is becoming invasive in many saltmarshes in this area, often displacing cordgrass vegetation. Sand and pebble beaches at Bluff Point, in addition to typical beach and dune communities dominated by beachgrass (Ammophila breviligulata) and seaside goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens) such as at Napatree Point, have areas of beach heather (Hudsonia tomentosa) and shrublands of beach plum (Prunus maritima) and bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica). Many of the islands in Fishers Island Sound, both along the Connecticut mainland and the shoreline of Fishers Island, are generally small rocky outcrops with small clumps of trees and salt marsh or bare rocky shoreline. Ram Island, at the mouth of Mystic Harbor, is a tombolo of sandy and cobbly beaches connecting two rocky islands and covered with scrub thickets. Mean tidal range in this area is 2.3 feet (0.70 m).
VI. SIGNIFICANCE/UNIQUENESS OF AREA: Fishers Island Sound is a high quality, shallow estuarine environment with extensive eelgrass beds, supporting regionally significant seasonal concentrations and populations of waterfowl and shorebirds, important finfish nursery and spawning areas and substantial commercial and recreational shellfish beds. Overwintering and migrating flocks of waterfowl of special emphasis occurring in significant numbers in the coves and open water environments here include Atlantic brant (Branta bernicla), American black duck (Anas rubripes), Canada goose (Branta canadensis), common goldeneye (Bucephala clangula), bufflehead (Bucephala albeola) and hooded, common and red-breasted mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus, Mergus merganser, and M. serrator, respectively). This area is especially important as a breeding area for American black duck, with lesser numbers of mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) and Canada goose. Ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) nest in several places along the Connecticut shoreline and on Fishers Island, and appear to be increasing in this area, as is also American oystercatcher (Haematopus palliatus) which breeds on several offshore island beaches. Ram Island is an important rookery for several species of colonial wading birds, including black-crowned night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), snowy egret (Egretta thula), glossy ibis (Plegadis falcinellus), great egret (Casmerodius albus) and little blue heron (Egretta caerulea), as well as such problem species as double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus), great black-backed gull (Larus marinus) and herring gull (Larus argentatus). These last three species seem to be increasing their numbers and populations everywhere along the coast, often displacing nesting terns and piping plovers. Common, least and roseate terns (Sterna hirundo, S. antillarum, and S. dougallii, respectively) and piping plovers (Charadrius melodus) commonly nested on several area beaches in the recent past, but in the past several years essentially only the least and common tern still breed, and even then only at a very few localities, such as small offshore islets and on Fishers Island. Roseate tern and piping plover, U.S. Endangered and Threatened species, respectively, have not nested on area beaches in the Connecticut portion of this complex in several years (although piping plovers still nest on Napatree Beach, Rhode Island) even though suitable habitat appears available. Human-related disturbances and perhaps displacement by gulls are likely responsible for the abandonment of these sites. Marshes in this complex, particularly those at Barn Island, provide nesting habitat for American bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus), least bittern (Ixobrychus exilis), black rail (Laterallus jamaicensis) and seaside sparrow (Ammodramus maritimus), all regional species of special emphasis. Harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) haulouts are located on several rock islands, most notably on the Hungry Point Islands on the north shore of Fishers Island. The Mystic River, Little Narragansett Bay and coves in this area provide significant spawning and nursery habitat for winter flounder (Pseudopleuronectes americanus). There are commercially important beds of hard-shelled clams (Mercenaria mercenaria), soft-shelled clams (Mya arenaria) and bay scallop (Aequipecten irradians) scattered over this complex, particularly along the north shore of Fishers Island. Rare plants occurring in this area include bushy rockrose (Helianthemum dumosum), salt-meadow grass (Diplachne maritima) and Graves' beach plum (Prunus maritima var. gravesii), the latter endemic to this area and found at only a single locality (Esker Point).
VII. THREATS: Increased residential and marina development in the area, with consequent runoff of chemicals and fertilizers, increased turbidity and sedimentation, and discharges of sewage, stormwaters, and wastes, potentially threatens water quality throughout the rivers, coves and waters of Fishers Island Sound, to the detriment of habitat quality for the area's significant fish and wildlife resources. This area also receives heavy recreational use, especially boating and beach activities, which can adversely impact wildlife populations during certain times of the year. Of particular concern are human-related disturbances to colonial nesting waterbirds. Nesting populations of terns and piping plovers are highly vulnerable to human intrusions into nesting areas during the critical nesting season (mid-April to August), and stray pets can pose serious hazards to eggs and young birds. In several areas within this complex there are considerable problems with invasive species such as common reed, Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), Asiatic bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) and mute swans (Cygnus olor), and also with dense concentrations of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus).
VIII. CONSERVATION CONSIDERATIONS: The apparent abandonment of several area nesting beaches of terns and piping plovers as a result of human disturbances is of particular concern, and requires intensive efforts to protect both currently-occupied sites as well as recent historical localities by all available means, including beach closures, fencing, predator/pet removal, posting, beach warden patrols and public education. Habitat improvement and restoration of degraded or abandoned nesting beaches using dredging spoils should be considered. Efforts should be made to identify and implement those tasks and objectives of the piping plover and roseate tern recovery plans that may be applicable to areas within this complex. Opportunities should be sought to develop cooperative management and conservation programs between various governmental agencies, private conservation organizations and private landowners to best manage and protect for the long term the living resources of this significant estuarine complex. Protection and maintenance of water quality and wetlands throughout this complex through monitoring and regulation are necessary to ensure the continued high value of this area to fish, wildlife and plant populations dependent on them.
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