Why is Underwater Mapping Important?

MapCoast: Revealing and Analyzing the Unseen Gardens

Imagine you are selecting a location for your garden. You might want to look at the soil before you start digging. Is it rich, dark earth that would promote good rooting and productive crops? Or is it hard-crusted gravel, left over from construction that would challenge even the best gardener?

This type of assessment is now underway by the scientists involved in the MapCoast program. They are using state-of-the-art science to examine the productivity of the submerged soils that lie beneath Narragansett Bay and the salt ponds along the southern shore of the state. The same soils that support verdant gardens and flower beds also provide a rich foundation for underwater plants that are the essential habitat for fish and shellfish. Imagine that fertile garden running directly into the waters of the Bay from the rose bushes next to the house past the tomato plants in the backyard into the water out to depths of almost 10 feet. These areas of submerged aquatic vegetation (called SAV by scientists) are the basis of our marine fisheries. By examining the underwater soils in our coastal ponds and estuaries, scientists can gauge how healthy these ecosystems are.

The need to increase scientific understanding of submerged (or “subaqueous”) soils is of vital importance in the management of coastal activities such as dredging, fishing, habitat conservation and eelgrass restoration depend on accurate information on submerged soils. Mapping of the soils and their fertility permits identification of areas that SAV can be planted to increase the habitat for fish and shellfish.

The MapCoast project is developing new methods that can unlock the hidden qualities of our estuarine habitats. It is using cutting-edge techniques to describe and understand soils and sediment that can serve as indicators that tell us where we have healthy estuarine ecosystems, where we need to focus our restoration efforts, and that can serve as an early warning of estuarine decline. These are signposts that we would be foolish to ignore.

By combining the methods used by soil scientists on land for the past century with state-of-the-art marine sensing technologies, we are creating a new set of tools that we can use to map our underwater habitats. These are the baseline data that guide the protection, conservation and management of our near coastal waters. They have an affect on the environmental, economic, and even the social impacts of a unique natural resource that is only now being given its proper due for their long-term implications.

So who benefits from this research? Every Rhode Islander who uses Narragansett Bay or the coastal ponds for boating, fishing or swimming. The end result is healthier estuaries, productive fisheries, abundant shellfish and clean water.