Anglers Want Shoreline Access Clarification Almost as Much as They Want ‘The Big One’


Much of the Ocean State's life, work, and play are centered around the state's marine waters. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

In Rhode Island, the temperature is rising, and the state’s recreational anglers are getting ready for the summer fishing season.

Last week the state Department of Environmental Management issued its final adjustments on harvesting limits for commercial and recreational anglers. The summer harvesting season for many species of fish, such as black sea bass, scup, menhaden, summer flounder, and striped bass, will start sometime in May.

DEM director Terry Gray overruled a recommendation from the Rhode Island Marine Fisheries Council to increase the possession limit for commercial menhaden to 50,000 pounds per vessel.

“I do not believe that the changes approved by the council fully considered potential interactions with the ASMFC [Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission] management plan,” wrote Gray in his decision. “And therefore, careful study of how this change would align with those requirements is warranted.”

While the limits of what anglers can pull from state waters this year are now set, anyone looking to pick up a pole this summer will have to figure out the thorny issue of shoreline access.

Enshrined in the state Constitution is a right to the shore, and, among other activities, the right to fish from the shore — as many Rhode Islanders have done since the days of Roger Williams. But in recent years, private property owners have asserted they own the property in front of their homes or private clubs, and anyone who tries to walk on their shoreline is trespassing.

Residents along the state’s southern shore, in Westerly and Charlestown, have complained of new barriers and fences, “No trespassing” signs, and private security guards escorting people off what they say used to be public beaches.

The General Assembly has pledged to resolve the issue once and for all. Last year a legislative study commission recommended the legal access boundary be moved from the mean high water line — a forever-shifting boundary impossible to discern without scientific equipment on a good day and frequently underwater — to the seaweed, or wrack, line, the highest point on the beach where seaweed and other maritime detritus is left on the shore after high tide.

“There are places in Rhode Island now that no one debates that you can fish there legally,” said Greg Vespe, director of the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association. “The problem is you can’t get there from either direction. There’s no way to access it because private owners have cut off their version of legal access to the spot.”

Residents looking to cast a line this summer are going to need three things, according to Vespe: the actual ability to fish from the shoreline; designated right of ways (ROWs) to access desired coastal spots; and parking.

This year two bills are up for consideration. In the House, Rep. Terri Cortvriend, D-Portsmouth, has introduced legislation (H5174) that fixes the legal area beachgoers can walk along the shore to 6 feet landward of the wrack line. It’s the second year in a row Cortvriend has introduced the bill, and it passed the House unanimously both years. Cortvriend also chaired the study commission on shoreline access last year.

Michael Woods, chair of the New England Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, told ecoRI News it was vital to change the boundary to something that sticks, and not something that shifts over time.

Commenting on the legislation, as an angler himself, Woods said, “If this state defends that right, I would breathe a little easier knowing there is a legal and historical precedent.”

Both Vespe and Woods testified in support of Cortvriend’s bill earlier this year during its committee hearing.

In the Senate, Sen. Michael McCaffrey, D-Warwick, who also served on the shoreline study commission, has introduced a more aggressive bill (S0417) that would allow beachgoers to walk on the shore, without trespassing, up to the vegetation line. The bill is expected to receive a committee hearing in the Senate Judiciary later this month.

For an angler like Vespe, the Newport Cliff Walk is the perfect model for shoreline access, as it fits all three of his criteria for recreational fishing, even if it doesn’t technically get its visitors onto the beach.

“The six feet [in Cortvriend’s bill] would be the absolute minimum,” Vespe said. “Realistically, if someone’s going fishing, whether they’re bringing a couple bottles of water, or a little cooler, whether they’re bringing a tackle box, you have to have some spot to put that stuff down, and it needs to be above where a wave is going to wash it away every few minutes.

“It’s more than just generally speaking, especially when you have to walk a bit. It’s more than just a fishing pole and a guy … whether it’s a bait bucket, or a tackle box, you can’t expect somebody to Sherpa everything on their back the entire time.”

Recreational fishing from the shore may have dipped slightly in Rhode Island. Every year, anglers looking to fish in saltwater for fun have to pay $7 and get a recreational saltwater fishing license from DEM.

According to a report released last year by DEM, the number of licenses issued by the agency reached a brief peak during the pandemic. In 2020 the department issued 57,545 recreational saltwater fishing licenses to residents, non-residents, and tourists. The following year, in 2021, that number declined by 10%, for a total of 51,512 licenses issued, but it was still more than the department issued prior to the pandemic.

But once anglers nab their fishing license for the year, they still have to choose a fishing spot they can get to, and that may not align with where they want to fish, even if they’re going to a ROW designated by the state.

The lead agency for state-designated rights of way is the Coastal Resources Management Council, which works with municipalities to identify rights of way from both property deeds and the historical record to keep them open to the public in perpetuity. While the agency has long stressed it does not actually create new ROWs, merely recognizing existing ones, endowing a ROW with the CRMC designation empowers the agency and state to enforce its public status in court.

But municipalities are notorious for finding ways to restrict shoreline access. A 2018 survey performed by Save The Bay examined 226 ROWs as designated by the state. Of those, 48%, or 109 ROWs, had no parking, making them inaccessible by default to most people, and 131 lacked signage specifying they were a state-designated ROW.

Thirty-seven percent of ROWs were found to have obstructions, but only 4% were deemed to have been on purpose. Most of the ROWs with obstructions were found to be simply overgrown and unmaintained, according to the report.

Shoring up CRMC with more state funding and more employees has been a longtime goal of state environmental groups. Despite a jurisdiction that includes more than 400 miles of state coastline, plus 3 miles out to sea, CRMC only has around 32 employees, a number that has remained static for years. Its budget, compared to its land-based counterpart DEM, is minuscule: about $2.5 million from the state and another $2.5 given annually by the federal government.

For shoreline advocates like Woods, empowering the agency to designate and defend ROWs is part and parcel of the mission. “We can’t even come up with a tenth of a percent for that agency,” he said.

Vespe worries about what will happen with tourism and recreational fishing overall in Rhode Island if the shoreline access boundaries aren’t clarified. Even for people who now fish from a boat, almost all anglers start out by fishing from the shoreline.

“It’s critical to the fabric of the state which has got a long history of recreational fishing along the shoreline,” Vespe said. “We’d really like to see it resolved because I think it would benefit everyone in the state.”


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