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SOUTH KINGSTOWN—At the turn of the last century, Point Judith Pond was an abundant resource for oysters, edifying an extensive economy which saw South County shellfishermen vend their produce to hotels and restaurants across the southern coast of New England. When the entrance at the pond’s mouth was permanently breached in 1910, however, salinity levels sharply rose, and by the 1950s, oyster populations declined.
Today, oysters are returning to Point Judith Pond, and a number of environmental organizations throughout the state have established shellfish restoration programs in Rhode Island’s coastal ponds. The Nature Conservancy (TNC), in partnership with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, has developed a new shell recycling program called ‘Oysters Gone Wild,’ through which local oyster bars and shellfish processors give back used bivalve shells in order to create reefs in a number of southern Rhode Island coastal ponds, including Point Judith and Ninigret.
“This is a great partnership and very South County focused,” said John Torgan, Director of Ocean and Coastal Conservation at TNC. “The Nature Conservancy Global Marine Initiative is at the Bay Campus producing cutting edge stuff, both in the shell recycling part of it and for restaurants around the state.”
“There is literature at the table, which is a way to inform consumers about restoration work and the value of clean water and coastal ponds to the restaurant industry and the whole dining experience,” he added.
Recycled oyster reefs provide significant benefits to coastal pond habitats, according to Steven Brown, Coastal Restoration Ecologist at TNC, and assist in rebuilding the natural environment for protecting oyster spawning and harvesting, which used to thrive in places such as Point Judith Pond. According to a newly released report from TNC, more than 85 percent of the globe’s oyster reefs have been lost.
“Oyster reefs naturally form over tens of years through the accumulation and accretion of shell material and, once removed through harvest, a net loss of shell can exist,” said Brown. “Several states, including Maryland and Virginia, have established ‘Shell Budgets’ for maintaining loss and gain of shell on public oyster reefs over time. Oyster reefs are also vulnerable to burial from runoff and disease.”
“By recycling shell back to coastal waters, we are increasing and expanding oyster reef habitat,” he added. “That benefits water quality through increased shellfish filtration, juvenile finfish production through provision of habitat and refuge, and protection of salt marsh through greater wave attenuation and sediment control.”
Oysters Gone Wild is in year two of its three to five year initiative, at which point oysters will reproduce and a naturally sustainable spawning cycle will be established. TNC has received funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as the Lattner Fund, and Brown’s work is supported by a number of TNC scientists, students from local universities, and volunteers. TNC collects approximately 10,000 pounds per annum of shell for new oyster reefs. Matunuck Oyster Bar in South Kingstown is the only restaurant participating in the Oysters Gone Wild program in South County, while a number of others in the Providence area give their excess shells to TNC for the reefs.
“Oysters are big part of what we do and anything we can do to help preserve the oyster population in the wild bodes well for our business,” said Brendan Moran, General Manager at Providence Oyster Bar. With us being a green restaurant and doing things to help our environment, [Oysters Gone Wild] is helpful, lowers amount of waste going into our environment, and helps them.”
“Based on the amount of shells they collected from us last year, we definitely wanted to be a part of it again,” he added. “On a weekly basis, they empty a 50-gallon trash barrel from us, and they did that for three months. I think any restaurant that deals with shellfish on a daily basis should take part.”
Brown stressed the need to approach oyster, and morever shellfish, restoration in Rhode Island’s coastal ponds as both an economic and environmental concern to local communities.
“Oysters reefs are vulnerable to destructive harvesting practices, such as dredging, runoff, and poor water quality,” said Brown. “As a foundation species, wild oyster reefs provide vertically complex habitat and refuge for numerous commercial and ecological important finfish, such as tautog and winter flounder, crustaceans, and coastal wading birds, such as egrets and oyster catcher.”
“To maintain reefs, oyster populations must be managed as both a fishery and a habitat, which means establishing areas for restoration-conservation and areas for public and commercial harvest,” said Brown. “This cannot be achieved without the support from shellfishermen, aquaculturists, municipalities, and state and federal resource agencies.”
As TNC and other partner organizations continue to redevelop native oyster populations in Rhode Island’s coastal ponds, many users, from small restaurant businesses to surrounding species in the underwater habitats, will reap the fruits of initiatives like Oysters Gone Wild.
To volunteer or for more information about the Oysters Gone Wild initiative, visit www.nature.org.