NARRAGANSETT—The Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) released its annual report on Aquaculture, and the outlook is promising. A number of aquaculture businesses, new and old, are thriving in Rhode Island’s coastal ponds and the growing and harvesting of mainly shellfish, such as oysters, has brought a new dynamic to the local seafood-consuming community.
“In the last few years, we’ve had slow, steady growth,” said Dave Beutel, Aquaculture Coordinator at CRMC. “I anticipate that will continue. CRMC is the lead permitting agency, but we work closely with DEM for regulation and monitoring. That oversight is part of what makes it sustainable.”
CRMC reports that the number of aquaculture farms in Rhode Island have increased from 38 in 2010 to 43 in 2011, and oysters continue to be a staple of the market with 4,074,186 pieces sold for consumption. The farm gate value of aquaculture products in 2011 was $2,459,761, and increase of 5.7 percent from 2010.
Point Judith Pond is the most active regarding shellfish aquaculture, according to CRMC’s report, as 44.25 acres, or 2.86 percent of the coastal pond’s area, is dedicated to aquaculture out of a total of 75.15 acres for all southern Rhode Island coastal ponds. In 2000, only 2.5 acres of Point Judith Pond was leased to aquaculture businesses through CRMC.
“Aquaculture is one of the pieces of a healthy seafood economy,” said Beutel. “If you look at the big picture, it is important as a source of jobs as well in South County. Almost everybody that has an aquaculture site in South County lives here, so it is local businesses [driving aquaculture].”
“Here in Rhode Island we have a high unemployment rate and a lack of investment in the community, yet aquaculture is growing,” he added.
A number of shellfish restoration projects have been initiated throughout southern Rhode Island waters over the past year, augmenting the success of aquaculture. In 2011, 12 Rhode Island aquaculturists participated in the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) for oyster restoration, conducted through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Although CRMC views restoration as a ‘public enhancement’ service, the work done by members of the aquaculture businesses through EQIP brought an additional $534,068 to the industry, and the number of workers also increased to 84.
“Certainly everyone is conscious about the environment, and the great thing about shellfish aquaculture is that it improves the water quality,” said Beutel. “We are in an unusual position at CRMC in that we are the regulatory agency, but want to see success. I think we have a healthy relationship with aquaculturists in the state.”
Save the Bay has also invested in its Shellfish Restoration Program, started in 2007, which seeks to strengthen the seeding and harvesting environment of shellfish habitats which will improve the aquatic environment, as well as open the door further for small business profitability.
The current restoration campaign focuses on sustaining the scallop populations in Point Judith Pond, and making sure that numbers do not dwindle due to predation or bacterial increases, such as through a brown tide. CRMC’s report cited that the University of Rhode Island has been a significant partner with researching shellfish aquaculture in Rhode Island. The University has recently completed a study of hypoxia occurrence and survival for upweller conditions, as well continuing a program which researches shellfish survival in different subaqueous soils in Point Judith Pond.
In closing, CRMC’s report has reiterated the importance of aquaculture to South County’s seafood economy, the health benefits of shellfish restoration and harvesting, and the opportunity for the local community to support aquaculture businesses in its own backyard.