NARRAGANSETT - In partnership with the Rhode Island Department of of Environmental Management (RIDEM) and the University of Rhode Island’s Coastal Institute, Rhode Island Sea Grant aims to develop a management plan for shellfishing in Rhode Island. The environmental research group will hold a kick-off meeting on Jan. 7 at URI’s Bay Campus in Narragansett, pulling together community stakeholders, including members of the shellfishing industry and scientists.
“This is just the beginning of the process, but URI, RIDEM, Coastal Resources Management Council and us have been talking with quite a few stakeholders in the aquaculture and shellfishing industry,” said Jennifer McCann of Rhode Island Sea Grant. “The purpose is to understand what the major issues are that we need to focus on.”
Sea Grant has cited four specific reasons for the development of a shellfish management plan for Rhode Island, namely to ‘demonstrate the economic, environmental and cultural value of the shellfish resource and industry to the people of Rhode Island.’ The plan will also seek to propose and promote alternative strategies and decisions for science-based shellfishing in the state.
“From what I have learned of the shellfishing industry, there is a real need for clarity in the regulator process,” said McCann. “Management decisions need to be made based on good data, and this is an opportunity to move to respond to those issues.”
"We perceive that the shellfish industry is important not only to our economy, but to the environment and Rhode Island culture,” she added. “[A shellfish management plan] is an opportunity to codify that and demonstrate that it is an important industry.”
McCann stated that Sea Grant is currently drafting a scope of legal work to be done and have hired a law student from Roger Williams University to review state regulations pertaining to shellfishing. Sea Grant has also consulted with an economist at URI to help develop a marketing strategy for the plan.
Shellfishing has become an increasingly important driver of the local economy and focus of environmental research by organizations such as Save The Bay and The Nature Conservancy. According to a 2012 report released by CRMC, 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 4.1 million pieces sold for consumption. The farm gate value of aquaculture products in 2011 was $2.5 million, an increase of 5.7 percent from 2010.
“In the last few years, we’ve had slow, steady growth,” said Dave Beutel, Aquaculture Coordinator at CRMC in November. “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.”
“Aquaculture is one of the pieces of a healthy seafood economy,” he added. “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].”
Point Judith Pond, for example, 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.
Regarding the preservation of shellfish habitats and their contribution to safe water quality, among other benefits, groups such as Save The Bay and The Nature Conservancy have invested much time and many dollars into restoration projects. Save the Bay has 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.
Lasy year, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), in partnership with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, 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.
“This is a great partnership and very South County focused,” said John Torgan, Director of Ocean and Coastal Conservation at TNC in May. “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.
Michael McGiveney, President of the Rhode Island Shellfishermen’s Association (RISA), has also been involved in the discussion regarding the shellfish management plan and hopes that the communication will ultimate bring greater success to the local industry.
“We look forward to sitting down and putting together a shellfish management plan,” said McGiveney. “It will be good for the industry to get people on the same page. “[The shellfishing industry] is within state purview and not federally regulated, which gives us a lot more flexibility.”
“My group works on transplants and seeding projects, so we have certain programs that we think will be good to work on,” he added. “[RISA]has worked in the past on helping to locate aquaculture leases to help minimize impact on wild fisheries, so it is always good to have people talking and understanding where we want to be.”
After the Jan. 7 meeting, which begins at 6 p.m., the information gathered from participating stakeholders will then be compiled and discussed more specifically in further meetings throughout the coming months.