The Westerly Sun

CHARLESTOWN — The Coastal Pond Management Commission cleared the way Monday for an application for the expansion of an oyster farm on Ninigret Pond. 

The municipal commission’s preliminary determination did not contain any objections by commissioners, leaving Matthew Behan, owner of Behan Family Farms LLC, free to proceed with his formal application to the Coastal Resources Management Council. 

Behan began growing oysters on Ninigret Pond a decade ago with a 3-acre lease. Over the years, the lease has grown to 7.3 acres and the proposed two-acre expansion would bring the total acreage occupied by the farm to 9.3 acres.

The expansion would take place at the northeast corner of the leased area, shifting the boundary 25 feet to the east and moving the southeast boundary 225 feet further east. 

The company’s Ninigret Nectar oysters have been selling well in the United States and Canada, and Behan has applied to expand his lease to keep up with what he describes as a growing demand. 

Behan was present but did not address the commission. CRMC aquaculture coordinator David Beutel provided details of the type of gear that would be used.

“The proposed gear that would go in there are the stackable trays,” Beutel said. “On his current lease, the trays can be stacked three or two high for most of it. In this new proposed area, it’s shallow enough that it would only be single stacked.”

All gear would be submerged, allowing kayaks to pass over it, and the only visible evidence of gear would be four marker buoys.

The expanded area would be used for finishing oysters that are close to attaining market size. The expanded operation, Began’s application states, would have no impact on the surrounding shore, and would enhance plant and animal life in the pond by serving as a “fish aggregating device,” providing a place for juvenile fish and shellfish to hide. As filter feeders, oysters also help clean the water, reducing excess nitrogen that can cause algal blooms and fish kills. 

There were no objectors present at Monday’s meeting, but Beutel said at least one objection had been emailed to the CRMC by a critic who argued that a private business should not be allowed to take over even more of a public recreational area.

“There’s been considerable email traffic about this one, some of which I think you’ve seen,” he told the commission. “Much of it is about process and there is an assertion that this is a viable recreational area.”

Commission member Arthur Ganz asked Beutel whether this and other oyster farms on Ninigret Pond were close to reaching the state’s 5% limit on how much of a body of water can be occupied by aquaculture.

“If this expansion is approved, is that 5%?” Gantz asked.

“No, it’s not even close,” Beutel replied. “Right now, today, there are 64.27 acres of aquaculture permits on Ninigret Pond without this.”

Beutel explained that if Behan and two other Ninigret operations are granted permission to expand, the total area farmed will be 74 acres and the maximum allowed is 83.4 acres, so the total would still be well under the maximum.

Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management marine biologist Anna Gerber-Williams said the DEM had no objection to Behan’s expansion.

“We don’t have any problems with this location,” she said. “We like that it’s an expansion in an area that already has a lot of aquaculture activity so we like to see that that’s continuing to just grow in that area, so we are in support of this expansion as currently proposed.”

Behan will now make a formal application to the CRMC, which will take several months to proceed through the formal hearing and public comment processes.

cdrummond@thewesterlysun.com

@cynthiadrummon4

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