Narragansett— With more than 100 residents writing in to voice their disapproval, the Rhode Island Marine Fisheries Council voted against recommending the lease of three acres of a would-be farming site on Segar Cove off Potter Pond in Matunuck to Perry Raso, owner of Matunuck Oyster Bar.
Voting 3-3, the vote ultimately failed due to a lack of majority, which the council will state in its letter to the CRMC.
The recommendation against the lease will go to the RI Coastal Resources Management Council, who will inevitably decide the fate of Perry’s application to lease the portion of the cove, which would be used as an oyster and bay scallop farming site.
The MFC met Wednesday to make their decision after the Shellfish Advisory Panel (SAP) voted in February not to object to Raso’s application in a 9-2 vote. The application also included a request for suspended and floating gear to be used at the site.
After close to two hours of presentation, public comments, and council deliberation, the vote to recommend the leasing of the land came down to a tie, with three councilors voting for and three against the recommendation.
Deliberation mostly surrounded whether or not the oyster and bay farm would conflict with commercial or recreational fishing.
“This council is responsible for assessing whether or not the proposal is consistent with other competing fishing related uses in the area,” council chair Robert Ballou explained.
In Raso’s presentation, he said his justification for choosing the site had to do with the “very muddy” substrate of the particular area, as well as what he described as little fishing activity.
“The seafloor at this site is not suitable substrate for hardshell clams or softshell clams,” said Raso, who also owns Matunuck Oyster Farm, a separate, seven-acre aquaculture lease on Potter Pond.
“The other reason I chose this site, after years of living on the pond, I never to my recollection saw someone fishing in this area. I don’t believe this is a popular fishing area,” he added.
This was disputed by the majority of residents at the meeting, as well as in more than 100 write-ins, who voiced their disapproval of the leasing.
Paul Hooper, a recreational fisherman, said the spot was a vital fishing spot, and the implementation of an oyster farm would “take away from everyone.”
“I’ve got a lot of pride in being a local here,” he said. “I think [leasing the land would be] taking away from people like myself, who pay taxes, and take a lot of pride in what we’ve done for the last 50 years […] I think you can’t say no one’s fishing there. Cause you’re not there when I’m there, and if you are there I’m not gonna go there cause I don’t want you to see what I’m doing. And that’s what you call a fisherman.”
While most residents and fishers showed up to Wednesday’s council meeting to voice their disapproval, some came to show support.
Westerly resident and commercial fisherman Jason Jarvis came to voice his support of aquaculture in general.
“I serve fish, I commercial fish, I’ve been fly fishing RI most of my life,” he said. “People should start realizing, something that saves the ecology of all of our salt ponds are the oyster farms [...] I know some people don’t like to see the oyster farms, they consider it an eyesore, but there’s a lot of stakeholders, not just property owners, commercial fishermen, recreational fisherman. There’s a lot of stakeholders,” Jarvis said.
After Raso’s presentation, public comments, and council discussion, councilor Michael Rice made a motion to recommend to the CRMC that the activities proposed by the application are consistent with competing uses engaged in the exploitation or utilization of marine fisheries.
Vice chair David Monti said he did not support the motion for the same reasons many residents had previously stated.
“I do not support that motion and will vote against it for these reasons: that our sole charge here is to determine whether or not this lease is in conflict with wild harvest,” Monti said. “We heard testimony here tonight from residents who enjoy this area [for] hardshell clamming, soft shell clamming, and fishing-- not only recreational, but we’ve had a commercial fisherman testify that he uses this area.”
“I cannot understand how this council can say this is not in conflict with wild harvest, shell fishing and fin fishing,” he added.
Monti also said the South Kingstown Waterfront Advisory Commision and RI Saltwater Anglers Association said it was in direct conflict with wild harvest fishing.
Christopher Rein said the activities Monti described would not stop happening were the lease to be awarded.
“I think the list of activities you just went through certainly I believe they occur there, from all the evidence and testimony, they do occur there […] I don’t believe that any of those activities would stop occurring there, even if Mr. Raso’s lease was awarded.”
Monti, a charter captain, said he knew that fin fishing would not occur in the lease area, “because you cannot cast where” there is suspended and floating gear.
Rice replied by pointing out that aquaculture is good for the surrounding ecology, and that the lease area is only 5% of the pond, leaving the rest available for commercial and recreational fishing.
The council proceeded to vote in a 3-3, failing to reach a majority. Taking MFC’s recommendation against the lease into consideration, the CRMC will hold a public hearing on the lease some time in the summer.