Totally Nautical Farms

An inside look into RI's oyster industry


They’re cold, slightly salty, sweet, delicately firm and truly delicious. Oysters are a local favorite when it comes to shellfish. However, oysters do much more than just fill our stomachs and satisfy a craving – their benefits are wide reaching for Rhode Island’s economy and its coastal environment.

Perhaps oyster farming isn’t something you think of when you think of Rhode Island, but the industry is growing in the state, reaping both economic and environmental rewards. Although capture fishery production has essentially stopped growing world-wide since the 1980s, aquaculture, the farming of aquatic organisms such as fish, shellfish and even plants, has maintained an 8.3% growth rate, making it the fastest growing form of food production in the world and the fastest growing segment of the U.S. agricultural economy.

An Industry Destroyed
Rhode Island’s oyster industry thrived at the end of the nineteenth century and into the early 1900s. Native oysters populated brackish ponds along Rhode Island’s southern coastline in great numbers. Leases of submerged land were granted for the purpose of culturing oysters, but were difficult for the state to enforce. During this time fishermen from all over the state flocked to salt ponds such as Point Judith Pond in South Kingstown.

Fishing laws and limits on oysters were disregarded. Diesel powered ships began entering Point Judith Pond, dragging the bottom of the pond with metal claws and feeding oysters into a trailing net. After three years of dragging, Point Judith Pond’s once flourishing oyster population was destroyed.

The addition of a breachway in 1910, where the mouth of Point Judith Pond meets Narragansett Bay, effectively negated the possibility of a resurgence of native oysters. A sandbar was dug out to deepen and widen the channel so that large boats could have access to the pond. As a result, a constant supply of ocean water was allowed to enter into the pond, permanently changing the salinity of the water.

Although oysters grow fast in salty water, they have better success at spawning in brackish waters with lower salinity, and are composed primarily of fresh water. The change in the salinity of the pond made it impossible for the few remaining oysters to reproduce fast enough to sustain future oyster fishing. This scenario played out in other ponds in the area as other breachways were created to allow year-round pond-to-ocean access.

The hurricane of 1938 added to the devastation of previously thriving salt ponds. The hurricane’s storm surge effectively silted over prime oyster grounds and fisherman finally pulled out of the area. Although a few leases still remained in the state, the oyster industry essentially came to a standstill due the lack of a streamlined lease application process.

Regrowing the State's Aquaculture
Contemporary oyster farming in Rhode Island started slowly in the 1970s and began to grow during the late 1990s. The number of leases and acres farmed increased rather dramatically around the year 2000. With the wild oyster population basically annihilated, farmers cultivate oysters using a variety of techniques – from the most basic method of scattering seeds, or planting oysters at the bottom of the water, to more complex methods involving combinations of racks, polyethylene bags and cages at varying depths of the water column.

Most of the farms are located in South Kingstown, Narragansett, Charlestown, North Kingstown, Portsmouth and Block Island. Roughly half of the farms in South County are in coastal ponds, the rest are located in Narragansett Bay, the Sakonnet River and Block Island.

While the fishing industry as a whole has suffered over a number of years, oyster farming has continued to grow, even after the country’s economic collapse in 2008. “It’s an industry that’s growing,” explains David Beutel, Aquaculture and Fisheries Coordinator for the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Counsil (RI CRMC). Beutel, who manages leased land, permits for farms, and monitoring of land/farms, says that when he joined the RI CRMC in 2009 there were 34 oyster farms in Rhode Island — now there are 50. Roger Williams University also teaches aquaculture to students and hobbyists in its oystering programs. “If you think about it, growth occurred during the economic recession and presented an opportunity to people when there weren’t many other opportunities.”

Bill Silkes, owner of the American Mussel Harvesters in North Kingstown and Salt Water Farms in Middletown has been successfully growing oysters and mussels in Rhode Island for about 25 years, and concurs with Beutel. Running his processing plant and shellfish farm with the help of his three sons Greg, Adam and Mason, Silkes has seen business continue to grow, even in the face of the recent economic downturn. “The industry continues to grow in Rhode Island, New England and around the world,” explains Silkes. “It’s good for the economy of Rhode Island.”

“There’s a greater demand locally for oysters than there’s ever been,” states Graham Brawley, manager of the Ocean State Shellfishing Cooperative. Brawley, who started the co-op with his partner John West in 2008, says the demand for oysters is up. “This year the local market is stronger than other markets.”

The cooperative comprises six oyster farms – one farm in Point Judith Pond in South Kingstown, three farms in Ninigret Pond in Charlestown, one farm in Potters Pond in South Kingstown, and one in Narragansett Bay, in North Kingstown. The farms within the co-op work independently but also as unit, which helps individual farms save costs in shipping and billing and redundancy in licensing and permits.

Oysters represent about 98% of the total shellfish farmed in Rhode Island. The $2.8 million dollar oyster industry has helped create and retain traditional jobs in Rhode Island. Silkes’ processing plant and shellfish farm supports 40 families off shellfishing; the Ocean State Shellfishing Cooperative’s six farms employ 10- 12 part/full time, year-round employees. The economic benefits of oyster farming have a ripple effect for the local economy, as each farm needs boats, docks, gear, equipment, machines — bringing additional business to companies within the state.

Oyster farming is not without its skeptics; often, prospective farmers are met with suspicion from the community and the fishing, sailing and boating industries. “People are afraid of something different,” says Beutel. “People are afraid they’re going to lose something.”

Residents close to farms may worry that a proposed farm will cause a loss in property value, that the visual impact of the farm will result in a less appealing view,or that they may lose the ability to fish, boat or swim. “They feel like they’re losing out on some pristine environment,” explains Brawley. In reality, farms usually have little or no visual or physical impact on the waters they reside in. “You don’t see much but that is a good point to make,” explains Beutel, “no user conflicts.”

Positive Environmetal Impacts
Silkes’ Salt Water Farms grows oysters, mussels and an experimental crop of kelp on the East Passage of Narragansett Bay, in Middletown, off Burma Road. Silkes takes small seed oysters, a 1/4” in size, and puts them into fine mesh bags. When the oysters grow to one inch in size they’re transferred into plastic trays. Columns of six trays are suspended in the water column and are connected to a float on the surface along a long line; however, the floats are barely noticeable from the road. There are approximately 40 feet between each long line and all gear is six feet below the surface, allowing recreational and commercial fishers, as well as recre- ational boaters, to travel between the lines.

Others fear that fertilizer and/or feed will be used in the farming process, resulting in a negative effect on water quality; in reality, oyster farming does not involve the use of fertilizer or feed and provides invaluable environmental benefits to the state’s salt ponds and shorelines. “People don’t realize the positive impact,” states Silkes.

Disease, pollution and urbanization have negatively affected water quality in Rhode Island. Industrial and agricultural runoff, as well as runoff from lawns and golf courses cause algal blooms, which consume oxygen, leading to low dissolved oxygen levels, creating a hostile and inhabitable environment for marine organisms. “The conditions are not great to have a sustainable harvest of wild oysters here,” Beutel explains. “But farming restores a part of the ecosystem that has been missing for a little while.”

The introduction of oysters to otherwise barren salt ponds and coastlines helps improve water quality by filtering nutrients, dissolved organics and algae and by removing carbon and excess nitrogen from runoff/fertilization. In abundance, oysters help clarify the water, allowing for deeper penetration of sunlight, which facilitates the development of new eelgrass beds.

Eelgrasses increase oxygen levels, which is a valuable benefit for the ecosystem. “There’s not a reliable supply of naturally available oysters, but if you plant the seed it grows incredibly well,” explains Silkes. Leases are only granted to sites which are void of eelgrass. Many of the farm sites which were once empty and lifeless are now teeming with eelgrass, providing a healthy setting for aquatic life. Juvenile shellfish and fish – including sea bass, winter flounder and tautog (blackfish) – live in eelgrass. “The habitat is perfect for a nursery setting,” says Brawley.

In recent years, the Rhode Island Aquaculture Initiative provided funding for projects focused on improving the health and longevity of farmed shellfish, educating students and communities about aquaculture and addressing concerns about environmental effects related to aquaculture. The funding was also meant to help researchers and aquaculturists access aquaculture data and reduce conflicts between aquaculturists and traditional capture fishermen.

Roger Williams University’s oyster growing program offers an opportunity for Rhode Islanders to learn about aquaculture. The extension course, which runs every winter from January to March, gets coastal owners involved in the farming process. Beutel teaches participants about regulation, permitting, monitoring and the application process.

“There is a lot of suspicion [regarding oyster farming] but I think that is changing,” says Brawley, mainly because of public awareness and education. Brawley says the attitudes of people living near Ninigret Pond is changing as farmers show and explain to residents and boaters what they are doing. “Its positive public relations – they open up as much as they can.”

Perhaps the tide is changing in terms of the State’s perception of aquaculture. With increased public education and an ongoing investment in research and technology, aquaculture can only continue to grow in the years to come, ensuring a sustainable industry, and providing economic and environmental rewards for the State of Rhode Island.

“We’re always thinking of new ways to do it,” says Silkes, “And that’s the fun part of it. I think the sky’s the limit.”