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CRMC, industry members, discuss State of Aquaculture in RI
July 12, 2017, CHARLESTOWN – The R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), along with growers, and advocacy non-profit groups recently discussed the state of the aquaculture industry in Rhode Island, as part of the ongoing state Shellfish Initiative. The public discussion was the last in a series of discussions on the regulatory framework, best management practices and economy of aquaculture in the state, driven by the Initiative, which recognizes the economic and cultural value of shellfish to all Rhode Islanders.
Understanding and listening to different perspectives concerning the salt ponds, the aquaculture industry, and the people who live and visit there was the ultimate goal of the June 29 meeting at the Kettle Pond Visitors Center, said Alicia Eichinger, executive director of the Salt Pond Coalition. Recreation, tourism, aquaculture and many other uses are all important to Rhode Islanders and those who come from other states, she said. Efforts initiated by the R.I. Shellfish Management Plan, of which the CRMC was a partner, and now continued with the Initiative, “speak to the continuing need to address conservation, enhancement and restoration efforts for shellfish,” said Eric Schneider, a marine fisheries biologist for the R.I. Department of Environmental Management, who attended the meeting on behalf of Director Janet Coit.
“It’s important for all stakeholders to continue to participate and be a part of the CRMC’s public (management and permitting) processes,” said David Beutel, aquaculture coordinator for the CRMC, which is the lead management agency for aquaculture activities. “Due to the Shellfish Management Plan, state agencies enjoy much better communication with each other, even if they don’t always agree.” Beutel agreed with Schneider that both the SMP and Shellfish Initiative serve important roles in the state’s shellfish management and planning efforts.
More studies now show conclusively that bivalves (filter feeders) like oysters, clams and mussels can remove an amount of excess nutrients form the water, said Dr. Dale Leavitt, professor of marine biology at Roger Williams University. While it would be unrealistic to depend on them to clear all of the salt ponds of all excess nutrients, further exploring their role in assisting is worth study, he said. Predominantly, people must look at point-source pollution and work to reduce that in addition to utilizing filter feeders.
“Only one of the salt ponds is even close to the five percent limit for aquaculture – Point Judith Pond at 4.2 percent – and the others are not, so putting more shellfish in the waters could help lower the overall nutrient load,” Leavitt said.
John West, owner of Moonstone Oysters, demonstrated how farming gear has changed over the 20 years he’s been in the industry. Bags and cages used now save farmers time and money, and are safe when being utilized in waters where many other users are present, he said. There is local job and industry growth for shellfish farming, and a large restaurant and raw bar demand for aquaculture products. And he works hard to make sure the public understands aquaculture activities, and answers questions about his gear, or where it’s okay to go on the pond with kayaks, he said.
“There are good job training programs for young people looking to get into this kind of work (free oyster farm training offered by the RI Education Exchange- www.edexri.org),” West said. “The work can be hard, and the weather can be cold, but for people who like it, it’s great, plentiful work.”
From the perspective of the Town of South Kingstown, making aquaculture applicants aware of the process is key, according to Doug McLean, senior planner with the town. South Kingstown provides municipal permit reviews, and works hard to ensure that the CRMC and the applicant, as well as any other interests are aware from the beginning about the activity at the town level. Most of the concerns he’s seen are in regard to potential navigation impacts and recreational boating, as well as the type of gear that’s going to be used and how it will be cleaned. Potential user conflicts are also a concern, but with the mapping capabilities and the amount of collaboration on all levels, usually those concerns are addressed quickly.
Robert Lyons, owner of Ocean House Marina and chair of the Charlestown Coastal Pond Management Commission, praised the level of involvement of the CRMC in bringing all interested and invested parties to the table for the entirety of the aquaculture permitting and management process.
“I just want to thank Dave for being an arbitrator and advocate for aquaculturists and industry,” he said. “Our commission works hard to ensure that the salt ponds represent a balanced and fair use of activities. Aquaculture has to work in a certain area.” Lyons used Ninigret Pond, which under CRMC regulations has Type 1 (Conservation Areas) and Type 2 (Low-Intensity Use) waters. No floating gear is allowed in Type 1, while in Quonochontaug Pond, it is permitted.
During a question and answer period after the panel discussion, Louise Bishop, president and CEI of the South County Tourism Council commented that the state will have 2.1 million visitors in 2017, and half of them are traveling to South County.
“We’re focused on experiences, and what seems to be important to everyone is the footprint you leave behind – and not leaving one,” she said. “We want to learn more about what you’re doing, and get the message out there.” West explained that while there’s a lot of potential for the tourism industry in aquaculture, much depends on the public’s access to a farm or site.
Robert Rheault, executive director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association, commented on the importance that all growers – but especially new members of the industry – be educated on preserving the “commons” of the salt ponds.
“Part of the training is that we try to be good neighbors – we make sure our gear doesn’t get away, clean up after ourselves, etcetera,” he said. “We have a lot of responsibility as an industry to put a lot of pressure on the new entrant to be good neighbors.”
David Prescott, South County Coast Keeper for Save The Bay, reminded those in attendance that the industry at-large needs to start planning for the impacts of climate change and sea level rise.
After one audience member mentioned whether increasing the five percent limit of aquaculture in each of the salt ponds would be expanded in the near future, Beutel said, “No. We have no plans to initiate discussion on expanding the five percent limit. If it is going to be discussed, it needs to come from the legislature.”
For more information on aquaculture in Rhode Island, go to http://www.crmc.ri.gov/aquaculture.html. For information on the Shellfish Management Plan and the Rhode Island Shellfish Initiative, go to http://www.rismp.org/ri-shellfish-initiative/.