Experts gather to discuss effects of aquaculture’s rapid growth

Experts gather to discuss effects of aquaculture’s rapid growth

The Westerly Sun

NARRAGANSETT — One of the fastest-growing industries in southern New England, aquaculture is having a significant impact on the economies, public policies and environments of the coastal states where it is taking place.

Industry representatives, policy analysts and scientists gathered Wednesday at a Metcalf Institute seminar at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography to discuss the current state and the future of the coastal aquaculture industry. They also explored the policy implications and conflicts between users of coastal ponds, and heard about the environmental benefits shellfish farming brings to ecosystems.

In Rhode Island, oysters are by far the most commonly farmed shellfish, comprising nearly 99 percent of all shellfish grown. There are now 58 oyster farms in the state covering 96 acres, and more will open over the next year.

The economic value of farmed shellfish has increased dramatically in recent years, going from $4.2 million in 2013 to $5.2 million in 2014, an increase of nearly 24 percent. The value of the 2015 harvest is expected to reach $6 million.

David Beutel, Aquaculture and Fisheries Coordinator for the Coastal Resources Management Council, provided an overview of aquaculture in Rhode Island, which produced 7.5 million shellfish last year. The council is the state agency responsible for receiving aquaculture applications and regulating shellfish farms.

“It has grown very, very sharply,” he said of oyster farming. “When I talk about the increase in value, you can see why. It’s the increase in production. That’s partially due to a lot more farms. The other part is, the growers are a lot more efficient. They’ve gotten better at what they do.”

David Roebuck, a grower who owns Salt Pond Oysters in South Kingstown, talked about how the industry had evolved since he first began farming oysters in 2002.

“A lot of farms now are diversifying, trying to get more money for their oysters,” he explained. “Their business is to try to get more dollar for the product.”

To do that, many growers are moving into what Roebuck described as vertical integration. Instead of buying oyster seed and hiring others to distribute their product, they are growing their own seed, selling the oysters themselves, and even opening their own restaurants. Roebuck started selling his oysters from a food truck this year.

Bob Rheault, Executive Director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers’ Association, pointed to farmed fin fish and shellfish as increasingly valuable sources of protein at a time when the world’s population is growing and wild fish stocks are becoming depleted.

“Bivalves – we don’t feed them at all,” he said. “We don’t use any antibiotics and we don’t use any drugs or chemicals and we actually remove nitrogen from the environment. Celebrate the bivalve. This is the ultimate in sustainable protein.”

Rheault also addressed a topic of concern among shellfish growers, a virulent, west coast strain of the vibrio bacterium that has sickened 20 people in Massachusetts and Connecticut who consumed raw oysters. There have been no cases of vibrio-caused illness in Rhode Island, but the local shellfish industry has taken aggressive measures, including new refrigeration protocols, to keep it from occurring here.

“It was a huge challenge for us,” he said. “For many years, we had been able to harvest oysters and leave them sitting on the dock for 10 hours and we weren’t getting anybody sick, but when this new, more virulent strain appeared in 2013, we had to change all of our regulations and all of our industry practices.”

“When we unload them in the morning, we have to ice everything 15 to 20 minutes after it comes out of the water, and put it inside our facility,” Roebuck said. “It’s on ice all day.”

Rhode Island completed its first comprehensive shellfish management plan last March, and Connecticut is currently working on its own plan. Tessa Getchis of Connecticut Sea Grant and Azure Cygler of Rhode Island Sea Grant and the URI Coastal Resources Center addressed the policy concerns of the aquaculture industry in the two states, which have similar issues but different regulatory structures.

Getchis described the Connecticut Shellfish Initiative, a public consultation process which will culminate in the state’s first shellfish management plan, expected to be released next year. Unlike Rhode Island, where aquaculture and recreational harvesting are both regulated by the state, recreational shell fishing in Connecticut falls under the jurisdiction of town shellfish commissions. Getchis said reconciling many competing stakeholder interests has been challenging.

“All the towns have different rules,” she said. “For commercial harvest, we have three very different types, and those operators have very different needs, challenges, perceptions….Consensus-building is not easy, it’s not quick.”

Cygler explained the process leading to Rhode Island’s shellfish management plan, and how it resulted in a more efficient management system.

“The agencies and the industry worked together to pull together a memorandum of understanding. It took out a lot of redundancy, it gave inspection authority to the Coastal Resources Management Council to look at aquaculture leases on an annual basis that actually resided with DEM. It did a lot for making management more effective, more efficient,” she said. The final presenters were scientists Wally Fulweiller of Boston University and National Marine Fisheries Service researcher Julie Rose, who works at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration laboratory in Milford, Connecticut.

Fulweiller presented the preliminary findings of a research project, which, although they must still undergo a peer review, demonstrate the important ecosystem services that oyster reefs provide. The study, which took place in Ninigret Pond, shows that oyster reefs add valuable habitat, filter sunlight so vegetation such as eel grass can thrive, and control erosion of the pond bottom. But perhaps the most exciting finding was the effect oysters had on nitrogen levels in the pond. Excess nitrogen is responsible for producing harmful algae blooms which deplete the oxygen in the water and can lead to fish kills.

“Right now, aquaculture looks to be removing about 14 percent of the nitrogen coming into Ninigret Pond,” Fulweiller said.

Approximately 1.4 percent of the pond is now used for aquaculture, and the state has set a limit of 5 percent of the surface area of each body of water. Fulweiller said if 5 percent of the pond were farmed, the results would be even more dramatic.

“We would probably remove about 50 percent of the total nitrogen coming into Ninigret Pond, so that’s exciting, because it may be that aquaculture could be providing an excellent ecosystem service,” she said.

Rose talked about two experiments involving clams that were conducted in Connecticut waters. The first involved collecting clams using hydraulic harvesting and dredging, a method not permitted in Rhode Island. The results of the study were surprising, because they showed only minor impacts in the harvested areas.

“Harvest impacts were consistently short term in nature, and they were relatively minor in Long Island Sound,” she said. “We were unable to detect impacts on the benthic [bottom] communities themselves. The second study, conducted by a natural resource economist, attempted to determine the value of nitrogen removal by shellfish farms throughout the state.

“The range of nitrogen that was being removed was considerable,” Rose said. “The range of nitrogen removal was from 550 to 650 metric tons of nitrogen being removed by the oyster industry every year in Connecticut. When you take a look at what the nitrogen inputs are from people, this corresponds to removing or offsetting nitrogen inputs anywhere from 167,000 to 199,000 people.”

Like many commercial fishermen, Roebuck said he turned to oyster farming because it offered an attractive alternative to a highly-regulated and uncertain wild fishery.

“The regulations are very hard these days in the fishing industry, and the really nice thing about aquaculture is that the regulators are pushing in your favor rather than against you the whole time. It’s actually been very nice to be supported,” he said.

It is unlikely that the growth of the aquaculture industry in Rhode Island and Connecticut will slow anytime soon. Today’s market for oysters is thriving, and growers can’t keep up with the demand, especially from restaurants in Washington DC and New York City.

“Right now, we can basically sell all we can grow,” Roebuck said, “and that’s a nice thing to have.”



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