Kudos, concerns expressed at statewide shellfishing summit in Charlestown

Kudos, concerns expressed at statewide shellfishing summit in Charlestown

Record-Journal
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Watch Hill Oyster employee Kyle Campellone loads a tray of oysters onto a boat for distribution back into Winnapaug Pond in November 2014. The region's burgeoning aquaculture industry was a main topic of a summit of stakeholders at the University of Rhode Island Thursday. Sun File Photo

CHARLESTOWN – One of Rhode Island’s most celebrated commercial successes, aquaculture has undergone a rapid expansion in the last decade, and about half of it is taking place in southern coastal ponds.

Industry representatives, scientists, government representatives and members of the public gathered Thursday evening at the Kettle Pond Visitor Center in Charlestown to talk about different perspectives of aquaculture in the salt ponds and listen to each others’ comments and questions. The event, part of the Rhode Island Shellfish Initiative to recognize and promote Rhode Island shellfish, was organized by the Coastal Resources Center and Rhode Island Sea Grant.

Art Ganz, Executive Director of the Charlestown-based Salt Ponds Coalition said balancing the interests of commercial shellfish farms with recreational and aesthetic values can sometimes be a challenge.

“Some of the leased areas, people that are nearby can get upset,” he said. “It’s a balancing act for us. I was a shellfish biologist for 35 years before I retired and kind of got this aquaculture thing actually going. Now it’s expanded to such an extent there’s people that are concerned about access and things like that.”

Dale Leavitt, a professor of marine biology at Roger Williams University, explained the science behind nutrient overloading, the biggest threat to salt ponds. Nutrient overloads result from excess nitrogen from inland sources such as septic systems, animal waste and lawn fertilizers.

“The bulk of that nitrogen is chemically altered to form nitrate and if anybody’s ever looked at the formulation of their lawn fertilizer, they will see that a primary constituent of most plant fertilizers is nitrate and so that leads to hyper-nutrification or fertilization of our ponds,” he said, referring to the algae that proliferate when there are too many nutrients in the water.

Shellfish, however, are filter feeders, absorbing nutrients and, to a certain modest degree, cleaning the water.

Leavitt cited a recent study of Ninigret pond that found that the oysters currently being grown there were removing 7 percent of the nitrogen, and that a greater density of farms would remove even more.

“That would actually translate to the removal of about 26 percent of the nitrogen coming into the pond from external sources,” he said.

Oyster grower John West, who, with his wife Cindy, owns Moonstone Oysters on Point Judith Pond, talked about the evolution of aquaculture gear. The development of new equipment has been instrumental in the growth of the industry.

West brought several pieces of gear to show how the mesh sizes of the cages had changed to make it easier to remove the oysters and clean the cages of unwanted organisms like sea squirts. Where oyster farmers used to improvise, using equipment like house window screens, they can now purchase specifically-designed gear locally.

“The gear advancement is huge that I’ve seen in the past 20 plus years,” he said.

South Kingstown Planner Doug McLean explained the concerns his town addresses when considering permit applications. Those include possible impacts on navigation and recreational boating.

In Charlestown, there are several submerged oyster farms in the waters off East Beach, but no floating gear. Charlestown Coastal Pond Management Commission Chair Robert Lyons explained that floating gear is prohibited because the waters are classified as conservation waters.

“There are a lot of leases on the waters there, but rarely do you see them except when they’re really working on them,” he said. “If you had floating gear there, it would kind of ruin that look so we took a hard stand on that.”

Aquaculture is also good for tourism, and not just because visitors enjoy eating local shellfish. Louise Bishop, President of the South County Tourism Council said tourists enjoyed participating in certain elements of Rhode Island culture, including shellfishing.

“For the state, this year, we’ve focused heavily on experiences for the visitor,” she said.

The state limits aquaculture to 5 percent of the surface area of a salt pond, but there is still plenty of room for more farms. There are 14 farms on Ninigret pond, occupying just 3.7 percent of the surface area. At Quonochontaug, there are five active leases, representing less than 1 percent of the total pond area.

Growers said they made a special effort to be responsible stewards of the public waters where they made their living.

Robert Rheault, Executive Director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association, trains shellfish farmers.

“We are operating in the commons, and as such, we are tenants. We are not owners,” he said. “It’s really our responsibility to make sure that we are good neighbors in the commons, that we pick up after ourselves, that we don’t allow our gear to get away, we don’t make a mess, we don’t make too much noise, we try to get along with the people around us, otherwise, there’s going to be a backlash.”

cdrummond@thewesterlysun.com

@cynthiadrummon4


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