The Rhode Island aquaculture industry saw modest increases in sales and employment in 2018, according to the latest report from the state Coastal Resources Management Council.
The council, which oversees aquaculture in Rhode Island, reported that the number of oyster farms increased from 73 to 76.
Oysters top the list of aquaculture products, with 8.5 million sold for consumption, but new crops have also been introduced. Those include sugar kelp, soft shell clams, surf clams, and bay scallops. The total value of aquaculture products sold last year was $5.8 million.
CRMC Aquaculture Director David Beutel said the harvest figures were not surprising.
“It’s about what was expected,” he said. “Some of the growth was really for people that are trying kelp,” he said. “The farms were added in 2018, but the kelp harvest wasn’t until 2019, so that wasn’t included in the figures.”
CRMC collects data in an aquaculture survey distributed to all leaseholders.
“All reports are taken as an accurate value,” the agency stated. “Monetary figures for this report were calculated by averaging an estimated yearly average wholesale price from multiple sources. This figure was then multiplied by the numbers reported by growers in the yearly CRMC report to arrive at the figures used in this report.”
The leased acreage allocated to shellfish farms increased by 23 acres in 2018 to a total of 319 acres. The workforce rose to 200, compared with 194 in 2017.
Bob Rheault, executive director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers, an industry group representing 1,500 shellfish farmers from Maine to Florida, said a streamlined permitting process for floating gear would encourage greater industry expansion.
“Everybody wants to do floating gear, because we know that floating gear produces a better oyster with better shell and better meat and vastly improved survival,” he said. “But it’s a permitting nightmare in this state, so these permit applications are being held up for years and many of them won’t get permits.”
Beutel said floating gear has been contentious issue because it's visible and many people don’t like to see it on salt ponds.
“The user conflict is that you can see it,” he said. “From my perspective, in terms of navigation it’s a lot easier to get around and through things that you can see than things that you can’t see. But so much of the objection has to do with the fact that you can see it.”
An issue for Ninigret Pond growers in 2018 was Cochlodinium, or rust tide, a naturally occurring phytoplankton that does not affect human health but causes oysters to stop feeding.
“When it’s in the water, the shellfish stop feeding, so juvenile shellfish can die, and because it usually happens around Labor Day, the adults can often go into the winter without adequate reserves and so they don’t make it through the long winter,” Rheault said. “They can't feed from November to May, so they have to put away quite a bit of storage reserves. That’s been hurting the growers in Ninigret and some of our biggest growers are in Ninigret.”
Beutel said climate change is also altering the marine environment, which in turn is affecting shellfish.
“The plankton blooms are often a little off in their timing, and one of the things that can happen is, the oysters wake up and are ready to eat but there’s nothing for them to eat,” he said. “In other years, when they wake up that plankton bloom is going on.”
Industry growth, Beutel said, is expected to continue in 2019, although it will likely be modest.
“We’ve added another four farms already this year and we’ll get another 30 acres or so, but I don’t really know how that’s going to shake out in terms of production,” he said.