Ninigret Aquaculture Tour
From the early morning to late afternoon, oyster farmers stride waist-deep in Ninigret Pond harvesting oysters for a nearby floating platform where workers pass them through a tumbler, sorting them by size and keeping the ones ready for market, which can take 15 to 28 months.
“This one is equipped with solar panels to power the upweller system that helps oysters grow faster, and can knock off a year from seed to harvest,” said David Beutel, aquaculture coordinator for the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), pointing out Ninigret Oyster Farm’s floating nursery visible from the Ocean House Marina in Charlestown during an aquaculture tour in early September of Ninigret Pond, the largest of Rhode Island’s coastal salt ponds.
Aboard a 12-passenger pontoon boat, Beutel pointed out operations of three farms in Ninigret. He explained the most common aquaculture gear used and regulations in the salt ponds as part of a free educational series sponsored by CRMC to provide information and a first-hand look at aquaculture operations, especially during a time of exponential growth and community concerns regarding recreational boating, aesthetics, and potential storm debris from runaway gear.
There are currently nine existing permits in Ninigret, three of which use buoys, said Beutel, to minimize visual impacts, adding that the floating platforms and tumbling gear are on the water during the day.
“You see them but at the end of every day, everything has to be out of here except the buoys,” he said, adding that the largest lease in Ninigret, at 10.69 acres, uses the bottom plant method. This means no gear and zero user conflict.
“You can boat and fish over it,” he said, pointing out the dive flag indicating a diver who was currently harvesting and explaining how this method is not particularly easy because the oysters lie about two feet apart.
Although aquaculture sites are adjacent to each other, signs mark areas where recreational boaters can access the barrier reefs without disturbing any gear. Kayaks and canoes are not a threat, he said.
The state’s primary aquaculture crop is the Eastern oyster, but several farms do produce mussels and clams, and even kelp. The market value of these products has increased twenty-fold in the past two decades to about $6 million, and the number of farms is steadily increasing every year. There are currently 61 farms overall, with several applications pending, totaling approximately 270 acres. And there’s room to grow.
“In Rhode Island’s salt ponds, aquaculture is limited to 5 percent of the entire area,” said Beutel. “No pond has hit 5 percent. Ninigret is currently at 2.8 percent, pending applications that would take it to 4 percent.”
5 Percent Rule: The Science, History, and Public Discussion
NOTE: THESE EVENTS HAVE BEEN CANCELED Public meetings to discuss the “5 Percent Rule” for aquaculture in Rhode Island’s coastal salt ponds will be held on Monday, October 24 and Wednesday, November 30 from 4:00-6:00 p.m. at the Coastal Institute at the URI Bay Campus.
Scientists, policy-makers, and industry representatives will share the current biology and social science underway in Ninigret Pond related to aquaculture, past research that informed the 5 percent rule decision, and knowledge-sharing from those who were present in the original rule-setting.
Meredith Haas | Rhode Island Sea Grant Communications