Rhode Island Shellfish Initiative to Bolster Shellfishing, Aquaculture, and Bay Health

Aquaculture and shellfishing are multi-million dollar industries in Rhode Island, but there are challenges to both industries’ continued growth. On one hand, Narragansett Bay is cleaner than it has been since the Industrial Revolution. On the other, climate change is increasing water temperatures and paving the way for ocean acidification that harms shellfish. Other challenges include attracting and training new industry members and improving marketing of local seafood within the state.

Governor Gina Raimondo at the Shellfish Initiative Launch

Governor Raimondo added to the time capsule a photo of herself and her family digging for quahogs with Rhode Island commercial quahogger Jody King.

Addressing those challenges and strengthening a partnership among state officials and agencies, the shellfish industry, researchers, and academia is the focus of the state’s new Rhode Island Shellfish Initiative, which was launched at an event April 24 at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography. Attendees included Rhode Island’s Congressional delegation, governor, and other dignitaries. The event featured a time capsule, to be opened in 10 years, that speakers and attendees contributed items to related to shellfish.

Rhode Island Sea Grant Director Dennis Nixon, who is also a lawyer, emceed the event, and told the audience that partnerships among many of those present at the event helped galvanize efforts that have led to water quality improvements in Narragansett Bay.

“My first client as a private attorney in Rhode Island in 1976 was the then-forming Rhode Island Shellfisherman’s Association,” which had hired him to help their efforts to fight pollution in the bay, he said, “and here we are today, celebrating Rhode Island’s status as one of the best states in the country when it comes to an integrated effort to increase our shellfish population in Rhode Island for the food economy and the health of all of our citizens.”

URI President David Dooley said, “They still haven’t cleaned up Chesapeake to anywhere near the status of Narragansett Bay. The fact that we were successful here, I think, is a testimony to the fact that it is possible to get people in Rhode Island to come together around common goals.”

“We’re here because we know the shellfish industry is important to all of us individually as consumers,” he added, “But it’s also critically important to the future of the Rhode Island economy and to the quality of life here in Rhode Island that so many of our people enjoy, stay here for, or even move here [for].”

Governor Gina Raimondo said that in May, the state would be releasing its first-ever food strategy, and that shellfishing would be a big component of it.

“This [shellfish initiative] effort is important because it’s going to continue to allow us to grow our green economy and our commercial fishing economy,” she said.

“Through the initiative, we’re going to support efforts to modernize infrastructure to support commercial fishing, we’re going to expand on the Rhode Island Seafood brand … we’re going to improve the health of the bay … and we’re going to invest in research innovation so we continue to take this to the next level.”

Senator Jack Reed, who had been instrumental in obtaining funds for a 2002 aquaculture initiative that helped boost Rhode Island’s nascent aquaculture industry, talked about the rapid growth of the industry in recent years, but added that the seafood economy extended beyond the industry itself. “The tourist industry also depends fundamentally on what you do,” he said.

Senator Jack Reed

Senator Jack Reed contributed a copy of Rhode Island’s Shellfish Heritage to the time capsule, calling it called “an extraordinary book by Sarah Schumann” that “is a history of the efforts of our shellfishermen and women to not only build an industry but also to ensure that the environment of the bay can support that industry.”

Grover Fugate, executive director of the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council, said that 1996 was a “tumultuous time” for shellfishing and aquaculture. “We were dead last in the nation—dead last—in aquaculture production” with a farm gate value of $98,000. He said that year, a statute was passed that prompted the CRMC to form a regulatory working group that included the shellfish and aquaculture industries and researchers from the University of Rhode Island and Roger Williams University, that, supported by the aquaculture initiative, helped turn Rhode Island into “a national model” for managing aquaculture. Today, he said, “We now have almost 300 acres in production … roughly a 100-times growth rate since 1996” with a farm gate value in 2016 of $7.5 million. He added that more than half of the acres leased are held by commercial shellfishermen.

Grover Fugate, executive director, CRMC

Grover Fugate contributed to the time capsule a 10,000-year-old shell from a shellfish midden in Little Compton, saying, “We have been relying on shellfish ever since we inhabited this area.”

“We still are facing challenges,” Fugate said, “but we will continue to face them with the same reasoned approach using science to back us in our decisions. We will do it with the same enthusiasm we always have, and this industry will continue to grow.”

Several speakers mentioned the need for ongoing scientific research into ecological issues that impact the shellfish industry. Acknowledging the administration’s proposed cuts to research funding, Congressman Jim Langevin said that Rhode Island’s Congressional delegation are “working in lockstep making sure our researchers, colleges, and universities continue to have the resources they need to continue to do their work.”

Michael McGiveney, president of the Rhode Island Shellfisherman’s Association, said that the shellfishing industry is the “backbone” of Rhode Island’s commercial fishing industry, employing the most people of any of the state’s fisheries and serving as a springboard to other fisheries. He commended the state for its efforts to support the industry, including through a grant program that spawned the development of an internship program as well as an additional push to make student licenses more readily available, both efforts to get more young people interested in shellfishing.

DEM Director Janet Coit

Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management Director Janet Coit, proposed the shellfish initiative as a follow-up to the Rhode Island Shellfish Management Plan. She contributed a quahog gauge to the time capsule.

The Rhode Island Shellfish Initiative is part of a nationwide shellfish initiative by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Paul Doremus, deputy assistant administrator for operations of NOAA Fisheries, spoke at the event, saying that the goal of the initiative is to increase seafood production, particularly oysters, clams, and mussels, as part of an attempt to meet increasing demand for seafood and balance out a $13 billion national “trade deficit” in seafood imports over exports.

Photography by Jess Vescera


An executive summary of the initiative was available at the ceremony, along with an infographic on highlights of shellfish’s economic significance to Rhode Island. The full text of the initiative is still being drafted by the partners and will be released at a later date.

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— Monica Allard Cox | Rhode Island Sea Grant Communications Director

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