State of Oyster Restoration Policies: New Legal Report

When it comes to restoration projects, especially oyster restoration, no two states are alike, but navigating the regulatory process is a challenge for everyone.


Ninigret Pond – one of six oyster spawner sanctuaries in Rhode Island.

Many coastal areas are experiencing a decrease in oyster habitat- which is essential to ecosystem functioning and health- due to development, pollution, disease, and climate change among other various factors. To reverse this trend, many states are investing in restoration efforts, which differs as each state has its own requirements, permits, and managing agencies.

Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Legal Program and the National Sea Grant Law Center, at the request of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) compiled a research report, “Inventory of Shellfish Restoration Permitting & Programs in the Coastal States,” on the regulatory framework governing shellfish restoration projects in 21 coastal states, which includes Rhode Island.

The report summarizes each state’s shellfish management plan, permitting requirements of submerged lands and shellfish restoration, policies regarding the protection of oyster reefs and current restoration projects.

In Rhode Island, the report finds that the state claims title to coastal waters and submerged lands below the high water mark to three miles offshore. These lands are held in trust for the public under the state’s constitution that the,

“people shall continue to enjoy and freely exercise all the rights of fishery, and the privileges of the shore,”

which includes gathering seaweed, swimming, and passage along the shore. Here, the wild oyster fishery on public lands is regulated by the Department of Environmental Management (DEM), and private aquaculture shellfish leases are regulated by the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC).

Rhode Island enacted in 2001 the Narragansett Bay Oyster Restoration Act to address the declining oyster population through restoration efforts to increase spawning and recruitment levels to reestablish a self-sustaining oyster population.

Seed oysters

Oyster seeds

To do this, oyster aquaculturists cultivate oysters to be moved to a restoration site. Approximately 100,000 quahog seeds were planted annually, according to the report. Local fishermen also help with annual enhancements by transplanting quahogs from closed waters, but with high quahog populations, to state-approved locations.

Oyster restoration can be controversial with competing interests at hand, which is an issue the Rhode Island Shellfish Management Plan seeks to address by connecting agencies and stakeholders to develop a comprehensive guide to restore and protect all of the state’s shellfish resources for the benefit of both the environment and the industry

Some states, such as Alabama, do not incorporate aquaculture into their management plans and have differing definitions for what is considered “state-owned”, conditions for harvesting limits and season, and requirements for closed areas. Several states, including Connecticut, Georgia, and New Hampshire, are currently reviewing their shellfish restoration policies.

The purpose of this report is to help inform these reform efforts and potentially reduce barriers to the implementation of shellfish restoration projects. The information will also be used by TNC to create a prioritized agenda to guide their oyster restoration efforts and funding.

– Meredith Haas | Rhode Island Sea Grant Research Communications Specialist