Researchers Assess Community Support for Shellfish Aquaculture in Rhode Island

Over the past 20 years, the amount of submerged land used for aquaculture in Rhode Island has been growing steadily, with some stakeholders expressing concerns about user conflicts, leaving coastal managers in need of better understanding the social issues related to aquaculture development.

Oyster growers harvest in Potter’s Pond, South Kingstown.

Shellfishermen set up racks to grow oysters from seed in Ninigret Pond.

Tracey Dalton and Robert Thompson, both University of Rhode Island marine affairs professors, in collaboration with Di Jin, senior scientist at the Marine Policy Center at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, investigated the perceptions of aquaculture in Rhode Island’s salt ponds, which are the focus of a growing aquaculture industry, to determine various factors that influence support or opposition to aquaculture in order to minimize conflict where possible and provide suggestions on current aquaculture practices that could lead towards improved support.

In July and August 2014, Dalton and her team worked on developing a mail survey that focused on various types of aquaculture and locations. Two different sites, one in the bay and one in a coastal pond, were used in photo simulations to depict farm size and operations.

“Aquaculture can look different in different places, and people have different attachments to different places, which is why we’re focusing on two different places,” said Dalton.

Buoys mark aquaculture farms in Rhode Island coastal ponds.

Their survey of Rhode Island residents targeted commercial harvesters, aquaculture farmers, waterfront property owners, and a general sample of coastal residents to understand their level of support. Dalton said that answers to the survey questions can help researchers understand whether certain characteristics of people correlate with opposing aquaculture in all forms or support.

Based on these surveys and interviews, Dalton and her team found that levels of social acceptability for aquaculture declined with increasing aquaculture activity for all groups except shellfish farmers. Commercial wild shellfish harvesters thought that even low levels of aquaculture development were unacceptable. Those who lived in homes with water views were less tolerant of aquaculture than those without, and retired persons were less accepting of aquaculture than those employed in other areas (besides commercial harvest).

The level of support was positively associated with attitudes related to shellfish aquaculture’s benefits to the local economy and its role as providing a nutritional food option, and negatively influenced by attitudes related to aquaculture farms’ effects on aesthetic quality and their interference with other uses.

Findings highlight that support for (or opposition to) aquaculture in Rhode Island is driven more by attitudes associated with social impacts than by those associated with environmental impacts. The level of support is also affected by personal characteristics related to an individual’s participation in recreational activities.

Results have helped establish a dialogue between social scientists, stakeholders, and coastal managers to help determine future aquaculture development.

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–Meredith Haas | Rhode Island Sea Grant Research Communications Specialist