Do You Like What You See? Aquaculture Meeting Addresses Use Conflicts

Aquaculture initiative seeks to resolve differences among shellfish growers, municipalities, and the state agency in charge of managing public trust waters 

Aquaculture in Rhode Island has grown from 33 farms a decade ago to over 80 today. Despite the popularity of the state’s oysters at a proliferating number of local raw bars, not everyone is happy seeing farm operations in their local salt ponds. 

A meeting at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography in November brought together members of the aquaculture industry, the state agency in charge of aquaculture permitting, and staff of several towns that surround the ponds where aquaculture is taking place. Azure Cygler, extension specialist with the Coastal Resources Center and Rhode Island Sea Grant, who co-facilitated the event with Matt Behan, president of the Ocean State Aquaculture Association (OSAA) and owner of Behan Family Farms, called the afternoon an opportunity for “building relationships” among the various entities, while Dean Bruce Corliss added that this was the beginning of a year-long aquaculture initiative at the graduate school.

Behan said the OSAA wanted to get “everybody here together because we know that we are sharing the commons, and it’s a privilege for us to share the commons, and we want everybody to be good neighbors.”

Oyster gear

The type of gear that oyster growers use and the visibility of their operations has drawn complaints from some waterfront landowners. Photograph by Meredith Haas

Bob Rheault, executive director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association, laid out the challenge.

“A large portion of [aquaculture] is going on in Point Judith Pond and … Charlestown [Ninigret] Pond, and that’s because the ponds provide great protection from storms and the food in the water for the oysters is very rich,” he said, adding that those ponds are also “the most intensively in demand for recreational use.”

“So the challenge we find is trying to find a balance that works for everyone,” he continued, “I’m sure as a town planner you’re always trying to balance the multiple uses of people in your towns.” 


FLOATING vs SUBMERGED

One increasing source of user conflict that the town representatives identified has been the use of floating cages by some oyster farms, as opposed to gear that remains on the seafloor or in the water column and therefore makes the growing operation less visible on the surface. 

Floating gear includes bags or cages with floats on so that the gear is only partially submerged and can easily be flipped and allowed to dry.

In the case of the floating cages, Rheault said, “You flip the cage up and let the oysters in the cage dry out in the sun, and then you flip it back down, and all the dead fouling material gets eaten by the fish and sloughs off and then the oysters can grow for the rest of the week. And then in winter you can remove the float caps and sink them to the bottom so the ice doesn’t carry them away.”

While Rheault called floating gear a “genius method” for solving some of the challenges of maintaining water flow to the oysters by easing the cleaning of the bags or cages, he said, “My permitting nightmare is that everybody wants to use floating gear, and nobody wants to look at it.”

Many of the town staff in attendance shared similar stories of public complaints related to floating gear appearing in local waters. A town official from South Kingstown said questions he gets are “always about the floating gear and how can we put it right in somebody in front of somebody’s house?”


HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?

In Rhode Island, in fact, municipal governments are not in charge of aquaculture permitting or enforcement, as all aquaculture takes place in state waters. Each state manages aquaculture in its own way; for instance, in Massachusetts, municipal governments have more authority to manage aquaculture adjacent to their towns.

“What I hear is, ‘How did the town let that happen?’ And, ‘I didn’t know; why didn’t you tell me?’” said another town representative.

In Rhode Island, the Coastal Resources Management Council is the permitting authority for aquaculture, and the person in charge of that, David Beutel, explained the state’s process to the group.

That process begins with a “preliminary determination,” in which the aquaculturist submits an application to CRMC, which then reviews the application works with the local municipality, other state and federal agencies, and stakeholders “to see what issues are going to come up immediately.”

This process typically takes three months, Beutel said, at the end of which, he makes recommendations to the grower as to whether he or she should proceed with the application as-is, make modifications, or “forget about it.” He added that “it’s up to the town, when we hold the preliminary determination meeting, to decide whether they want to invite residents or not.”

If the applicant moves forward to the next phase and applies for a full lease, all the original officials and stakeholders are notified, as well as additional groups and agencies, including environmental organizations, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Coast Guard, and the state Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission. 

He went on to describe a process that entails reviews by various entities, public notice periods, and potentially a public hearing and appeals if the application meets with substantive objections.  

“We have some that have been out for two years, because there are a lot of objections and we’re working through the issues, but usually it takes nine about eight or nine months to complete that … part of it. So really, from someone from their first application to final decision is just slightly more than a year,” he said. 

Once a lease has been granted by the CRMC council, Beutel inspects it annually—more often if the farm is not in compliance with the terms of its lease or if there are other problems. With 81 farms to inspect each year, Beutel acknowledged that it was becoming more of a challenge to visit each one, but said that he has done so.

Mussel buoy

The towns have also disagreed on what type of markers—large, highly visible buoys versus more inconspicuous ones—they would prefer to see being used to demarcate oyster farms, said David Beutel. Photograph by Meredith Haas

 

ALL ON THE SURFACE

Another concern voiced by one of the town participants was that it seemed that a lot of the surface area of the ponds was being given over to aquaculture. 

In Rhode Island, up to 5% of the surface area of any of the coastal ponds can be used for aquaculture.

“A lot of people call it the 5% rule,” Beutel said. “I like to think of it as the 95% rule. You can do everything else in 95% of a coastal pond.” He added that Point Judith Pond is nearly maxed out, with Ninigret Pond close behind. “But there are opportunities for growth in the other ponds.”

Much of the afternoon conversation centered around common objections to aquaculture, but few easy answers presented themselves. For instance, one participant suggested increasing lease fees to help pay for additional enforcement inspections to address the concern that some farms were operating beyond their lease boundaries.

Rheault responded that Rhode Island’s lease fees were already the highest on the East Coast (see more on lease fees below). And, although aesthetic concerns were among those most frequently voiced to town officials—by residents or their lawyers—aesthetics are not a major factor in CRMC’s approval of leases.

Jules Opton-Himmel, owner of Walrus & Carpenter Oysters, suggested a mediation service, which he said had been funded with a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to mediate disputes between farmers and adjacent landowners. He said he had participated in a mediation that had helped resolve conflicts between one of his leases and nearby property owners. 

And there were other positive stories shared, too. 

John West, co-owner of Cedar Island Oyster Farm, said, “Plenty of people anchor around us, and plenty of people sail right next to us while we’re working, and are actually interested in … what’s going on.” 

Aquaculture tour

Sunset Beach aquaculture grower Tony Pinheiro led a tour of his Jamestown farm in August. Photo by Julia Hopkins, www.jhphotos.net

 

FINDING COMMON GROUND

In the end, a consensus seemed to emerge that improved communication between the towns and their residents—for instance, prominently posting on municipal websites the aquaculture lease map that the Department of Environmental Management maintains—as well as improved communication between the state and the towns were important steps to address conflicts.

Behan said that many growers would likely be happy to meet with officials and residents in the municipalities adjacent to their leases. And Cygler added that Rhode Island Sea Grant, along with other Sea Grant programs in the region, had received funding to continue its work on aquaculture issues, which will include public education and improved aquaculture site mapping. 

But there will always be differing points of view. As Bill Silkes, president of American Mussel Harvesters, said, “There is one farmer in particular who is having a riparian owner object to his activity, and his position was, ‘Do you know what it’s like on a beautiful day out on the water, and I have to look at your house?’”

RELATED INFORMATION:

DEM Aquaculture Lease Map: Click Here >> 

CRMC Aquaculture Information Page: Click Here >>
Includes reports, information on permitting, history of aquaculture in Rhode Island, scientific findings, and application materials

Webinar: Understanding the 5% Rule for the Coastal Salt Ponds >>

Webinar: Aquaculture 101 for the Public >>

Presentation on Riparian Privileges and Their Limits: Competing Rights to our Natural Resources and Privileges to the Shore >> 

To learn more about Ocean State Aquaculture Association visit >>

Lease Fees: Below is information about lease fees that is available online for East Coast states.

  • Maine $100/acre/year; bottom or suspended gear
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  • Florida Most lease fees are based on a minimum rate of (bottom lease) $16.73 per acre and fractional acres, adjusted for the consumer price index, and water column lease: $33.46 per acre and fraction of an acre; both also have a $10.00 per acre and fractional acres surcharge that are paid annually.
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  • Connecticut The Department of Agriculture leases shellfish grounds through competitive bids.  C.G.S 26-194 specifies a minimum bid of $4.00/acre. There are more than 70,000 acres farmed by the industry, approximately 12,000 acres of which are leased by local shellfish commissions.  A lease is granted for a 3-10 year term with renewal option, provided the lessee has paid rental fees. Leases will be granted by the Commissioner of Agriculture to the highest responsible bidder.
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  • Rhode Island The annual fee is seventy-five ($75.00) for half an acre or less, one hundred and fifty dollars ($150.00) for a half to one acre, and one hundred dollars ($100.00) for each additional acre. Transient gear lease fees are based on the square footage of the cages, as follows: seventy-five dollars ($75.00) for 600 square feet or less, one hundred dollars ($100.00) for 601 to 1,200 square feet, one hundred and fifty dollars ($150.00) for 1,201- 2,400 square feet, and seventy-five ($75.00) for each additional 1,200 square feet.
    + More Information 
  • Massachusetts Application fees vary  by town
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– Monica Allard Cox | Rhode Island Sea Grant