Everyone, it seems, agrees that Rhode Island-grown oysters are among the best to be had at raw bars and restaurants across the state and beyond. As Jean Lambert, engineering/GIS coordinator with the town of Jamestown, said to participants at a tour of an island shellfish farm, “We all enjoy the oysters—they’re amazing.”

Lambert told the 40 or so people gathered at the parking lot of Jamestown’s Melrose school on a hot July afternoon that the agency that manages aquaculture, the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, has worked well with the town to address its concerns with island farms. Most of those issues center on how the farmers access the water—where they put their boats in and take them out.

“So far that’s worked fine; the town gets their concerns heard, and they get taken into account,” she said.

David Beutel, the state’s aquaculture coordinator, told the group that Rhode Island’s aquaculture industry has grown tremendously in the last several years.

“In about 15 years, we’ve gone from three farms to 80 farms, we’ve gone from 10 acres to 320 acres, and we’ve gone from hard clam and oyster aquaculture to a little more diverse portfolio” —including kelp, bay scallops, mussels, soft-shell clams, and surf clams, he said.

As of 2018, he said, aquaculture supported 200 jobs in the state. “That’s been significant growth, enough so that the state has invested in some aquaculture training programs … because the skills are a little unique.”

Despite these seemingly positive developments, the actual practice of aquaculture is controversial in many of the residential areas immediately surrounding the farms. As tour participants walked out to the farm, where cages floated in the bay just a few yards off a gravelly beach, Beutel said that he had received complaints from waterfront homeowners in Jamestown whose view includes two aquaculture farms. One of those is the Sunset Beach farm that was hosting the day’s tour.

Tony Pinheiro, the owner of the farm, said that he uses low-profile racks that barely break the surface of the water. A farm to the left of his had oyster cages that bobbed more visibly above the water. Those, he said, were easier to keep clean. His were a lot more work.

But, “we try to accommodate the neighbors,” he said.

Azure Cygler, fisheries and aquaculture extension specialist for the Coastal Resources Center and Rhode Island Sea Grant, says that tours like the one Pinheiro was hosting are a part of the industry’s efforts in community outreach, since public opposition is one of the main factors limiting the expansion of aquaculture in Rhode Island and in the region.

“Many people don’t know that aquaculture farms are situated on or above submerged land that is leased to the farm owners by the state. These are shared waters that are available for the farmers and also, at the same time, to all water users. So transit through and over the leases is permitted,” Cygler says.

Tour participants sample Sunset Beach oysters. Photo by Julia Hopkins

Pinheiro led half the group out a short distance to his farm’s boat while the rest of the participants waited their turn onshore and enjoyed oysters on the half shell.

He described the process of farming oysters from seed to maturity. Seed oysters are about a millimeter, and a million of them will fit in a small bag. He might toss a small handful—perhaps 200,000 minuscule oysters—into a fine mesh bag and insert that into one of the floating racks. As the oysters grow over the following months, Pinheiro and his sons keep sorting them into new bags—bigger oysters go into bags with larger mesh, giving slower-growing oysters in the original bag room to grow. It takes at least 18 months for those seed oysters to grow to marketable size, he said, and it can take as long as 5 years.

The process is a very physical one that involves hauling each cage out of the water and onto the boat, a job Pinheiro says he now leaves to his sons. They slide the bags out of the cage and dump the oysters onto a tray that will send them through a sorting machine. They’ll power wash the oysters, clean the cage, put the newly sorted oysters in appropriate bags, place those bags back in the cage, and move onto the next.

Pinheiro also talked about some of the other challenges facing aquaculture farmers.

“Our biggest problem is predators,” he said, as well as competitors like mussels, which “grow a hair almost like a spider web that attaches to everything.”

“It’s like crabgrass in your yard … They’ll clump up [around the oysters] and the mussels will suffocate [the oysters]. They’ll consume all their food.”

Pinheiro added that besides the cages, he has been experimenting with growing oysters directly on the bay bottom, where conchs present more of a problem.

“They come up through the mud and latch on to the oyster and they’ll smother it and they’ll eat it.”

The oysters themselves eat a lot, Pinheiro said. The nurseries that raise the seed oysters are full of tanks that primarily grow the algae the oysters eat.

“They’re like puppies; they eat a lot and they poop a lot,” he said. Once they get bigger, “the average oyster can [filter] 50 gallons of water a day … so that’s a lot of eating.” To allow the oysters to filter the amount of water they need to feed, the farmers must keep the cages clean.

One thing the Sunset Beach oysters are not doing, however, is spawning. One participant asked if the oysters in the cages were reproducing, but Pinheiro said his oysters were triploids, a type of oyster that doesn’t reproduce and instead focuses on growing, which is better for oyster farmers. (Click here to learn more about what triploids are.)

Pinheiro moved to another cage to show the group oysters that were nearly ready for harvest and had recently been cleaned. “It’s a hard job—the cages are not naturally clean like this,” he said.

Earlier he had pointed out that this day was a particularly nice one to be out in the water, but the farmers are out year-round, typically tending the oysters in more inclement weather.

“If it was easy, everyone would do it,” joked a man in a hat, standing in the warm, thigh-deep water.

“Right, right, exactly,” laughed Pinheiro. “But it beats office work.”



Rhode Island Shellfish Initiative

This tour was offered by the URI Coastal Resources Center, Rhode Island Sea Grant, and the Coastal Resources Management Council as part of the Rhode Island Shellfish Initiative. To learn more about the initiative, visit http://www.shellfishri.com/

– Monica Allard-Cox

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