2011-07-28 / News

Aquaculture movement trying to catch on in Jamestown

BY KEN SHANE

In 1911 the farm gate value – which is the net value of a product after marketing costs when it leaves the farm – of Narragansett Bay oysters was $135 million. In 2009 the state Coastal Resources Management Council aquaculture report stated that value at only $1.7 million, and that included oysters out of coastal ponds, which are not part of the bay. There are over 200 marine farmers in Massachusetts, but only 33 in Rhode Island.

It is apparent to Phil Larson that there is a great amount of growth to be realized in this area, and that is why he started the Jamestown Aquaculture Movement in 2008. The movement now has 500 members and Larson is pushing for more.

Aquaculture is inshore and offshore marine farming, according to Larson. Inshore marine farming typically would have to do with clams and oysters. Offshore farming would be generally salmon-related. The movement’s mission is to create a broad-based educated mindset that is supportive of sustainable aquaculture business in Rhode Island.

The immediate impetus for founding the movement was that the former town garage, a former mine storage structure at Fort Wetherill, became available. Larson, who is chairman of the movement, is determined to turn it into an aquaculture facility.

“I think we have the town’s support,” Larson said. “What JAM is doing in that particular area is that we’re looking internationally for an organization that might want to lease that building from the town for an aquaculture purpose.”

Larson, who has dug shellfish locally for 40 years and has a degree in zoology from the University of Maine, points out that the town has a right to expect a reasonable rent for the facility, but rent is just the beginning. “It’s going to require about $500,000 worth of work before it can be used for anything,” he said.

Even with the lease and renovations in place there will still be a lot of work to be done. “To be permitted to become an aquaculture facility you must go through a process with CRMC,” Larson said. “There is an aquaculture working group led by Dave Beutel of CRMC that has a broad range of members trying to see what we can do to move the state forward in a more expeditious way,” Larson said. Representatives from Roger Williams University, Save the Bay, the state Department of Environmental Management, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the University of Rhode Island sit on the board.

“It’s a tricky issue because not only do you have CRMC and DEM involved, you have the Rhode Island Board of Health and the National Shellfish Sanitation Conference, which dictates how you transport shellfish,” Larson added.

It is this approval process that many people feel is onerous, and Larson would like to see it streamlined. “One of the reasons I started JAM is because there is so much confusion in the state about where we are, what you have to do, why it takes so long, and is it a good or bad process,” he said.

He added, “I’m encouraged that they’re moving in the right direction, but the public has to become better educated and better able to speak with a political voice to get the General Assembly to move things forward a little bit by pushing up in Providence.”

Larson feels that part of the overall problem is that many decision makers in the state cannot separate oyster restoration from oyster growth for consumption. Although there are valid concerns about people becoming ill from eating raw shellfish, Larson feels that the overall advantages of oyster restoration surpass that concern.

Larson contends that there are a variety of advantages that come along with a sustainable aquaculture business. “This country presently imports more seafood than we produce wild,” he said. “I think it’s very important that we move our aquaculture industry forward to feed us.”

The advantages of aquaculture are not limited to consumption. According to Larson, what is good for oysters is good for the environment as a whole. “It actually aids in the water quality,” he said. “Oysters filter feed the water. A mature oyster filters approximately 50 gallons of water a day. The decrease turbidity, and increase sunlight penetration, which would lead to further marine plant growth.”

According to Larson, that would change the ecology of an area so that biodiversity can once again thrive because many organisms start by needing the cover of a viable marine plant growth.

In the meantime, Larson is involved with the Oyster Gardening Restoration and Enhancement program being spearheaded by Roger Williams University. The program is an attempt to grow oysters that are resistant to parasitic infection.

“We have about 250,000 oyster spats that we just had delivered from the Roger Williams program, and they’re happily filter feeding in sloughs just around the corner from Sheffield Cove,” he said.

Jamestown is justifiably proud of its farms, and Larson thinks that pride should extend to marine farms as well. “In the long run, there should be as many marine farmers around Jamestown as there are viable farms,” he said. “Marine farming really isn’t that much different from agriculture. You’re trying to raise a consumable product.”

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