2012-09-13 / News

East Passage becomes home for 300,000 emergent oysters

Mark Goerner wants to help restore seafood production
BY KEN SHANE

The vanishing lobster fishery in Narragansett Bay has led one local resident to turn his attention to a new method of providing seafood to hungry New Englanders.

Mark Goerner was a lobsterman who worked out of Jamestown for most of his adult life. When the fishery started going away, Goerner could no longer afford to go lobstering – but he wanted to keep working on the water. In 2005, he got an opportunity at Saltwater Farms, a shellfish farm in North Kingstown. The company is raising a sustainable crop of oysters in the East Passage of Narragansett Bay.

While Goerner was glad to have the work at Saltwater Farms, he also valued the independence that he had when he worked on his lobster boat. He learned enough about growing oysters at the North Kingstown farm to consider starting his own aquaculture project.

“I thought I could take what I learned there and put my own operation together so I could be independent working for myself again,” Goerner said.

In the fall of 2011, after getting all of the necessary permits, Goerner began to put his gear in the waters of Dutch Harbor. This spring, he put his first oysters out. His long array of yellow buoys can be easily spotted when crossing the Jamestown Bridge on the eastbound side.

The floating setup consists of three long lines with a series of plastic trays attached to them. The trays are floated near the surface of the water, and anchored on both sides by four 4,000-pound concrete blocks that were installed by Harbormaster Sam Paterson. The oysters are put in the trays, and having them high in the water column ensures that they will get plenty to eat as they’re growing.

Goerner’s first deployment consisted of 300,000 oysters, and he plans to put out more gear – and more seeds, as the young oysters are called – next year. It takes 12 to 18 months for oysters to reach market size. The seeds that Goerner deployed came from Fishers Island at the eastern end of Long Island Sound in New York. They were about a year old when he purchased them. So in another month or two, Goerner will be ready to harvest his first crop.

To get permission for his project, Goerner first had to go to the Coastal Resources Management Council, which is responsible for issuing leases on behalf of the state of Rhode Island. The permitting process included a series of meetings with town officials and the state.

“It’s quite a drawn-out process,” Goerner said. “It goes out to public hearing. It takes about a year before the whole process is completed. Once CRMC signs off on it you have to get a license from DEM. Then you have to buy the gear and get the gear out there. It’s a lot of work.”

There were no objections raised by the public at any point in the process, which was surprising to Goerner, who expected to hear some pushback somewhere along the way.

Goerner said the biggest issue is that he won’t know what he will get out of the site until it goes through a yearlong cycle. Potential obstacles include organisms growing on the gear, which is unhealthy for the oysters. Then there is always the possibility of weather conditions that will make it unsafe for Goerner to work in the area. There have already been issues with the strong tide that runs through the bay.

“Once we start seeing the harvest this fall, we’ll see how well the oysters are coming out,” he said. “That has to be the most important thing. If the oysters have a good growth rate, that’s what we’re hoping for. So far to this point it looks like they’re growing pretty well.”

The array requires constant monitoring for biofouling. He has power-washing equipment on his boat, which he uses regularly to clean the gear. He also has a machine that tumbles the oysters. The trays are put in the machine, which spins them around for a minute or two. This procedure prevents the oysters from getting clumped up, promotes a rounder-shaped oyster, and helps to create a deeper cup in the oyster.

“It’s kind of monotonous and a laborious kind of work, but it ends up giving you a better product,” Goerner said.

Goerner still works at Saltwater Farms five days a week, and that prevents him from spending as much time as he would like working on his own array. He is trying to rearrange his schedule so that he can work on his own project at least two days a week in preparation for the upcoming oyster harvest.

Once the oysters are ready, Goerner plans to sell his crop to American Mussel Harvesters in North Kingstown. He is also interested in contacting local restaurants in the hope that they will be interested in putting locally grown seafood on their tables.

“I have to get them cleaned up and see if we can start selling some,” Goerner said. “All the money has been going out. Hopefully we’ll start seeing a little bit coming back.”

Goerner, who has lived in Jamestown since 1983, sees aquaculture as a key element in restoring Narragansett Bay to its historic status as an important seafood producer.

“Up until the last five or 10 years, the bay has produced an awful lot of quality shellfish,” Goerner said. “The numbers have diminished. Aquaculture is a way to return some of that seafood production to the bay. It’s a sustainable kind of enterprise. It’s quite a bit of work, but I think it’s going to work out in the end. It’s going to provide some seafood and some employment.”

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