2013-11-21 / News

Group pushes for oyster restoration

By Ken Shane

The annual meeting of the Jamestown Aquaculture Movement was held last week, and benthic ecologist Steven Brown of the Nature Conservancy spoke about the work being done in Ninigret Pond.

Brown, who attributes his coastal passion to growing up on a family owned marina in Connecticut, staged a PowerPoint presentation about the Charlestown lagoon. In the summer of 2012, the Nature Conservancy chose the salt pond to construct Rhode Island’s first oyster shell reefs. With newly settling shellfish, the project has been considered a success.

Brown thinks the local aquaculture movement founded by islander Phil Larson in 2008 is a great value to the community. The group is an informal affiliation of scientists and lay people who are interested in local aquaculture. Brown said everything begins at the grassroots level and surges up into regional programs. Having a forum to address issues affecting local shellfish and coastal habitat is important, he says.

“I think it’s remarkable that this program exists,” Brown said about the Jamestown Aquaculture Movement.

Larson said he hopes people who heard Brown’s talk will realize that oysters can’t grow just anywhere. In order to create successful restoration projects, suitable and productive locations have to be found.

“What we’re up against is the loss of the benthic environment that oysters require,” Larson said, “which is essentially dead oyster shell in a reef formation.”

The aquaculture movement is set up as an educational group, and the meetings are complemented by the organization’s Facebook page and an email campaign.

Going to a meeting isn’t really what the group is all about, Larson says. However, he is happy to see residents take the opportunity to learn about the movement by attending a meeting. Also, by having guest speakers, people might show up with specific questions.

“It’s a commitment to continue to learn why it’s necessary to try to restore oysters and why aquaculture is a good thing,” Larson said.

Dawn Tucker of North Kingstown attended the Nov. 12 meeting. She has friends in the fishing industry, and came to learn more about oyster farming and aquaculture. Tucker became intrigued after chatting with a shellfish farmer.

“I came across a fellow not too long ago who is running an oyster farm,” she said. “The talk was interesting, so I started doing some research and found the Facebook page for the meeting.”

Larson said his interest in having a reliable source for oysters began more than 35 years ago. He managed The Mooring restaurant in Newport for 20 years, and according to Larson, there was always a concern about quality fish and shellfish being available.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, there had been a booming oyster growth in Narragansett Bay. However, Larson was concerned about the collapse of the population in recent years. When he left the restaurant business, Larson began devoting time to solving the problem. He enrolled in aquaculture programs at Roger Williams University and did extensive reading on the subject as well.

About three years ago, Larson learned the Coastal Resources Management Council was not only granting commercial aquaculture permits, it was also approving educational ones. The renewable educational permits are limited to a term of three years and a maximum area of 1,000 square feet.

Larson proposed a project well under 1,000 square feet. He plans to use a floating bag system located north of the outlet of the Great Swamp in Dutch Harbor. Although not an ideal growing area for restoration, Larson hopes the project will result in as many as 6,000 oysters over the three-year term.

Larson’s project will be placed close to the shore, in shallow water at the astrological low-tide mark. He said location is important because it will allow access.

“It’s important that it’s located there so the public and children can get to the floats and see them clearly,” Larson said.

The day of the meeting was a busy one for Larson, who had to leave the meeting early and head to Providence for the final hearing on his permit. He had cleared every hurdle in the process, including submission of a teaching syllabus that included what he would cover, how it would be covered, and what schools are involved.

School and town officials were required to sign off on Larson’s application.

Although the application goes through CRMC, the final permit is granted by the state Department of Environmental Management. Larson said the process was extended for him because his initial application asked for things he knew the state wasn’t interested in permitting, such as inshore restoration in the Great Swamp and Fox Hill cove. Nonetheless, Larson included the projects so they would be on the state’s radar in the future.

“Ultimately, it’s my goal in Jamestown that we move in that direction,” he said. “These places have to be policed sanctuaries.”

Larson was granted his permit. The next step is to find a source for his oyster spat. He hopes to collect spat from as many as three sources. In the last week of May 2014, Larson plans to deploy his floating bags.

Students will be invited to the site during several highlighted points of the process. They will be able to see the beginning of the project in the spring, and then right before the end of the school year, students will see grown oysters transferred to larger mesh bags with a wider opening. In the late fall, Larson will show how the floats are submerged for the winter.

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