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CRMC’s Aquaculture Process Called Into Question

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JAMESTOWN, R.I. — State aquaculture regulators were criticized recently, as the special House commission studying a potential reorganization of the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) accepted testimony from harbor officials and frustrated residents.

The Nov. 10 meeting, held in Town Hall, came the day after a CRMC subcommittee recommended the agency deny a Potter Pond aquaculture application submitted by Perry Rasso, owner of Matunuck Oyster Bar in South Kingstown.

The General Assembly gave CRMC authority over new and existing aquaculture projects in 1996. Since then, the state agency has run with the ball, with new shellfish farms increasing from six to 84. These operations now occupy 370 acres. But Rhode Island’s growing aquaculture industry is straining against public outcry that the projects threaten recreational use of public waters.

The best waters for aquaculture tend to be the inner lagoons, salt ponds, and coves along the Ocean State’s coastline. They typically have a natural barrier protecting them from the open sea and come with shallower waters and a longer growing season. The same properties that make Potter Pond, Ninigret Pond and the Sakonnet River attractive for aquaculture operations are the same that make them attractive for swimming, fishing, and paddling. The result is use conflicts.

CRMC’s aquaculture process can take years and seem overly complicated to the casual observer. An applicant starts with a preliminary determination, an initial review of the proposal by the municipality, the Coast Guard, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, the Army Corps of Engineers, nongovernmental agencies, and the fishing industry. Once the full aquaculture application has been received, it goes out again to a similar number of groups and agencies, with an additional 30 days for public notice, before returning back to CRMC for a public hearing and council vote.

Town harbor officials told House commission members that CRMC’s notification process for new aquaculture projects is insufficient, recommending that applicants should proactively notify abutters and other groups that could be impacted by a project.

“You need to make sure all abutters are notified properly, with a penalty of application denial if all abutters are not notified,” Portsmouth Harbor Commission member Tom Grieb said.

Public outreach and notice is an area CRMC has been criticized for in the past. Tiverton resident Ken Mendez submitted a 13-page letter to the special commission, claiming “there was little effort by the CRMC to gather input from local anglers” over a 12-month period about a nearly 1-acre oyster farm proposed near the mouth of Seapowet Marsh. Mendez wrote he found the notification and public comment process confusing, nontransparent, and discouraging to public input.

Mendez isn’t alone. A letter submitted to the commission and signed by more than 100 people called for reform of CRMC’s aquaculture permitting process, claiming the existing procedures are flawed and result “in decisions biased in favor of commercial development at the expense of public interest.”

The seven-page letter ends by asking for a temporary moratorium on new aquaculture permitting, until the commission concludes its study.

Tiverton town administrator Chris Cotta told commission members CRMC needs to consider aquaculture’s land-based operations when it comes to permitting. He said aquaculture farmers too frequently use inappropriately zoned areas for commercial purposes, noting such operations should include a plan for onshore storage, loading, and transportation.

CRMC staff informed the commission the agency is well aware of the public issues and complaints and has taken steps to address them. The staffers also delivered a PowerPoint presentation.

“We have heard a lot of issues with our current aquaculture planning, regulatory, and outreach programs that have means to be improved,” CRMC director Jeff Willis said, “and we agree with them all.”

The agency has started an aquaculture section in the Narragansett Bay Special Area Management Plan to set standards for aquaculture, and this past summer saw the creation of an online listserv for easy notification of aquaculture projects.

CRMC officials also told commission members they intend to expand and enhance the notification and preliminary determination process. Going forward, they will require applicants to undergo an expanded notification requirement to the host municipality. Once the preliminary determination application is submitted, there will be expanded notification to the city or town and other stakeholders by CRMC.

“Any objection [to an aquaculture project] would be reasonable, we just want to hear why,” Willis said. “Bring your objection to us, help us understand why you are objecting.”

The 15-member House commission is chaired by Rep. Deborah Ruggiero, D-Jamestown.

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  1. Shellfish aquaculture is one of the few uses of the commons that actually improves water quality and has tangible benefits to the environment. See the recent publication by the nature conservancy at nature.org/aquaculture to see why TNC is calling form more restorative shellfish aquaculture to boost sustainable seafood production while improving the habitat for juvenile fish, mitigating eutrophication and restoring.
    fisheries.
    I would hope that most would agree that devoting a small percentage of our waters to sustainable seafood production is a worthy goal.

  2. Fisheries ecologist Daniel Pauly once pointed out that there is an ever deteriorating understanding about what the ‘natural’ state of fisheries stocks are (including oysters and other shellfish) based on the shortcomings human memory. It’s important to realize that natural oyster stocks in RI waters were at minimum 500 times larger than they are now prior to the invention of the flush toilet and the heyday of the textile and metal finishing industries at a time before all Rhode Islanders were born. The historic biomass of oysters was capable of filtering the entire volume of Narragansett Bay in a couple days and served as rich habitat for other marine life. Now that the state has invested mightily in the water pollution control, the restoration of the lost biological resources is the logical next step for recovering the pre-industrial status. Oyster reef restoration is a popular notion, but few want to invest in it unless there is some tangible economic return. In their modest way, our oyster farms serve much of the same ecological function as the old missing natural reefs, and they also serve as the economic generator (the very definition of a ‘sustainable green industry’). Much of the renewed anti-aquaculture sentiment is couched in environmental rhetoric, but not one Rhode Islander has seen in person a pile of oyster shell as high a a three-story building at Fields Point or Riverside.

  3. And both comments from Dr’s Rice and Rheault again ignore the obvious concerns of so many people. The major issue is not the environmental effects of shellfish husbandry, it is the sighting of those businesses through a process which allows them to be positioned in the midst of other historical uses, be they recreational or commercial. Reiterating that bivalves filter water is fine except that shellfish growing businesses are typically cited in clean water already so filtering clean water is not really much of a benefit when compared to the loss of access or use of a water body. And while it is impressive to recall a past with such abundant wild shellfish stocks in the bay, that loss of shellfish can be compared to how many people feel about losing their access to public trust waters. People are calling for an improvement in the regulatory and public information process, and the state is listening, not an end to shellfish businesses.

  4. The argument is NOT against oysters, nor is it a debate about their ecological benefits, or the sustainability of the industry. It’s about the public’s interest in the use of Rhode Island’s coastal waters for activities OTHER than aquaculture. In recent years, that interest has been given too little weight in the decision making process, resulting in farms that are often poorly sited, conflict with other long established water based activities, and deprive the public of the full use and enjoyment of the public resource.

  5. Aquaculture advocates continue to push messaging that does not give the full story. Dr. Rheault using the Nature Conservancy’s aquaculture initiatives along with Dr. Rice saying oysters provide environmental benefits only give part of the story.

    In Raso and in Tiverton, CRMC staff were supporting applications proposed for siting in high use recreational areas. The Nature Conservancy aquaculture website points out the following:

    …Siting of aquaculture operations is the first and most critical consideration to minimize negative impacts of aquaculture operations. It is also a critical factor in determining the profitability of an aquaculture operation. To protect the environment and ensure economic growth, aquaculture operations should be sited in optimal locations based on environmental, economic, and social factors….

    The CRMC subcommittee made the correct decision in Raso to overrule staff’s recommendation. The subcommittee recognized that the siting of Raso’s lease would have negative impacts.

    Also lost in this dialogue is the serious bacterial outbreak attributed to oyster farm operations in Potter Pond. The Pond was recently closed to shell fishing for nearly two months from early September to early November because of this outbreak. Seven people fell ill from eating oysters harvested from Potter Pond. According to an investigation by the RIDOH, the outbreak came from Campylobacter bacteria linked to flocks of birds congregating around shellfish growing areas in Potter Pond.

    Drs. Rheault and Rice need to do better job representing the industry by providing balanced messaging and thoughtful solutions to a growing issue in Rhode Island waters.

  6. Think about all of the home cooked meals you had with your family within the past two weeks. How many meals were made in house with local oysters? How many featured oysters as the main dish? I thought so. You didn’t. Oysters – tasty and delicious – represent an elitist class dish here in RI. There is a finite resource of shared space in our salt ponds. The inherent conflicts of interest within the regulated licensing process need to be amended so there is a restoration of public trust within the process. Think about this – 20 percent of Quonnie Pond is conducive to recreational shellfishing. 95 percent of the oyster farms are within this 20 percent. The time is now to reform.

  7. “Bring your objection to us, help us understand why you are objecting.”

    NO. YOU bring your PLAN to us (abutters) and help US understand why you need to establish aquaculture in this location. By default the coastal waters are a community asset, and should not be partitioned off from community use to benefit one entity.

  8. Part of the issue is that one "small" oyster farm effectively denies the use of a substantially larger area to the public. You can’t fish, boat, rake clams, swim or engage in recreational activities near them. The recreational water industry in Rhode Island is huge compared with the $5,000,000 value of aquaculture. While it may be true that at one time the oyster industry was of great significance, those days are long gone and will not return.

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