CRMC’s Aquaculture Process Called Into Question
November 12, 2021
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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