Aquaculture & Fisheries

Some See Shellfish Farms as Beneficial; Others See an Eyesore

Two presentations address restorative aquaculture's ecological benefits and user conflicts

Oyster grower Matt Behan on what he calls his "morning commute." Behan grows his Ninigret Nectar oysters, sold throughout the United States, on a 7.5-acre leased farm in the Ninigret salt pond. (Matt Behan photos)

Oysters provide food, clean the water, generate jobs and create fish habitat, but shellfish farms have encountered opposition from residents who say they mar the appearance of their views and interfere with their use of the water.

Two recent public presentations on aquaculture focused on restorative aquaculture and how it is used to improve marine ecosystems in the United States and the different ways people perceive aquaculture facilities that grow shellfish. The talks — on March 21 and April 6 — were part of a series of educational webinars organized by the Narragansett Bay Special Area Management Plan (SAMP) of the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC).

Northeastern University graduate student Kelsey Schultz discussed the results of her study of public perceptions of shellfish aquaculture on the Atlantic Coast. Also presenting was Stephen Kirk, coastal programs manager at the Massachusetts chapter of The Nature Conservancy. (None of the research for either presentation was conducted in Rhode Island.)

Pandemic help for oyster farmers
Kirk described the Supporting Oyster Aquaculture and Restoration (SOAR) program, which helped the oyster aquaculture industry survive the COVID-19 pandemic when restaurants were forced to close, shutting off the market for raw oysters.

Matt Behan grows his Ninigret Nectar oysters in cages in Ninigret Pond. Behan is awaiting state approval to expand his lease to 9.5 acres. (Matt Behan photo)

“When things first started shutting down in the U.S., it really disrupted the demand for half-shell market oysters, which is the dominant product in our region … decreasing the demand and ultimately leaving surplus product, surplus oysters, on the farms, which is okay from an ecological standpoint, not so good from the business perspective of the oyster farmer,” he said.

The goal of the program, which was also supported by The Pew Charitable Trust, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), was to use the unsold oysters that had grown too large for the raw half-shell market to create oyster reefs.

“This is just one tool that we hope to use and hope to support to improve coastal ecosystem function,” Kirk said.

Oysters are prodigious filter feeders. A single oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day. With wild oyster reefs in steep decline, the unsold, farmed oysters were used instead. The SOAR collaborators bought millions of farmed oysters and sent them to restoration sites.

“We were able to purchase three and a half million oysters [and] place them on 40 acres of reef at 25 restoration sites,” Kirk said.

The program paid 125 growers for their oysters during the pandemic, preserving 450 jobs. In the coming years, SOAR is expected to buy 5 million oysters, which will be used to rebuild declining native shellfish reefs at 20 restoration sites.

The Ocean State is not participating in the SOAR initiative, but the state already has a program of its own. Working with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and The Nature Conservancy, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) has implemented a farmer-supported oyster reef restoration program that Kirk said he has been watching closely.

“It’s something that I, in Massachusetts, have been really interested in understanding how that works, and we’re actively trying to replicate that in Massachusetts,” he said.

Farmed oysters have been used, with varying degrees of success, in restoration projects in the Quonochontaug and Ninigret salt ponds and in upper Narragansett Bay.

John Torgan, R.I. director of The Nature Conservancy, said water in the salt ponds proved to be too salty for the oysters on the small experimental reefs to thrive.

“It’s not water quality, it’s just that salinity,” he said. “Different kinds of predators and diseases affect the oysters and also sedimentation, but a spring flood event seems to be one of the big factors in the success of wild oysters.”

Torgan explained the focus of the oyster reef projects has moved to upper Narraganset Bay, where there is more space and the water quality has improved to the point that it can now support oysters.

“We’re really shifting our focus now to look at upper Narragansett Bay and the tributaries to Narragansett Bay, places that, historically, were too polluted to consider investing in restoration, but now have been improved to the point where restoration can work,” he said. “Restoration can have a lot of benefit, and we have not encountered the same kind of user conflicts in the bay and in the rivers.”

Coastal user conflicts
Opposition to aquaculture applications has prevented some farms from expanding or being approved. Schultz discussed her research on the ways coastal residents perceive local aquaculture and how those attitudes can encourage or constrain shellfish farming.

“There’s a large gap between current aquaculture production and the potential for aquaculture production,” she said. “This can largely be attributed to negative perceptions of aquaculture.”

Surveys of coastal residents were conducted in four regions: Maine and Massachusetts; New York and New Jersey; Virginia and North Carolina; and Georgia and Florida.

Schultz found most people support the concept of aquaculture, but those who said they were already knowledgeable about shellfish farms were more inclined to support such operations.

Oyster grower Matt Behan moving gear on his farm in Ninigret Pond. The gear is submerged, so it cannot be seen on the surface.

Gear type is also a factor in determining whether people will support a shellfish farm. Schultz said most of those surveyed for the study preferred “low-relief,” or the least-visible gear, although those who were more familiar with, or connected to, the local fishing economy rated high-visibility gear favorably.

Schultz concluded that public education and outreach to coastal residents would help them appreciate the ecological benefits of oysters and increase the acceptance of aquaculture.

Local outreach
Matt Behan understands the importance of public outreach. An oyster grower and president of the Ocean State Aquaculture Association, Behan leases 7.75 acres in Ninigret Pond and is waiting for the CRMC to approve his application to expand his operation by two additional acres.

Behan, who uses submerged gear but has nevertheless encountered opposition to his farm’s expansion, is a firm believer in compromise.

“Every time I’ve applied, there’s always been a couple people out there who had something to say and there was a little bit of a conflict and we’ve gotten through it,” he said. “I think that last expansion that I applied for, I wanted a different configuration, but all these people agreed that we should put it in a different spot where it would be a little bit less intrusive, and I said ‘That’s fine. I don’t mind moving it to where you think it’s a little bit better situated.’ As long as I get the acreage, it’s fine.”

Behan believes improving public perceptions of shellfish farms, particularly those located in Rhode Island’s heavily used salt ponds, largely depends on growers respecting other users.

“We want to try to push the ‘Be a good neighbor’ thing as hard as we can,” he said. “There’s a give and take with that. I was talking about the yield, the amount that you can get to market, and you know, one method, maybe you can get a little bit more to market, but if you’re causing some serious user conflicts, you have to factor that in.”

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