How Roger Williams is Saving Our Wild Oysters

They're teaching Rhode Islanders how to help repopulate the bay.

In early June, off Narragansett Bay on the dock below a sprawling waterfront property, Steve Patterson — also known as Oyster Steve — holds a black and red No Trespassing sign. Retired doctor Joan Abar watches from her golf cart high up on the grassy hill, looking out toward the water.

“Where are you going to put the sign?” she shouts down to Patterson.

He chooses the land entryway to the dock since the sign is meant to deter the curious and fend off the culprits who might tamper with six floats drifting along the surface of the water, attached by two trains of rope tied to dock pilings. Each float cradles five mesh bags that contain about 1,000 baby oysters growing on clam shells. There are potentially 30,000 bivalves in Abar’s care. The curious may be the people who wander onto her private dock from the beach. But the culprits usually arrive by boat.

Inside the eighty-four-year-old’s home is a large, red megaphone, in case she needs it. And she has needed it, hollering out to boats that glide in to get a look at her stash. When she sees them approach, she hoists herself up out of her living room armchair using her cane for support, grabs that megaphone, slides open the glass door and shouts, “The police are on the way!” “Last year, I had to do it a couple of times,” she says. “Usually, it’s people who rent a boat, and they go all around and wonder what it is.”

Not only was Abar the first female chief of staff in any hospital in Rhode Island, but she is also one of the very first oyster gardeners involved in Roger Williams University’s Rhode Island Oyster Gardening for Restoration and Enhancement (OGRE) program. She’s worked with shellfish field manager Steve Patterson since the program started in 2006 to help restore Rhode Island’s wild oyster population. That was almost ten years ago, back when her husband was alive.

J. Weston Abar, who was a cardiologist at the former Cranston General Hospital, died in 2007, and afterward, Joan continued participating as an OGRE.

RWU associate professor of marine biology Dale Leavitt jumpstarted the program with monetary support from Senator Jack Reed’s Rhode Island Aquaculture Initiative after running a similar shellfish outreach program on Cape Cod.

“They were hoping we could duplicate some of the success we had. And at the urging of oyster growers, they were advocating for us to start the oyster gardening program,” says Leavitt. “Bob ‘Skid’ Rheault [who founded Moonstone Oysters] encouraged me to write a mini proposal and it was funded at a small level. It was up to me to hire Steve, and get the gear. Then it spun off from there.”

Leavitt also plays an integral role in the launch of dozens of oyster farms in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut through teaching applied shellfish farming courses at RWU, and he runs the Dockside program, where residents learn to grow their own oysters for consumption off citizen docks. While that is separate from the OGRE restoration program, it helps raise funds to cover some of the costs.

RWU’s OGRE program does not receive funding from the state. In 2009, the school was awarded a $1 million Economic Development Administration grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce to upgrade existing seawater infrastructure, equip an expanded shellfish hatchery and provide educational and research capacity to support continued growth of the regional aquaculture industry. Now the program is supported yearly through the university and private donations. “We went into it thinking that the state would realize this wasn’t just a Roger Williams thing, this was for the benefit of the entire state,” says Patterson. “By now we had hoped to find other revenue sources to perpetuate the program.”

Other restoration programs exist in Rhode Island, including the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s program with commercial oyster farms and the Nature Conservancy’s Shell Recycling and Reef Building program, which places cured oyster shells — collected from shellfish processors like American Mussel Harvesters, and raw bars like Newport Restaurant Group’s eateries and Matunuck Oyster Bar — into Ninigret Pond and other coastal ponds for habitat restoration. RWU’s OGRE program is the only one that introduces oysters that have demonstrated resistance to disease back into the bay and coastal ponds.

At Abar’s property, she’s enlisted her neighbors to adopt a float on her dock; each of six neighbors is responsible for one. Because they cannot care for the oysters themselves, a local Boy Scout troop used to swing by on weekends to help. Now that the son of scout troop leader Tim Dean has gone off to college, Dean and his family continue to help Abar and her neighbors stay involved.

Care includes lifting each bag of oysters and shaking them in the water for a few minutes to clear waste that builds up. This shifts the oysters around so they can gain equal access to food (phytoplankton that’s already present in the water) in order to grow. They are contained in floats toward the surface to protect them from predators like crabs and starfish that roam along the bottom looking for their next meal, plus the food is concentrated at the top.

There are more than 120 citizens like Abar — or OGREs as they’re affectionately called — who take care of baby bivalves off their private docks from early spring through October or November, when the shellfish should be big enough to survive in the wild. When each oyster grows to one inch, cemented to the clam shells, they are transported to restoration sites spread out in seven sanctuaries across the state.

At raw bars, you may be used to seeing single oysters grown to a perfect two-and-a-half- or three-inch size with a teardrop shape and a deep cup, but these restoration oysters form crown-like complexities similar to how reefs are generated in the wild. OGRE oysters are not for human consumption; they are meant to create habitat, clean the water and help restore Rhode Island’s wild oyster population, which at this point, is almost nonexistent.

“The wild oyster in Narragansett Bay is an endangered species,” says Patterson (left), who, before coming to RWU was operations manager at Wellfleet Shellfish Company and before that, a high school science teacher for eighteen years. “It used to be as common as grass or robins and now if I gave you money to go find me a wild oyster, you couldn’t do it.”

Inside the Luther H. Blount Shellfish Hatchery at RWU — the only hatchery in Rhode Island — Karin Tammi leans over a large plastic tank filled with filtered seawater and covered by a blue plastic tarp. It’s dark underneath, but when she lifts it and shines a flashlight into the depths, tiny particles move just below the surface.

“See them swimming?” says Tammi, the shellfish hatchery manager. “They finish clearing the water, they’re healthy, and you’re like, ‘Thank God.’ It’s like babysitting for twenty-four days.”

By babysitting, she means spawning oysters. In January and February, she heats the seawater in the tubs to trick mature oysters (ideally an abundance of female oysters and just a few males) into thinking it’s springtime, and they are fed algae until gonads begin to develop. The gonads create sperm or eggs, depending on the sex of the oyster, and then the marine biologists collect the sperm and eggs and fertilize the eggs, all in hopes of creating more baby oysters. After the magic happens, Tammi and a group of college students feed the resulting larvae with up to forty liters of algae every day (grown in the hatchery’s own greenhouse), encouraging their metamorphosis to the next stage.

One female oyster can release anywhere from 10 to 50 million eggs. But that oyster must be between two and three years old to produce eggs in the first place. Oysters are hermaphrodites, and they switch from male to female after two to three years. Because they are sold for consumption when they reach about two-and-a-half inches in size, which takes roughly two years, farmed oysters almost never end up producing babies. They are also harvested after two years because they become more susceptible to disease in their third growing season.

Once the larvae in the lab are visible to the naked eye by shining a flashlight underwater, Tammi looks at them under a microscope to see if they’re sticking a foot out. “This tells us we need to prepare a surface for settlement,” she says. In the wild, larvae attach to mature oysters on structured reefs, but in the lab, they recreate the conditions through remote setting. Marine biologists screen batches for signs then refrigerate larvae to encourage them to cement to a surface rather than the bottom and sides of the tank. Patterson collected clam shells from Galilean Seafood in Bristol last year. The shells are cleaned and cured for a year — a very laborious process — before they are added to tanks. The larvae latch onto the shell, so they can be safely transported into a more natural environment, such as citizen docks.

Outside, Tammi dips her arm into a different tank, and pulls up a single clamshell from the bottom. Thousands of barely discernible black pepper-like dots are visible on the underside of the shell. They are heavily concentrated in clusters in the shadows and the curves.

“Sometimes they set very heavily,” says Tammi. “They call it gregarious setters. At this point they are baby oysters, also called spat.”

Oysters are popular in Rhode Island, a place that historically was a hotbed for growing shellfish. “Rhode Island has been known since the 1800s for its oysters. They were a world-renowned product from the 1880s to 1920s. We managed to pretty much screw it up and wipe them out,” says Leavitt.

When people think of oysters, our first instinct is to want to eat them, says Patterson. Now more than fifty-five commercial oyster farms and counting are cultivating bivalves in the Ocean State. All oyster farmers order seed from out of state every year to grow a new crop.

 

Patterson and his assistant sort oysters growing on clam shells to prepare them for transfer to the sanctuary sites for the oyster restoration program. The oysters will flourish in the wild, cleaning the water and creating habitat for other organisms, such as baby fish.

Long ago, before hurricanes, pollution, overharvesting and disease decimated Rhode Island’s wild oyster population, natural oyster reefs were widespread in the bay. “Oyster reef habitat has declined by 95 percent from historic levels to the point where it’s functionally extinct. The oyster industry declined in the ’20s and ’30s due to poor water quality from sewage and industry, then the Hurricane of 1938 completely wiped out the infrastructure and commercial oyster aquaculture nearly disappeared,” says John Torgan, director of Ocean and Coastal Conservation for the Nature Conservancy. “There still are some remnant reefs, but there is so little compared to what we used to see.”

But as water quality is improving, wild oysters could thrive again, just as they do at commercial oyster farms. “We know this is a really good area for growing oysters. It was part of the natural ecosystem. Now the bay is in a condition where oysters will flourish,” says Leavitt. “It’s a good time to be putting oysters back.”

The purpose of restoring Rhode Island’s wild oyster population is to clean the bay of harmful bacteria, run-off and nitrogen, and to create an ecosystem for other organisms such as baby fish to seek shelter from predators. “If you were to go out on any of our oyster restoration sites, you would see it’s alive with marine life,” says Leavitt. “What was formerly this barren mudflat has now become a complex, three-dimensional habitat full of baby fish and crabs.”

Joan Abar remembers when she and her husband could walk down the grassy hill of their property, wade into the bay and come back to the kitchen minutes later with a bucket of shellfish for dinner. “When I first came here, we used to go out and take clams, quahogs, oysters, mussels and everything, and eventually the water became polluted,” says Abar. “I went out to dig and there weren’t any more.”

Abar’s next door neighbor and friend for thirty-two years, ninety-two-year-old June Goodhue, has also been an OGRE since the program’s inception. She’s lived here since 1952, and says overharvesting led to the wild oyster’s demise. “They would come in canoes so full they were going to sink,” she says. “They took every single oyster. Boat after boat after boat.”

Now the waterfront facing their homes is closed to recreational and commercial clamming due to pollution. Patterson had to get special permission from the state’s Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and the Coastal Resources Management Council, so the group could continue to care for the baby oysters for restoration off Abar’s dock.

“When we started, this wasn’t closed waters. I don’t think I mentioned the paradox we have,” explains Patterson.

Like oyster farming, there are strict regulations for restoration oysters, even though they will (hopefully) never make it to anyone’s plate. “My oysters are not for human consumption, and although they are only going to grow here until October, I am not allowed to put them in waters that are closed for shellfish harvest due to pollution,” he says. “Ironically, that’s where oysters would be doing their best work.”

Just off Abar’s property, restriction signs are visible on both sides. “This is the only location within Rhode Island restricted waters where I have been given permission to place floats,” says Patterson. “I hope we show through experience that we aren’t a threat to anybody. The people who live here remember when these waters were open. They’re the ones saying, ‘Why is it closed now?’ That’s a $2 million home. Would it be worth $2.5 million if this was open water? Or is it worth less due to pollution?”

The filtering power of oysters can be proven right before our eyes. One oyster can clear nitrogen and other contaminants from up to fifty gallons of water a day.  Before Abar got involved with the OGRE program, she needed to see it to believe it. So Roger Williams University brought her an aquarium filled with plankton and algae. “You couldn’t see a thing,” she says. “They handed me one oyster. I put the oyster in the aquarium and went to bed, and when I got up in the morning, it was perfectly clear. My reaction was profanity.”

The water bordering Abar’s property is the perfect mix of brackish freshwater and saltwater, which is the ideal environment for oyster growth. “It should be a sanctuary site where they would live happily ever after and make as many babies as possible,” Patterson says. “And those larvae would find their way down here and settle and recreate the oyster population that used to be here. Just imagine when this was wall to wall oysters.”

Leavitt explains that it’s an issue of attractive nuisance, in which the DEM and the Department of Health want to prevent any consumption of shellfish that could potentially harm humans. “If you have a species that’s attractive for people to eat, and an area that’s been closed because of human health hazards, it could be jeopardizing the health of those who choose to harvest them, even if it is prohibited,” says Leavitt. “What it boils down to is, can we put oysters in prohibited waters? And if we do, can we prevent people from harvesting them? It’s a very difficult situation. Everyone recognizes the value, but how can we lessen the risk?”

The answer is enforcement and education, which RWU hopes to continue through the OGRE program, one of the many reasons it enlists citizens to participate and become ambassadors for the restoration of wild oyster habitat.

Torgan sometimes faces the same issue with the Nature Conservancy’s efforts. “Not allowing restoration in closed waters doesn’t make sense,” he says. “…There is a fear they may be consumed. A better response is to be clear about what we’re doing and enforce the law. We shouldn’t allow this to prevent restoration.”

Back at the marine biology wetlab inside RWU, amongst the coupled up clownfish and shrimp raised for the aquarium trade, a table tank holds large oysters taken from some of the restoration sites.

Patterson holds up one example, a six-year-old, eleven-and-a-half-inch-long bivalve with another smaller oyster growing on top of it. “I have 10,000 of these at our primary restoration site,” he says. “This is a wild oyster on top of one of our OGRE oysters. It set on year two or three of this oyster’s development and it’s growing along. It’s like this is the grandfather, and this is father, and this one is approaching three years so that it can eventually become an egg provider.”

Even Abar doesn’t know the exact secret location of the primary restoration site, though she’s gone along for the boat ride to experience the transfer into the wild. “They said they had to blindfold me, and I said, ‘Why would you blindfold me?’ ” says Abar. “I get lost driving in my own town. I am sure I’ll never find where you are hiding the reefs.”

Although this is the tenth season for the OGRE program, they’ve been bringing oysters to the primary restoration site for nine years, and the first year wasn’t successful. Most of the oysters over there are eight years old, and they can live to twenty or thirty. Patterson’s goal is to grow a twelve-inch oyster. “You know bass fishermen want to catch the fifty-pound bass? I want to grow the twelve-inch oyster. And you can see I am getting close,” he says. “Wouldn’t it be cool to come back six years from now and see the same oyster at age twelve?”

It’s October back at Abar’s property, and the spat that was transferred to the bay off her dock is now ready to be transported to a restoration site at Bissel Cove in North Kingstown. Inside the six oyster cages, the clam shells bearing oysters have been taken out of the bags. Groups of one-inch oysters are growing on each clam shell. The cages are only half full, however, because recent storms ravaged the floats causing the shellfish to sink to the bottom of the bay. “But it’s not a bad thing,” says Patterson. “Dale and I had always promised to return oysters to the bay and there they are.”

Patterson hauls the six 100-pound cages up to the beach where he opens each one and places all the oysters in totes that will be carried up to his truck bed and relocated in the morning.

The next morning at Bissel Cove, Patterson and his assistant carry the totes from the truck to a secluded area on the water’s edge and throw the oyster-covered clam shells into the water. It’s a cloudy day, and the wind is whipping up as the tide rapidly brings two feet of water into an area that an hour ago was just shells, rocks and sand. All you can hear is the breeze, the lapping shore and an occasional seagull.

Patterson pulls on his chest-waders and rubber boots, then passes four quahoggers crouched down in rocky waters close to the boat ramp. He wades through the channel of fast-moving current, then walks through a well-traveled sandy trail bordered by sea grass and trees, picking up heart-shaped stones along the way. He collects them and gives them to people who need a little love. “The saying goes, ‘You don’t find heart stones; they find you,’” he says, pocketing the treasures. “I don’t believe there’s enough love on this planet, and what’s more solid than a rock?”

He and his fourteen-week-old chocolate lab, Alli, bounding at his feet, arrive at the sanctuary, home to oysters from the OGRE program’s six previous years. The shellfish are grouped together by year, so Patterson can keep track of growth and progress. He wades into the deep while Alli sniffs at crabs creeping along the shore. Spotted along the roots of the sea grass where ribbed mussels cling are several live two-inch oysters visible in the muck.

After fifteen minutes, Patterson retreats from the water, his boots sticking in the mud as he cradles an armful of nine-inch, six-year-old gnarly oysters. One cluster has several bivalves growing on a single shell. He points to a two-inch oyster cluster on a shell from today’s shellfish drop off. “This is the size they were when we brought them in,” he says, then holding up a nine-inch oyster. “And this is the size they are now.”

He heads back to the boat ramp, passing the quahoggers again on the way.

“Are those oysters?” one shouts, stopping Patterson in his tracks. He seizes the opportunity to educate the group about endangered wild oysters and the OGRE program’s efforts to save them. One day, Patterson hopes to see areas like Bissel Cove become intertidal parks, where marine wildlife will be protected and brood stock will flourish. Then, maybe, decades from now, those shellfish reefs will once again begin to form on the bottom of the bay and our future descendants will be able to fill buckets and shuck wild oysters for dinner.

 

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