Shellfish Games: Matunuck Oyster Farm’s Fight for Segar Cove

For years, Perry Raso, owner of Matunuck Oyster Bar, has been the face of sustainable, and successful, agriculture, but an increasing number of opponents are asking: at what — or whose — expense?
Matunuck Oyster Farm

Illustration by John Rego

Todd Corayer stands on the back deck of the Latham house overlooking Segar Cove, a sheltered western corner of the saltwater Potter Pond at the end of a few winding roads off the beaten path in Matunuck. It’s one of his favorite places to fish, especially in the springtime, when the worm hatch sends the cove full of striped bass. His son Miles caught his first keeper fish here a few years back, an eighteen-pound striper. In the summer, says Corayer, the cove is packed full of catboats, kayaks, swimmers and anglers like him. “It’s hopping,” he says.

“Hopping” is not quite how Perry Raso, the owner of the wildly popular and recently expanded Matunuck Oyster Bar, across the way from the Lathams on the other side of Potter Pond, might describe it. In late 2017, Raso submitted an application to the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, the state’s regulatory agency for all matters relating to the coastline and its bodies of water, to lease three acres here in Segar Cove to farm shellfish. The process should have been straightforward enough. Raso, a South Kingstown native and seasoned aquaculturist, already operated a seven-acre oyster farm on Potter Pond, and had since 2002, through which he cultivates some sixteen million bivalves a year to supply his restaurant and others. He has long been Rhode Island’s aquaculture golden boy and a model for others around the country, sometimes earning $5,000 or more to speak about sustainable oyster farming. 

And, indeed, the first few steps were easy enough — almost instantly, the CRMC, a historically pro-aquaculture organization, determined that the site would be suitable for marine farming. It was a tentative greenlight, but a promising sign. 

Then came the neighbors. 

Corayer, a local journalist and keeper of the blog Fish Wrap Writer, where he posts fishing guides and tide reports, rod and lure reviews and updates on state fishing regulations, was one of the first to write about Raso’s pending proposal, in a piece that ran in the Narragansett Times, after someone tipped him off that they’d read about it on the CRMC website. Most of the residents on and near Potter Pond hadn’t heard a thing about it, perhaps because the process began in the fall and the approval came mid-winter — timing that made them suspicious. “Most people don’t winter in Matunuck,” even the ones from Rhode Island, says David Latham, who was there at the time, and immediately set out putting flyers in his neighbors’ mailboxes, although “90 percent of the people who got the flyers weren’t [here], because it’s a seasonal community. But the four people who were started calling people.”

Mobilization was swift from there, says Latham. Some of them had been tangling with Raso’s other farm for years, he says, over inconsiderate, loud workers, and oyster cages that bobbed on the surface and attracted loitering birds (and their droppings). The existing farm was already getting in the way of recreational activities, too, like kayaking, paddleboarding and pulling kids on inner tubes and water skis, he says. “So it did not take a lot of organizing to get people to voice their opinions,” says Latham. “Like, hey, you know what? We use this water. We use it for a lot of different things. Isn’t there a better place to put a farm?” 

Within a few weeks, says Latham, he and his neighbors had sent hundreds of letters to the CRMC stating their concerns over Raso’s proposed Segar Cove farm. That summer, they organized a “float-in,” where forty boats, kayaks, paddleboards and a canoe floated in the cove to the sounds of flamenco music in support of what had now officially been branded the Save Potter Pond organization. It wasn’t a problem they had with Raso, or his oysters, or aquaculture in general, necessarily. Many people who opposed the project loved to eat and drink at the Oyster Bar (or did at one time), and it was hard to object to the pond-to-table, eat-local ethos. 

As Latham puts it, “I give all credit to Perry for building that business. We just don’t want him to do it on the backs of those who use the pond.” Laura Dwyer, the public educator and information coordinator at the CRMC, recalls one particular public hearing about the farm when someone stood up to say, “We love Perry. We go to his restaurant all the time. We love the food. But he’s got enough.”

Raso had a fight on his hands. But there was, in his mind, no better place to put a farm. Raso declined to comment for this story on advisement of his attorney, Beth Noonan, because the matter is still pending. According to his initial application, in addition to more oysters, he also wanted to try his hand at bay scallops. Farming scallops is tricky. They require seclusion and protection of the sort that sheltered salt ponds offer, plus lots of space to grow efficiently and deeper water than he had access to at his existing farm. Segar Cove had all that. As Corayer points out, that’s also what makes it a great spot for fishing, clamming, boating and paddleboarding. 

We use this water. We use it for a lot of different things. Isn’t there a better place to put a farm? —David Latham

And yet, in his initial application, Raso said that for the six years he’d lived on Segar Cove and commuted to work by boat he rarely saw anyone. Later, he testified that he chose the site because he “felt that was the least used part of the pond and would make the least impact on other users.” For three months in 2019, he went out to the cove at noon every day in August, September and October to take pictures — again, he testified later (this time with photos), it was quiet. “At no time during taking the pictures was there a boater in the proposed lease, at no time was there a kayak or fisherman in the proposed lease, although there was often boating and fishing occurring at other parts of the pond at that time,” he offered in a written statement. There were, he conceded, two instances of paddleboarders. 

“It’s bunk,” says Corayer now. “I told him, Perry, there’s people here all the time. You know there’s people here all the time. I’m here all the time. It’s just not true.” 

This is largely how the battle over Segar Cove has been waged over five years, a sort of he-said, they-said conflict with each side presenting evidence that contradicts the other. There have been ecologists who attested that a small oyster farm could clean as much as 100 million gallons of water a day; ecologists who pointed out the bacteria brought on by the influx of birds. There have been arguments that the new farm would offer dozens of locals employment and provide the state revenue from the sale of oysters; arguments that plenty of people who earned a living in recreational fishing and kayaking, and either fished or led tours on the pond, would suffer. 

Engineers in favor of Raso spoke in support of the farm, contending that it fell well within a state guideline stating that 5 percent of a pond’s surface area could be used for commercial farming, while those who spoke on behalf of

the opposition pointed out that the 5 percent number is fairly meaningless, given that it can include shallows that are usable for neither oysters or for swimming, and also doesn’t factor in the 200-foot buffer that South Kingstown requires boaters keep between their crafts and stationary objects — like shellfish cages — in the water. (“It’s like, OK, you’re right, it’s not at 5 percent,” says Latham. “But it’s 30 percent of the deep water.”) 

Matunuck Oyster Farm Silo

Illustration by John Rego

And on and on it has gone. The CRMC’s winding application process for any new project, meanwhile, includes site visits by several organizations that can include the Department of Environmental Management, Army Corps of Engineers and the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission before the proposal goes before the aquaculture coordinator for approval and, finally, moves on for a vote before the ten-member board. In Raso’s case, the site visits were many. His proposal made it past the state’s Shellfish Advisory Panel, but not the South Kingstown Waterfront Advisory Committee or the South Kingstown Town Council. Most every organizational review included a public hearing, at which Raso would appear before dozens of neighbor-opponents with promises to work to limit impact on the area — scenic or otherwise — farming low-profile cages by hand and avoiding loud radios or machinery like power washers. He pledged to limit hours during migratory bird season from November through March. Raso hired a lawyer. He won the approval of the then-aquaculture director, David Beutel, who maintained that the benefits outweighed the drawbacks: Oysters are good for the environment, there was no proof property values on the cove would suffer and it would use only 3 percent of the pond. 

The CRMC formed a four-person subcommittee — called the Perry Raso subcommittee — to help wade through what was now mounting testimony from both sides and to take into consideration Beutel’s opinion to offer a recommendation to the full council. Latham and a few of his neighbors hired a lawyer. No one was going down without a fight.

Of course, lurking beneath what might on the surface look like a water-rights issue — whose interests are more important when it comes to how a public body of water is used — is a judgement call on who “deserves” to use the water more; an us-versus-them, haves-versus-the-have-nots sort of approach that’s not entirely accurate. The opposition to the Segar Cove farm has largely been painted as monied second and third homeowners who are just looking out for themselves and their waterskiing and powerboat interests because they can, rolling along Succotash Road in fancy SUVs with license plates from out of state and displaying a NIMBYism they’re not entitled to because they didn’t grow up here. 

The opposition is constantly painted as just rich waterfront homeowners, which, by and large is not the case. —David Latham

Those who take this view tend to overlook the fact that Raso is one of the state’s most successful restaurateurs, instead favoring his often-told Horatio Alger story of a kid from South Kingstown who grew up digging for littlenecks in Point Judith Pond who’s now just trying to work hard to earn a living. “The opposition is constantly painted as just rich waterfront homeowners, which, by and large is not the case,” says Latham. “The argument that suggests class warfare between rich people and those who are just working paycheck to paycheck is a transparent dog whistle that I disagree with.” 

A November article in the Providence Journal about the proposal quotes Robert Rheault, the president of the East Coast Shellfish Growers’ Association, lamenting that “coastal homeowners are hiring high-priced lawyers and having a ‘disproportionate impact’ on the application process.” The piece also supported that the majority of letters of objection sent to the CRMC about Raso’s application came from people who were not Rhode Island residents. Neighbors say otherwise. 

“I’ll say, this: My husband and I will be the last generation here,” says Jane Enos, who lives year-round on Potter Pond. “Our children will not be able to afford to be here. Our taxes are just over the top.” She and her husband worked hard, saved their money, and after raising their children sold their home in Arcadia to live full time in East Matunuck. “We could never have hired a lawyer, and we’re so grateful to the neighbors who did. Would we still be at the hearings? Yes. Would I still be writing letters? Yes. Would I still be speaking up and creating any opportunity that I could to advocate on behalf of what we believe in? Yes. Would I have known some of the people who have more funding to bring to this topic? No, but thank God they exist. I’m so thankful.” 

Oysters In Metal Bag On Farm

Getty Images/Bartosz Luczak

In November, the Perry Raso subcommittee voted to recommend denying Raso permission for the Segar Cove farm. The final step — a vote by the full council set to take place at the state offices at One Capitol Hill in Providence, a public meeting at which Raso has promised to supply “new evidence” — has been postponed a half-dozen times, many at the last minute, leaving everyone frustrated, especially those southern Rhode Islanders who were already in their cars heading north when they heard. “Zero transparency. CRMC botch,” wrote Latham after the last canceled meeting which, as of press time, had not yet been rescheduled. 

In the meantime, it’s not the only instance where Rhode Islanders — of all socioeconomic backgrounds — are starting to question the absolute value of aquaculture. While the CRMC does not exist exclusively to further aquaculture — rather, to regulate the fair and sustainable use of the state’s coastal areas and waterways — aquaculture certainly has been a focus over the last twenty-five years. Since 1996, when the state General Assembly gave the CRMC authority over new and existing aquaculture projects, farms have increased from six to eighty-four; twenty acres to more than 370. In 2018, the CRMC’s Beutel told this magazine that, “All around, [aquaculture] has positive environmental effects, while creating jobs and food. By 2060, the state’s food strategy goal is to have 50 percent of our food raised in Rhode Island. The only way we can meet that is through seafood.” 

But more and more residents are starting to wonder if that’s, in fact, what’s best for the state and the people who live, work and play in it; or if, in the words of one Tiverton fisherman, the CRMC has “swung too far towards the [shellfish] industry.” They are frustrated that the process for vetting and approving potential projects is, “confusing, nontransparent and discouraging to public input.” They argue that the CRMC is not accountable to the public, pointing to the council’s handling of Champlin’s Marina on Block Island, which went before the Rhode Island Supreme Court after it used a mediator to negotiate an agreement, effectively cutting out the public. 

Dwyer, the public educator and information coordinator at the CRMC, says that overall, opposition has indeed grown to aquaculture over the past five years or so, and that more people are paying attention, too. In addition to the battle over Segar Cove, there has been vocal resistance to projects proposed in Jamestown and Tiverton, where opponents of a proposed oyster farm in the town’s Sapowet Cove have recently backed a bill that would require new farms be at least 1,000 feet offshore, effectively banning them in all of the state’s salt ponds. “I’ve heard people say, look, I don’t have a problem with it,” she says. “I can look out my window and see someone working out there and I think it’s great. And I’ve heard the other side where people don’t like the look of four buoys, you know, or they’re concerned about safety. Public trust waters are for everyone. And that is up to us to balance and manage.” 

Whether they will — or whether arguments will continue to target class lines instead — remains to be seen. Earlier this year, the CRMC announced that going forward, any and all residents who may be impacted by a proposed project would be notified. The organization is also working on a Special Area Management Plan to identify areas that are suitable for aquaculture without user conflicts. Still, as in Matunuck, opposition to Tiverton’s Sapowet Cove farm was characterized by the applicant John Bowen as “an attempt by the wealthy to control what they don’t own,” despite objection from recreational fishermen who point out that the Sapowet farm would limit public access to fishing, clamming and swimming, not to mention access to the only free parking along the Sakonnet River. 

“It’s just sort of an old story at this point,” says Latham. “Twenty years ago, nice cars started showing up in Matunuck and we’d be like, who the hell is driving a Mercedes in Matunuck? Next thing you know, my mother is driving a Mercedes in Matunuck because she aged twenty years, her husband died, and he had that car because he needed a reliable SUV for his health. Now she has it and she’s one of those people. We all kind of turn into those people eventually.”

Worker On The Oyster Farm

Getty Images/Bartosz Luczak