The Bay is Their Oyster

Mention commercial fisheries and most Rhode Islanders will think of Galilee. From the rocks that line the channel next to George’s, we watch the well-worn work boats steam past, draped in nets and gear, rocking in the chop, heading out to test their luck against wind and waves and the caprice of the ever-elusive finfish.
But north of that narrow channel, Point Judith Pond stretches for another three miles inland. The shallow tidal waters meander past salt marshes and summer homes, calm and sheltered from the perilous sea. On the northern edge of the pond, just outside Wakefield, an aluminum work skiff motors in to shore on a sunny winter afternoon, and three young fishermen offload the day’s catch into the back of a pickup truck.
They haven’t been out to sea, braving the storms of Georges Bank.

They haven’t struggled to find fish and then had to sell whatever they managed to catch at whatever price they were offered.

These three went out in the morning with orders in hand, dredged aboard just enough big handsome oysters to fill those orders, packed them in boxes for shipping, and were home in time for dinner. No wasted effort, no wasted product, no lonely nights rocking to sleep in a damp, hard bunk far from shore.

“We’re not like fishermen, really,” says Robert Rheault, owner of Moonstone Oysters. “We’re farmers.”

Rheault has been in the aquaculture business for twenty years. He’s worked at every aspect of it, from growing the tiny shellfish seeds called spat, to developing equipment, to managing his own oyster farm. Along the way, he earned a Ph.D. at URI and became a vocal advocate for aquaculture around the region. He has five full-time employees and steady customers for thousands of oysters a week, year-round.
“Every oyster is distinctive, like a fine wine,” he says.

Each variety has its own marine sort of terroir, delicate nuances that reflect the water, climate, soil and nutrients of the place where they were raised. They’re subtly briny or sweet or even fruity. They are almost exclusively a restaurant food.

“Shucking is a lost art,” says Rheault, requiring a bit of practice and dexterity with a sharp knife. “Not many people buy oysters to eat at home.”

But restaurants around the country are ready and eager to buy the bay’s output. Rhode Island oysters are listed on gourmet menus in New York, Boston, Chicago. Not only Rheault’s Moonstones, but Watch Hills, Rome Points, Newport Cups and more. At the Oyster Bar in New York’s Grand Central Station, for example, both Watch Hills and Moonstones fetch $2.35 per tasty piece. One day last winter, Rheault had a call from the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, from a staffer in search of Moonstone Oysters for a fundraising event. That’s not unusual, says Rheault. “Local retail is not really our market,” he says. “We can sell all that we grow to the restaurant trade, and we get a good price.”

Rheault is one of about two dozen aquaculturists farming in Narragansett Bay and the salt ponds. Most of them are cultivating oysters, although other types of shellfish have been tried and experiments are still underway. Each farm is a kind of laboratory, requiring several years of trial and error to see what works. The farmers then hope the market is there to buy their product when it’s ready. It’s not an easy business, but for those who have made a life of working at sea, it can be a bit more reliable and less dangerous and exhausting than the alternatives.

Oysters are native to the bay, and growing them for money is not a new idea. In the early 1900s, oyster beds covered about one-third of its bottom and generated the equivalent of more than $50 million per year. But management conflicts arose and then the 1938 hurricane decimated the habitat. By 1996, only nine acres were under cultivation. In 2002, Senator Jack Reed secured $1.5 million in funding for the Rhode Island Aquaculture Initiative, which has helped to create a support network and seed money for research projects. David Alves, of the Coastal Resources Management Council, coordinates the program.

“I can sell clownfish for $500 a pound,” says Scott. “That beats any food fish I can think of.” Of course, it takes quite a few clownfish to add up to a pound. But the economics are enticing enough to keep him working at it.

There are now about eighty-five acres of shellfish farms in Rhode Island, says Alves. The regulatory environment has changed dramatically, making it easier to get permits. Technical support from the state is robust. “This has really turned around,” says Alves. “From being a state that was far behind other states, Rhode Island now is looked at as having a progressive approach that’s used as a model.”

Each site is leased to the farmers for about $100 per acre per year. The approval process is extensive, with the aim of consulting all stakeholders in advance. The farmers seek out places that are not being intensively used by quahoggers or boaters, and everyone gets to weigh in on the plan. Some of the strongest objections have come not from other users of the bay waters, but shoreline property owners worried about their pristine views.

The bay is a busy place, and the permitting process helps to ensure that conflicts are minimized, says Alves. Also, care is taken to protect the natural environment. All the seeds are tested for disease before they are released, and species are evaluated to be sure they won’t disrupt natural systems in any way.

But those natural systems can disrupt the best-laid plans of oyster farmers. “Mother Nature is a very difficult partner,” says Rheault. Even in his sheltered salt pond, wind and waves can disrupt the oyster beds and equipment. Once, when he was working at a site behind the huge breakwaters at the Harbor of Refuge at Galilee, a storm tore his gear from the seafloor and tossed it far and wide along the shore. “The magnitude of the forces is hard to comprehend,” he says, with the awe of one who has seen the damage done.

At the salt pond site, he’s had to break through up to a foot and a half of ice in winter to harvest, and predators are a constant threat. Starfish and crabs will pry open the shells and feast on the oyster meat. Starfish in particular, innocent as they appear, are voracious, Rheault says. They rove in herds along the bottom. “Even when we have the oysters in cages, the starfish can disgorge their stomachs and squeeze in between the grid,” he says.

The starfish digests the oyster, then tucks its belly back into place and moves on.

The oysters start out in life as tiny hatchlings, each one smaller than a grain of sand. Aquaculturists buy them for about $5,000 per million from hatcheries. The seeds are housed in bins at a dock, where seawater is circulated by a pump called an upweller. The oysters are filter feeders, taking in seawater and filtering out the tiny phytoplankton that float in it, so they don’t need to be fed. Once they grow to about three-quarters of an inch at the dock, they’re transferred to a site in deeper water to grow to full size. In two or three years, they’re ready to harvest — if they survive predators, parasites and the low oxygen levels that can occur on hot summer days. Forty to fifty percent mortality is normal.

But the biggest danger is disease, and it’s one factor that keeps the industry small-scale. “We do keep trying to increase our production, but we’re limited by how much we can afford to invest because they could all die on you,” Rheault says. Nearby populations in Connecticut and the Chesapeake Bay have had recurring battles with parasites and bacteria that wiped out whole colonies.

“When something like that does come up, there’s not much you can do about it,” Rheault says. The oyster has nothing like a real immune system that could be boosted or benefit from inoculations. Instead, Rheault tries to keep enhancing the genetic diversity of his stock. When Connecticut growers were hit with a disease that killed 99 percent of their oysters, Rheault made sure to get a few of the survivors — which apparently had an innate resistance — and mixed them in to breed with his oysters, in the hope that they would pass on their immunity.

Besides oysters, shellfish farming has been tried with quahogs, scallops and mussels. So far, those experiments have run into problems with predators, parasites or inadequate profit margins. But what about other crops, such as the ever-popular Atlantic salmon?

“I don’t think you would ever see finfish farming approved in Narragansett Bay,” says Alves. The trouble is that fish that can swim, can swim away, so they have to be confined, causing a lot of user-conflict issues. And disease tends to percolate among the densely kept fish, which can then infect wild populations.

But the kicker is that while shellfish can filter their own food straight from the seawater, finfish have to be fed. And that has a significant impact on water quality. “You get a lot of uneaten food and feces in the water,” says Alves. “The additional nutrient loading, into water already overloaded with nutrients, would be problematic.”

As it is, the bay has trouble coping with all the nutrient-laden water that overflows from wastewater-treatment plants and surface runoff. Heavy nutrient loading causes algae blooms and depletes oxygen from the water. Hot, sultry weather makes things worse, and the stressed fish become more susceptible to other problems. In the worst cases, millions of fish wash up dead on the shore.

Shellfish, on the other hand, actually improve both water quality and habitat. John Torgan, Save The Bay’s Narragansett BayKeeper, says oyster beds and cages create a structure, kind of like a reef, that other animals like to live in. And when they filter their food out of the water, they are making good use of those troublesome nutrients. When the oysters are harvested, that nitrogen is gone, leaving the water clear and healthier.

“Our concern with the growth of aquaculture would be conflict with other uses of the bay,” Torgan said. “So far, that hasn’t happened.”

Space, nonetheless, is an issue. The bay is only so big, and a lot of people are using it. Alves says that for now, there is still room to expand, although he can foresee a time when that won’t be the case. But why not expand beyond the bay? The Atlantic Ocean is a wide open frontier, and Bill Silkes already has his eye on it.

Silkes is the president of American Mussel Harvesters, a busy shellfish-processing company on the edge of Allen Harbor in Davisville. He also runs the biggest oyster operation in the state, Salt Water Farms, fifteen acres off the coast of Middletown. Finding more room to grow in the bay may be a challenge, but the state also has jurisdiction over the nearshore seabed, he says, up to three miles out, and there is lots of empty space out there.

“Holland is about the same size as Rhode Island, and they grow about 100,000 metric tons of mussels a year,” he says.

We could do the same. Mussels are plentiful in the bay, but they tend to die off late in the summer, suffering from heat stress, predators and parasites. Silkes believes they could be harvested in mid-summer and transplanted to the cold, deep, spacious offshore waters, where they would thrive, and a lucrative new industry would be born.

“We’re doing a lot of research on this now and working on a proposal to get some federal funding to try it out,” he says. “Seafood is a growing global market. Consumption is increasing everywhere. The demand is there, we just have to find ways to satisfy it.”

But he agrees with Rheault that it would be foolish to get in too deep, too fast. “These are two of the cardinal rules of aquaculture: Know and respect Mother Nature. And do not invest ahead of your learning curve,” he says. After four years of running Salt Water Farms, it is just starting to turn a profit. Trial and error is the only known way to proceed. The farm may be running in the black at the moment, but it would be a mistake to think that next year will be the same.

While silkes dreams of farming in the wide open spaces, researchers at Roger Williams University (RWU), in Bristol, are taking an opposite approach. In a crowded, busy laboratory in the basement of the Marine and Natural Sciences building, student workers keep tabs on an elaborate system of bubbling tanks, giant vats of green and orange algae, miles of rubber tubing, and buckets full of “Instant Ocean.” Mix some of that with a tankful of purified water, and you have habitat fit for herds of tiny clownfish.

Timothy Scott, Ph.D., director of RWU’s Center for Economic and Environmental Development, oversees all this activity. The clownfish, bright orange with white stripes and black highlights, wiggle and paddle endearingly, each one a carbon copy of the star of Finding Nemo. They come in all sizes, from tiny round sand-grain-size eggs to flecks like floating fruit flies, to swarms of bright teenagers each about a half inch long. The biggest grownups are about three inches from nose to tail.

“I can sell clownfish for $500 a pound,” says Scott. “That beats any food fish I can think of.” Of course, it takes quite a few clownfish to add up to a pound. But the economics are enticing enough to keep him working at it.

Besides the financial incentive, there’s also an environmental imperative driving the effort. The popularity of clownfish has caused problems in tropical countries, where collectors hunt with explosives and cyanide, damaging fragile coral reef ecosystems. So growing them in captivity is not only potentially lucrative, it’s also ecologically responsible.

Another advantage to growing them in Bristol is that the Northeast is a huge market for tropical aquarium fish, says Scott. “Most of the fish sold here are grown in captivity and come from Florida, or they’re caught wild and shipped here. The farther you ship the fish, the higher the mortality. So why not grow them in Rhode Island, close to the market?”

Besides the little Nemos, Scott’s students are growing elegant seahorses and bright red fire shrimp, popular for home aquariums. They also are experimenting with various types of oysters and scallops, inducing them to produce spat for research purposes and to boost wild populations. It’s all aimed at helping to develop viable industries in the state, Scott says. The knowledge gained at the lab is offered free to any entrepreneurs who want to invest in agribusiness.

Knowledge is an essential  element in successful aquaculturing, but only so much can be learned from the research of others. Outside of the laboratory, every site is different, and trying to find the right technology is a constant work in progress. Rheault sets his oysters free to grow on the bottom of a salt pond, while Silkes, working in deeper waters, suspends his oysters in cages beneath the surface. In Wickford, Lou Ricciarelli grows his oysters in cages on the bottom of the bay. He’s tried out various kinds of equipment over the years, but his nemesis, the starfish, so far has proved unstoppable.

“They’re a real menace,” he says. “Back in the 1920s, fishermen used to dump lime on the oyster beds. The oysters would be protected by their shells, but the lime would kill the starfish. We can’t do that now.” The starfish have no natural predators. “The only thing that keeps them from filling up the bay is, there’s only so much food,” he says.

Ricciarelli has been working at aquaculture as a sideline to his wild-fishing business for about seven or eight years. “It’s not a source of riches,” he admits. “If you like being out on the water, being your own boss, and you can hack going out there when it’s cold and crappy — not just the nice sunny days — it’s a good ride. But it’s not a get-rich-overnight scheme. I see a lot of people starting farms, but not all of them are making it work.”

He has 100 cages at his current site, and an application in the works to expand to another site, where he could put 200 more. “The market is good right now, there’s a lot of demand. Chesapeake Bay’s crop was wiped out by disease. New Orleans had the hurricane. So there’s room to expand.”

But he’s learned to proceed slowly. “I’ve been fishing for thirty years now. You need a couple of different fisheries to work from, to diversify, so if one is not productive you have another option. And when you do have a good year, you don’t go out and buy a big house and a supertruck and get into debt because then when the bad times hit, you can’t keep up. Nature can be crazy.”

Alves, of the CRMC, says there is another strategy in the works for aquaculture that might prove less daunting.

“We expect to soon have a new finfish farm,” he said in January. “There’s an application in the works to grow koi in Kingston.” Koi is an ornamental fish popular for garden ponds. They would be grown in artificial ponds that have no streams in or out, Alves said, so introduction of the non-native species is less of an issue. “The waste that accumulates on the bottom can be recycled as fertilizer,” he said. “It seems to be an environmentally sustainable project.”

The other advantage is that since the farm ponds are small and shallow, it’s simpler to manage them and protect the fish from predators. Harvesting is easy and safe, with no worries about wind and weather.
It looks good on paper, and Alves is excited about it. But will it work in the real world? Nature is crazy, and nobody knows for sure. Rheault, of Moonstone Oysters, has been at it long enough to know that there’s no such thing as a sure thing. “We don’t have all the answers,” he says. “That’s what keeps it interesting.”

It’s late afternoon, and Rheault’s crew has packed the day’s catch into cardboard boxes and stacked them in the back of his pickup truck. The winter sun is sinking and the still waters of the salt pond glow. Out there, thousands of oysters rest in the muddy bottom, feeding and growing, fighting their silent battles with predators and pests. And if Nature doesn’t get too crazy, the farmers of the sea can hope to harvest them another day.