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Thursday, October 17, 2013

Growing industry despite Aqua-NIMBY resistance

Oyster Aquaculture Keeps Farmers Busy
Jim Arnoux, left, and his crew, including Dan Lague, grow
about 3 million oysters annually. (Melissa Devine photos)
By EMILY GREENHALGH/ News contributor

CHARLESTOWN — Running an oyster farm isn’t your typical 40-hour workweek. Jim Arnoux, the 32-year-old owner of East Beach Farms and president of the Ocean State Aquaculture Association, has spent the past nine years tending up to 3 million oysters annually in Ninigret Pond, the largest of the nine salt ponds in southern Rhode Island.

During the growing season, from March to November, he could spend 50-60 hours a week at his two farms, tending to his oysters and equipment. One of the founding members of the Ocean State Shellfish Cooperative, Arnoux grew up on the water. 

He began his fishing career shellfishing with his uncles on the south shore of Long Island and, when he moved to the Ocean State at 18 to earn his bachelor’s degree in coastal policy and management from the University of Rhode Island, he started quahogging and working on fish trap boats.

It was in 2002 that Arnoux “put four years of college to good use and continued quahogging,” he said with a laugh.

He said what made him eventually turn his eye to oyster aquaculture was the declining price in littlenecks — from a high of 25 cents to 15 cents or less. “It just kept drifting down as the price for everything else was going up,” Arnoux said. “I saw the writing on the wall, at least short term, and decided it was time to do something else.

“I didn’t know anything about oyster aquaculture, I just saw other people doing it at my dock. All those guys I first met, we’re all part of the cooperative now to sell our oysters. It was just kind of right place, right time.”

Arnoux got his first farm lease with fellow shellfisherman Nick Papa in 2004. Papa owns and operates East Beach Oyster Co., which is located in Ninigret Pond alongside Arnoux’s farm.

For the first few years, until his farm was fully up and running, Arnoux supplemented his income both by continuing to quahog and working as a fisheries observer up and down the East Coast, at one point commuting from Washington, D.C., where his fiancé was working as a lawyer.

“You suddenly get to the point where the farm is your full-time job,” he said. “It happens slowly and then suddenly you realize ‘this is what I do now.’”
Career change 

Arnoux said that all of the members of the co-op were traditional commercial fisherman before venturing into aquaculture. The Ocean State Shellfish Cooperative comprises six different Rhode Island oyster farms, all touting unique tastes and characteristics.

Arnoux: “Putting shellfish back in the ponds
is going to help them continue to get healthy.”
On its website, the cooperative refers to itself as a “microbrewery for oysters.” Joining East Beach Farms in the cooperative are Cedar Island Oyster Farm, East Beach Oyster Co., Matunuck Oyster Farm, Ninigret Oyster Farm and Rome Point Oyster Farm.

Together, the six farms lease roughly 50 acres. Arnoux’s farm raises East Beach blondes, oysters that boast a taste that’s “silky and smooth with a mild and salty flavor.” According to the company’s website, “the finish is mild and lingering with hints of minerals.”

In order to grow his blondes to their tastiest, Arnoux buys small oyster seed from several hatcheries and places it in an upweller system, one of about 10 in the state. The solar-powered system acts as a nursery and uses a pump to circulate food-rich water past the oysters at a faster rate so they take in more nutrients more quickly.

The upweller is owned by fellow co-op member Rob Krause of Ninigret Oyster Farm. Arnoux, Krause and Papa have shared duties at the nursery since 2011. After the oysters near an inch in size — in six to eight weeks — they are moved into shallow grow-out areas, where they are placed in bags suspended by racks.

From seed to plate, the average oyster takes 18 to 20 months to grow.

The Ocean State Shellfish Cooperative paints a picture of a small business-led aquaculture industry in Rhode Island, and that’s mostly true, according to Arnoux. While there are a few larger companies, most of Rhode Island’s shellfish farming industry is comprised of owner-operators with a small number of employees and relatively small leases.

“It’s kind of quirky,” Arnoux said. “Our shellfish and our gear are private property, but we lease public space.” He said that he believes public opinion seems to favor more small operators leasing small areas rather than a few big companies leasing large areas.

Some of this sentiment may be attributed to the size of the state’s oyster industry in the early 1900s, when much of upper Narragansett Bay was leased to oyster companies. The biggest hurdle the industry faces, in terms of expanding, is the small size of Rhode Island. The Ocean State lives up to its moniker, and different users, from farmers to beach-goers, want to use the water in their own ways.

“Use conflicts have always been and probably will continue to be the biggest limiting factor in aquaculture,” said Arnoux, noting that the ecological carrying capacity is higher than the social carrying capacity.

“We’re a small industry but we’re growing,” said Graham Brawley, salesman and manager for the cooperative. He said the industry often gets pushback when looking to expand, whether from regulatory agencies or from landowners who prefer to see jet-skis to a working waterfront.

“There are plenty of areas in the country where a working waterfront does not detract from the value of the home,” Brawley said. “We’re not talking about skid row, or the longshoreman docks of San Jose. We’re talking about Charlestown, Rhode Island, and the quaint little coastal ponds where there can be farming.”
Healthy work

In addition to contributing to the state’s economy, shellfish farming improves the health of the coastal environment, according to Brawley. “Putting shellfish back in the ponds is going to help them continue to get healthy,” he said.

A number of the state’s growers, including Arnoux, have completed oyster restoration work with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The work, currently on hold, contracted farmers to grow oysters on an organic substrate until they were large enough to be placed on beds of clamshells within the Department of Environmental Management’s spawner sanctuaries to help restore natural oyster populations and habitats.

Although the official reports on how the oyster reefs sustained themselves haven’t yet been publicized, Arnoux said he could see a noted improvement in some areas. “I know, just from what I’ve seen, just searching around when I have time in the pond, there’s more oysters there than there were a few years ago,” he said.

In certain areas, the oyster repopulation led to more areas for harvesting for certain fishermen. “So the program provided an economic benefit beyond just the ecological value of creating these oyster reefs,” Arnoux said.

The aquaculture industry is growing, but Arnoux believes, for long-term success, it also needs to start diversifying.

“At some point, it would be nice to see something bigger, whether it’s the existing businesses expanding or a couple of people come in with a vision to do something new,” he said. “Oysters will probably always be the main species grown here. The waters here produce really great oysters and they’re in demand.”

Arnoux said he worries what price pressure or coast-wide overproduction will do to the industry in the long term. He said there should be more research to help growers develop suitable practices for other species, such as bay scallops, razor clams and seaweed. This will give growers a lot better protection against either a price drop or a potential disease with oysters.

“Every 10 years or so, some area waterbody always has a catastrophe with oysters where a disease or other natural event comes through and just wipes a big number of them out,” he said.

The main issue with diversifying is that many of the culture methods used in aquaculture are both site and species specific. While Arnoux said several growers are looking to develop mussel farms, the main problem in that regard is that farming mussels takes up significantly more acreage than the rack-and-bag style of aquaculture commonly used for oyster farming.

“So the issue is: Where does it fit in the state, given all the different water uses?” Arnoux said, adding that he still saw big potential in mussel farming.

Other potential species include bay scallops and razor clams, which Arnoux called “trickier to grow and, in the case of bay scallops, more sensitive to environmental conditions.” Bay scallops only live two years and farmers can lose much of their crop over the first winter.

To make it work, both farmers and regulators are going to have to be flexible, Arnoux said. Diversifying will require utilizing more than just the bottom of the water column, and gear that would be visible such as floats and buoys.

“Right now the emphasis in general is to have gear out of sight to maintain aesthetics, especially in the ponds,” he said. 

“Keep things on the bottom and out of sight, but that doesn’t work for every species. The burden isn’t all on state regulatory agencies. Some of it is just on growers to be economically viable enough to go out and take a risk with another species. That’s definitely at least half the equation.”

Arnoux said the general desire for aquaculture gear to go unseen might discourage growers from taking a chance with other species.

Currently, Rhode Island Sea Grant is working with the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC), the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and area shellfishermen to create the Rhode Island Shellfish Management Plan (SMP), a document designed to provide policy guidelines regarding the management and protection of Ocean State shellfish.

Arnoux said the SMP process is a good opportunity to reduce regulatory redundancies and a chance to help the Rhode Island shellfish farming industry flourish. One of the ways that’s possible is by recognizing aquaculture as farming and regulate it accordingly, he said.

“There’s always been a pushback between fishermen and regulatory bodies,” Brawley said, “but farming is not the fishing industry. It’s very, very different, and our approach to how we manage our own product is very different from the way that fisheries should be managed and have been managed.”

Rhode Island’s aquaculture industry is approaching $3 million in annual sales and maintains roughly 85 to 100 jobs, including some seasonal and part-time workers. On average, the industry is growing about 20 percent a year.

“The industry is growing, but it would be nice to see it get to another level and see, in the next five to ten years, a $10 million industry with 500 jobs or 1,000 jobs,” Arnoux said. “You look at this piece of water and see the different uses and say, ‘Well this is the commons, this is the number of people who are using or want to use this area, but what’s its highest value?’”

Currently, aquaculture leases in the state’s salt ponds can’t exceed, in total, more than 5 percent of the area of the pond. “Ecologically speaking, recent research has shown that the ponds could support far more than that 5 percent limit. 

But also pushing against that is what’s the social carrying capacity with all the different uses or even just the availability of waterfront access and infrastructure?” Arnoux said. “If we can find a balance and recognize that aquaculture is a very productive use of the commons, then I think the industry can continue to grow.”

This story originally appeared in the Summer/Fall 2013 edition of 41°N, a publication of Rhode Island Sea Grant and the Coastal Institute at the University of Rhode Island.