The aquaculture industry in Rhode Island has seen steady growth over the past several years, explained David Beutel, aquaculture coordinator at the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC).
“It’s been a very positive thing for the industry,” Beutel said, adding that he anticipates such steady growth will continue.
The spread of the aquaculture industry could actually be beneficial to the ecosystems of the state’s coastal salt ponds. According to research led by Mark Stolt, a soil scientist at the University of Rhode Island, there are two main components to consider when talking about the environmental effects of oyster aquaculture.
“The first way is what happens when the oyster is there, and it pulls out the phytoplankton, it pulls out the nitrogen, it pulls out the carbon, it pulls out the matriculate organic matter from the water, and then you get, hopefully, an increase in water quality,” Stolt said Monday during the final lecture of the Coastal State Discussion Series at the URI Bay Campus. “But, along with that, you get the bio-deposits.”
Those bio-deposits—the oyster feces—could be adding some nitrogen back into the water column. Thus, while oyster aquaculture clearly improves water quality, it is unclear how much nitrogen is redistributed into the salt ponds.
“Clearly when you have an oyster, and it’s growing, it’s taking up nitrogen,” Stolt added, “but then you’ve got a majority that’s probably being deposited on the soil surface. What happens to that nitrogen—it appears to be a lot of denitrification that’s going on, but we don’t know how much is resuspended into the water column.”
Even with the increase in oyster farms in 2016, fewer oysters were actually harvested than in 2015—over $7.8 million oysters were sold for consumption last year, representing a decrease of 453,978 over 2015. That decrease, according to the CRMC, is directly related to the rust tide—caused by the phytoplankton Cochlodinium polykrikoides—which, although safe for humans, can be harmful to shellfish.
Because of the rust tide, oysters didn’t eat as much as they do typically, and fewer oysters were large enough to bring to market.
“It impacted how much money the farms made,” Beutel added. “The rust tide last year was the most pervasive that we’ve ever seen.”
Beutel said he doesn’t anticipate Rhode Island will see such a harmful rust tide bloom this year.
“But who knows,” he added.
And while oysters remain Rhode Island’s top aquaculture product, some Rhode Island farmers have also thrown their hats into a new market. Nine farms were permitted in 2016 to grow kelp—those harvests should be noted in the 2017 and 2018 aquaculture reports.
“Kelp is huge on the world market,” Beutel said of the emerging industry.
Beutel added that kelp farmers in Maine have seen success—in Maine, kelp has been touted as a nutritional food source for several years.
“One of the sayings I’ve heard people use is ‘kelp is the new kale,’” he said. “I’m not sure if that’s going to be true, but that’s kind of the tactic people are taking to promote kelp as a new food.”
Beutel said he foresees farmers working hard over the next few years to establish a kelp market in Rhode Island.
As for 2017, Beutel said one new farm and three farm expansions have already been permitted, and three others are in line to be reviewed this month.
“The review process if thorough,” he added, “and it’s long—if something went really, really quickly, it would take six months.”
Typically, though, the process of gaining approval for a new aquaculture farm takes between nine and 12 months.
Between the steady increase in acres farmed—acres farmed grew in 2016 by 33.15 acres to a total of 274.53 acres statewide—and the introduction of kelp farming, Rhode Island’s aquaculture industry is doing well.
“The farmers have been successful,” Beutel added, “and we’re clearly seeing new growth.”