RI farmers rebuilding oysters’ natural habitat

Environment

EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Wild oysters no longer exist in Narragansett Bay, but local oyster farmers are hoping to change that.

Oysters have been an important part of the ecological balance in Narragansett Bay.

“The environmental benefit is water quality,” Pooh Vongkhamdy of the Natural Resource Conservation Rhode Island said.

“When you have good water quality, clean water … things will grow better, and that will help protect the shoreline from erosion and other things,” he added.

Oysters reefs can protect the coast from the destruction caused by storms such as nor’easters and hurricanes.

“But because of overfishing, over harvesting, Narragansett Bay doesn’t have wild oysters,” Vongkhamdy said.

To help create a natural, beneficial, oyster habitat, the conservation service sought out local oyster growers to put some of their large oysters in specific areas of Narragansett Bay in an effort to create an oyster reef.

Those areas were picked with the help of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management Division of Fish and Wildlife. The areas were chosen because they’re locations where fishing and harvesting is prohibited.

The program was supposed to start in 2021, but the coronavirus pandemic forced businesses, including restaurants, to temporarily close.

“When the pandemic hit, the oyster farmers didn’t have a market, didn’t have access to the market because all the restaurants were closed and so on, so we decided, ‘OK, we need to do this early,'” Vongkhamdy said.

The oyster reef program began in 2020, one year earlier than expected. With a $2-million budget, the program began with 29 oyster farmers.

As part of the program, each farmer received between $40,000 and $50,000 for their large oysters, which were to be utilized to develop the oyster reefs.

The oysters used need to be 3.5 inches in length. The farmers were to deploy the shellfish at the approved restoration sites and monitor them after their deployment.

“When you look at it, it helps the farmer, giving them a chance to help the environment, but also a chance to earn an income as well,” Vongkhamdy said.

The program is still looking for oyster farmers to help develop the reefs. Any farmer who wants to participate can apply online prior to the deadline, which is March 19.

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