After devastating winter, oyster farmers prep for summer threats

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(WPRI) — Rhode Island is part of what is known as the “gold coast” for oysters — an area from Long Island to Maine where cooler ocean waters bring hearty, tasty oysters. 

The aquaculture industry – primarily oyster and kelp farming – has been steadily growing over the last decade in Rhode Island, according to David Beutel of the Coastal Resource Management Council.

“We’ve gone from 33 farms to 73 farms. We’ve gone from 50 workers to shy of 200, so it’s definitely a growth industry and the production has gone from less than $1 million worth per year to over $7 million.” 

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But the same weather that makes local oysters desirable, can also hurt the industry.  This past winter was a prime example. 

Watch Hill Oysters is one of longest-running oyster farms in the area.  Owner Jeff Gardner has been through all kinds of weather, from hurricanes and nor’easters to droughts and floods, but he says this past winter was particularly brutal. 

“I’ve been growing Watch Hill Oysters for 25 years. I’m one of the old-timers in the aquaculture business. This winter is the worst winter I can remember. It was awful and it didn’t’ just happen to me,” Gardner said.

The trouble came early in the winter – in January – due to an unusual combination of extremely low tides, a cold snap and persistent west and northwest winds. 

The winds drove water away from the coast and out of the salt ponds.  As the water levels dropped, the oysters were exposed to the unusually cold air and froze.  

Gardner said some of his oyster beds lost up to 90% of their crop, and he expects it will likely take his farm two years to recover. 

Officials with the CRMC say consumers may feel some immediate impacts with the potential for fewer Rhode Island oysters on the menu at local restaurants this summer. 

And, as the industry tries to recover from the winter, oyster farmers are wearily looking ahead to summer weather threats like hurricanes.  

One of the big concerns for the shallow salt pond farms is sedimentation. If an oyster gets covered with sand, it can suffocate and die. 

Beutel says the CRMC is trying to prepare now for another storm like Super Storm Sandy that brought significant sedimentation to the Rhode Island shore.

“When the next hurricane comes and fills not only an area of a salt pond but aquaculture leases with sand, buries the equipment, changes the water depth, how do we handle that?”

Even the sunny stretches of weather we love for “good beach days” in the summer, can be detrimental to aquaculture. 

“Sunny days, day after day after day, the water temperature will rise, and in the shallow coastal ponds the water can get to a point where the water is too warm for the oysters to feed, so they will stop growing,” says Beutel. 

In response to the challenges of Southern New England’s extreme weather, the Coastal Resource Management Council is trying to devise a plan for temporary permitting for aquaculture. 

The CRMC said seven farms already participate in a temporary winter lease program, where farmers move to deeper waters to eliminate ice damage.  As for hurricane season, “We are continuing to have discussions on temporary permitting for aquaculture after hurricanes/tropical storms but we do not yet have a solid plan,” Beutel said.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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