PROVIDENCE — The aquaculture industry in Rhode Island, which took a dip in 2020 due to COVID-19-related shutdowns, recovered strongly in 2021, the highest year in the modern era of growing oysters and other seafood.
According to a report released earlier this month by the Coastal Resources Management Council, the combined value of aquaculture Rhode Island was $7.5 million, higher than 2020′s $4.3 million and 2019′s $6.1 million. That figure combines the sale of aquaculture products for consumption and seed.
The top aquaculture product was, yet again, the venerable oyster: 10.2 million oysters were sold for consumption in Rhode Island in 2021. That compares to 8.3 million in 2019, and 6 million in 2020, when restaurants were shuttered for dining for long stretches of the year.
“It just shows we had a good growing year, and people were hungry for it,” said Benjamin Goetsch, the aquaculture coordinator for the Coastal Resources Management Council.
The CRMC is one of the main regulators in the industry, approving or denying lease site applications for would-be oyster farmers in Rhode Island waters.
Before pollution, the 1938 hurricane and World War II combined to effectively wipe out the industry in the previous century, aquaculture took up huge swaths of Narragansett Bay, much more than modern-day farms. So it’s not quite right to say that 2021 was the highest year on record. But it was the highest year on record since aquaculture started to re-emerge as a viable industry around the 1990s.
In the mid-1990s, the dollar value of aquaculture didn’t even crack six digits. Now, even after the setbacks of 2020, it’s resuming its upward trajectory. Early indications suggest 2022 will be another strong year, Goetsch said.
“It just shows the resiliency of the market and the industry,” Goetsch said.
Rhode Island saw one more approved aquaculture farm in the state in 2021, bringing it to 84. Existing farms also expanded by about 20 acres, bringing the state to 368 acres under cultivation. The total number of people working aquaculture farm jobs in Rhode Island increased slightly in 2021 to 222, but that’s a significant leap from the 84 jobs just a decade ago.
Oysters are the most commonly sold item in an industry that also includes sugar kelp, soft shell clams, surf clams, and bay scallops. Oysters can also be used as part of restoration efforts.
There are benefits to growing oysters even beyond having food to eat. They’re also good for the environment around them, explained Marta Gomez-Chiarri, a professor at the University of Rhode Island who researches aquatic organisms. That opens other market opportunities for growers.
“The fact that they protect other fish, and provide habitat for other fish, is one of the reasons that there’s more potential for shellfish aquaculture to grow — not just food, per se,” Gomez-Chiarri said. “There’s other functions.”
According to the CRMC report released earlier this month, growers worked with the United States Department of Agriculture to purchase and deploy millions of oysters for oyster reef restoration sites around the state — both juvenile and fully grown oysters.
But the industry faces challenges, particularly from user conflicts and from people who simply don’t want it in their backyard, Gomez-Chiarri and other experts said.
That has sometimes thrust the CRMC in the middle of contentious and litigious disputes, even for famed oyster growers like the Matunuck Oyster Bar’s Perry Raso.
“There is more nimbyism today than there has been,” said Roger Williams University biology professor Tim Scott, using the acronym for “not in my backyard. “I hope that’s only a temporary issue. But there seems to be more objections today than there were in the last 20 years.”
Scott is also the director of the Center for Economic and Environmental Development, which runs the university’s working shellfish hatchery and farm. The state will never get back to the days when a third of the bay was used for aquaculture, Scott said. It shouldn’t. But it could continue to grow responsibly, Scott said.
“The state is being really careful about where to site these things in the first place,” Scott said. “And hopefully we can still incrementally increase.”