|OYSTERMEN Jeremy Champlin, left, and Louis Ricciarelli disembark from Ricciarelli’s boat, the Chelsea Anne, at Gardiner’s Wharf in Wickford Harbor last week.|
Robert Rheault, owner of the company, attributes the growth to fine-tuning and new techniques that have improved survival and growth rates of the oysters he and his crew grow and harvest in 12.5 acres on Point Judith Pond.
“Every year we learn more about what we’re doing,” he said; he has been farming oysters for 20 years.
Now Rheault is looking to expand his lease by 7.5 acres in hopes that the expansion will generate enough profit to purchase equipment such as wrenches, cranes and tumblers, which would automate some of the back-breaking labor it takes to hand-pick and sort the oysters.
“I can’t justify the purchase until we sell enough oysters to pay for it,” he said.
But Rheault doesn’t know if his lease expansion will be granted by the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council due to recent concerns raised by the R.I. Marine and Fisheries Council about the growth of the aquaculture industry in the state.
RIMFC member Jody King, a wild-harvest shellfisherman raised the concern, saying he thinks some players in the aquaculture industry are growing too fast. King’s alarm was triggered by an aquaculture newcomer who had applied for multiple eight-acre lease expansions during a four- or five-year period, he said.
As a result, RIMFC asked the CRMC to convene a working group to ensure that all stakeholders are involved in the evolution of our aquaculture program, said Laura Ricketson-Dwyer, spokesperson for the CRMC.
“We have not placed any restrictions on leases at this time. There is no acreage limit,” she added.
However, there have been some preliminary discussions about putting a cap on the percentage of the state waters that aquaculture farmers can use.
If that happens, Rheault said, that Rhode Island would be the first state in the nation to manage aquaculture with a cap.
“It will be kind of interesting to see how this working group … comes to consensus,” Rheault said. “I’ve got one view on how we should progress, and the fishermen have a different view.”
One of the problems is the fishermen fear that aquaculture farmers will displace them, he said. But CRMC contends that:
"In considering aquaculture leases and/or expansions, we do not permit aquaculture in navigational areas or where there is commercial or recreational fishing or in a location that would block access by other users,” Ricketson-Dwyer said.