In early 2020, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and NRCS saw an opportunity to help both the growers impacted by the pandemic and the environment by obtaining reproductively mature oysters to restore dwindling oyster populations.
“I started out digging clams for a living, riding my bicycle down to the pond. Anything to do with the fishing business, that's what I’ve been doing,” said oyster grower Steve Crandall as he stood by the dock at his Westerly, Rhode Island oyster farm.
Steve’s farm is on Weekapaug Breachway, a waterway that connects the Atlantic Ocean to Winnapaug Pond, a coastal salt pond. “It’s just ideal for growing oysters because there's so much water flow,” explained Steve.
“Oyster farming in Rhode Island is so very important for so many reasons,” said Steve. “The demand for raw oysters is just overwhelming and you couldn't ask for a better place. Our water quality can be phenomenal.”
“Wild oyster populations are at an all-time low,” said Eric Schneider, Principal Marine Biologist with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s (DEM) Division of Marine Fisheries. “Oysters provide a number of essential ecosystem services, from water filtration to fish habitat, and shoreline protection. By having oyster reef habitat absent from these systems, those services can be significantly depressed.”
In early 2020, DEM and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) realized that the COVID 19 pandemic would have an impact on the state’s oyster growers. “We recognized the pressure that the aquaculture community was going to be under in terms of losing market access,” said Eric.
The state and federal agencies saw an opportunity to help both the growers and the environment by obtaining reproductively mature oysters to restore dwindling oyster populations in the Ocean State. The more mature oysters aren’t usually available because oysters are typically sold at a smaller size.
DEM and NRCS had been working in partnership on oyster restoration for several years. With NRCS providing financial assistance through the federal Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), oyster growers produced spat-on-shell (oyster larvae attached to empty shells) that was deployed over man-made reefs built from clean shell, known as cultch.
For the new single mature oyster process, DEM and NRCS worked collaboratively to evaluate the science behind the practice, determine how to implement it, and find suitable restoration sites.
“We offered a special initiative through EQIP,” said NRCS District Conservationist Melissa Hayden. “We contracted with growers to bring totes of single large oysters and deploy them at predetermined restoration sites within Winnapaug Pond, as well as some of the other coastal ponds, and locations in Narragansett Bay, in Rhode Island.
“We had multiple trays of these larger oysters on the farm, which we thought would be perfect candidates for this deployment,” said Steve. “We brought them out to an assigned location and sprinkled them around on the bottom.”
To measure the success of the practice over time, growers are required to hire a contractor to go out and do monitoring at the restoration sites for several years after the deployment. The contractor will collect samples for disease testing, take measurements, and produce a report that documents how well the oysters are doing.
“Restoring oyster habitat and ecosystem services is something that can benefit everyone,” said Eric. “Whether they're concerned about water quality, the health of the Rhode Island marine ecosystem, fish habitat, or shoreline protection, there's an aspect that affects everyone.”
“I’m very happy to be a part of the program,” said Steve. “It's a win-win for everybody and it's very good for the salt ponds. In turn, it could be good for the average person who might be looking to harvest wild oysters in the pond in the future. That's really what it's all about.”