By BARRY A. COSTA-PIERCE/special to ecoRI News
The first is that when a shellfish farmer receives a lease from the state for acreage on the pond bottom, that area is no longer available for use by wild shellfish harvesters, though it can be fished by recreational fishermen using the water column. The second is that the leased area is perceived to be off limits to other uses, such as boating or diving.
However, a number of recent developments, including both technological advances as well as an improved understanding of shellfish aquaculture, are converging to help solve these conflicts.
For instance, shellfish growers have developed new submerged gear — such as racks and bags for off-bottom submerged farming of oysters and upwellers for nursery stages of shellfish placed under floating docks. This makes their operations less obtrusive in the water, and makes it easier for other users to traverse the area.
Scientific findings are showing that shellfish aquaculture, when well managed, can provide solid environmental benefits, such as improving water quality by filtering nutrients and particles from the water and providing habitat for fish and other marine life. Also, as more wild harvesters are diversifying by turning to aquaculture for some part of their livelihoods, traditional animosities between shellfishermen and shellfish growers are receding.
To further improve relations between local communities and aquaculture operators, the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) has long convened a working group on aquaculture regulations that has recently looked at the “social carrying capacity” for aquaculture in comparison with the ecological carrying capacity — meaning that the shellfish production in a area can be limited not only by concerns over its impacts on the ecosystem, but also by societal factors, its social acceptability.
Rhode Island is poised for major expansion in its shellfish aquaculture industry. Resolving user conflicts is key to managing this growth in a way that benefits the economy, the environment and the communities around the Ocean State’s salt ponds.