Oyster Farming is No Easy Living

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

Tiverton resident and aquaculturist Chris Clarendon schleps an oyster cage from his boat to his pickup parked along Fogland Beach. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

Tiverton resident and aquaculturist Chris Clarendon schleps an oyster cage from his boat to his pickup parked along Fogland Beach. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News)

SAKONNET RIVER — Chris Clarendon runs what he calls the “smallest farm in the state” — about two dozen oysters cages suspended from a pier on the Portsmouth side of the river.

Several times a week, depending on the weather and the season, the 52-year-old Tiverton resident leaves Fogland Beach in his slightly-larger-than-a-dinghy boat and motors to the Glen Manor House pier to check on his aquaculture farm and to harvest oysters he will sell at a local farmers’ market a few hours later.

Clarendon started Seapowet Shellfish LLC in 2004. Since then, he considers breaking even financially a good year. The reasons the Rhode Island aquaculture business, especially for small operations, is such a tricky investment are many, but Clarendon considers government the biggest obstacle.

“The state seems to make it as hard as possible,” he said. “The regulation process is long and cumbersome [it took 18 months to get all his permitting completed], and it seems like they sit on applications. Bureaucracy is the biggest impediment to me making a living.”

To illustrate his point, Clarendon noted the application he submitted to the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) last summer regarding a 90-square-foot or so test lease for an out-of-the-way section in the Sakonnet River, near Fogland Beach. Windsurfers — many from out of state — quickly protested, and, two years later, Clarendon still hasn’t received a decision from the CRMC.

Clarendon wants to place a handful of 2-feet-by-2-feet oyster bags, marked with buoys, on the sandy bottom to see if that spot in the Sakonnet River would make a good place to move his small aquaculture operation. If so, he would no longer need a boat to get to his leased farm across the river — saving him money on gas, eliminating his $300-a-year mooring fee and lessening the carbon footprint on the river — and it would make harvesting his oysters less challenging.

He claimed this test operation wouldn’t interfere with any recreational activities. Earlier this summer on a perfect weekend beach day, ecoRI News accompanied Clarendon on a harvesting. There were at least 30 boats that Sunday playing in the water off Fogland Beach. The harbormaster was on patrol, and several windsurfers were gliding back and forth. Nobody came close to approaching the spot Clarendon would like to test for its oyster-farming abilities.

Starting an aquaculture business in Rhode Island, however, doesn’t just take time. It also takes a toll on one's bank account, especially when you are a one-person operation. Clarendon paid $250 just to file an application with the CRMC. The various licenses he must renew annually total about $650, and that cost can jump year to year, depending on the state’s financial health.

“A few years ago, the Department of Health more than doubled its license fee from one season to the next,” Clarendon said. “There’s no warning at all. It seems like all these decisions are made behind closed doors.”

Besides the plethora of government fees, insurance also takes a financial bite. Clarendon’s product liability insurance, which he is required to have in order to sell his oysters at farmers’ markets, costs $800 annually.

Rising fuel prices also haven’t helped his bottom line.

To break even financially in a given year Clarendon needs to sell between 10,000 and 12,000 oysters. He charges farmers’ market patrons a dollar an oyster, and restaurants seldom pay more than 70 cents for one.

Red tape, however, isn’t the only challenge faced by small-time aquaculturists.

“It’s hard to raise oysters because everything wants to eat them,” said Clarendon, a Miami native who graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design two decades ago and decided to make the Ocean State his home.

Besides predators, there’s also disease and pests. The boring sponge, for example, is the top underwater nemesis of an oyster farmer. It gets it name because this mollusk bores holes into an oyster’s shell — weakening the shell, sometimes killing the oyster and destroying the product for the raw-bar market.

Boring sponges hit Clarendon’s oyster farm hard three years ago. He’s still recovering from that loss, because it takes at least 18 months in the water before oysters are ready to bring to market. “Some are in the water for three years,” said Clarendon, who is married with two children.

And since Rhode Island doesn’t have a commercial hatchery, most of the Ocean State’s 33 shellfish farmers must buy their needed spat from out of state. Roger Williams University has a hatchery, but those oysters are for study and restoration — not retail.

Clarendon has bought oyster seed from operations in Maine, New York and Maryland and from one on Martha’s Vineyard that has since gone out of business. In the past several years, the cost for 6-millimeter seed — the size Clarendon typically buys — has doubled, from $15 per 1,000 to $30.

To keep more of the aquaculture industry in Rhode Island, Clarendon is lobbying for in-state, fee-for-service hatchery that could be built with state grant money. “It would really help us little aquaculture guys,” he said. “It’s a simple idea. You’d bring your own stock from mature oysters and the hatchery would grow it for you, for a fee, until it was ready to be put in cages. It could be a moneymaker if it is run properly. We’d be developing local stock that is adapted to the local environment and the local waters.”

Clarendon’s proposal has received little traction, and his frustration grows.

When asked why he still keeps at this tough-to-make-a-living business, the onetime cubicle-encased graphic designer responded, “The view from my office window is very nice.”