Aquaculture and Recreation Vie for Salt Pond Use

Ninigret Pond in Charlestown, R.I., is a popular spot for boaters, fishermen and aquaculture. (Tom Richardson/New England Boating)

Ninigret Pond in Charlestown, R.I., is a popular spot for boaters, fishermen and aquaculture. (Tom Richardson/New England Boating)

By LEIGH VINCOLA/ecoRI News contributor

Rhode Island’s coastal salt ponds are among the most treasured resources in the state. Ask anyone who frequents the ponds and they will tell you they are special. Point Judith, Potters, Winnapaug, Ninigret, Green Hill and Quonochontaug ponds run along the southern coast of the state from Point Judith to Westerly, and into Connecticut.

These ponds are coastal lagoons with shallow water that are separated from the ocean by a barrier, creating a protected environment that is popular for many activities. On a given day, you can find people boating, fishing, swimming, sunbathing and/or birding.

Aquaculture farms also are particularly suited for salt ponds, because of the shallow water and longer growing season. Rhode Island’s aquaculture industry is on a steady rise, and people with a vested interest in salt ponds have expressed concern about the proper management of aquaculture farm leases.

Once an aquaculture farm is set, the area can’t be utilized for other purposes. While the general sentiment across the state, both within and outside of marine industries, is that aquaculture is good for the economy, resistance has come from certain groups who are accustomed to enjoying the salt ponds without restrictions.

The Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) is the agency responsible for managing all leases and it’s receiving plenty of proposals for the salt ponds. Currently, there are 30 leases in the ponds, and CRMC receives seven or eight new applications a year. Under CRMC regulations, only 5 percent of any salt pond can be leased to aquaculture at one time.

Each application goes through a lengthy process, during which the proposed site is looked at in depth by various entities including the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission. The application is also given a 30-day public notice period. This review determines if the proposal will be met with conflict, and the application is ultimately either accepted or denied by Dave Beutel, CRMC’s aquaculture coordinator.

These regulations and the formal application process provide needed structure for a growing industry, but it’s Rhode Island General Law 20-10-1 that requires the big picture. The law states, “It is in the best public interest of the people and the state that the land and waters of the state are utilized properly and effectively to produce plant and animal life. ... The process of aquaculture should only be conducted within the waters of the state in a manner consistent with the best public interest.”

What exactly is in the best public interest then? What might be the best interest for one, may not be for another. Aquaculture expansion is certainly positive, as we are currently bringing back an industry that had its last boom in the 1900s. Tourism and recreation are also good for our state, but when boaters and fishermen have less and less access to the salt pond waters, what is the effect?

In late March, a community discussion titled “Riparian Privilege” was presented by the Rhode Island Shellfish Management Plan. Dennis Esposito, adjunct professor at the Marine Affairs Institute and director of the Environmental and Land-Use Clinical Externship Program at Roger Williams University School of Law and who offers legal council to the CRMC around issues of public access, was there to answer questions from community members.

About 60 people gathered in the Cross' Mills Public Library in Charlestown, many of them coastal homeowners, to discuss how to navigate their rights within a growing shellfish farming industry happening in their backyard.

“When we talk about privileges to our shore and near waters, we are really talking about a shared resource use,” Esposito said. “This is the essence of the Public Trust Doctrine. The more people focus on legal property rights and property ownership, excluding those that share the resource, the more we experience legal conflicts.”

Another issue of concern during last month’s discussion was when aquaculture leases go into areas that are used for waterfowl hunting. This has created a conflict for hunters now restricted by oyster farms.

Tracey Dalton, professor of marine affairs at the University of Rhode Island also spoke about the topic April 12 as part of Rhode Island Sea Grant’s Ocean State Discussion Series. To investigate the “perceptions of aquaculture,” Dalton conducted a study to determine what influences cause people to support or oppose the industry. Her findings showed that a high percentage of those surveyed — coastal property owners were targeted — believe that the presence of aquaculture farms spoils the beauty of the ponds and inhibits navigation for boaters.

Also included in Dalton’s survey was a small sample of wild-harvest shellfishermen, whose answers showed an opposition to the increase in oyster farming. The presence of farms limits the areas they are able to harvest for clams.

“Resistance to aquaculture from wild harvesters is an old sentiment initiated by quahoggers that are no longer alive,” Beutel said.

On the other hand, many wild harvesters argue that aquaculture has a place in the shellfishing economy and that there is room for everyone.

“Aquaculture can be a growing business if sites are chosen well,” said Mike McGiveney, president of the Rhode Island Shellfisherman’s Association.

Despite the isolated resistance from specific groups, there is an agreement that a growing aquaculture industry is good for the state. If the industry and the salt ponds are to continue to thrive and be used, we must also agree to compromise and keep the public interest at the forefront, according to Beutel.

“We will continue to use the process we have in place and maximize seafood production. However that happens, there will be some compromise,” he said.