URI Studies to Examine Opinions About Aquaculture and Uses of Salt Ponds

By ecoRI News staff

KINGSTON, R.I. — A team of University of Rhode Island researchers will survey Rhode Islanders and assess their use of local waterways as part of two studies examining the different ways that local waters are used and what people think about those uses.

The first project aims to better understand the level of support for or opposition to aquaculture farms in Rhode Island’s public waterways and the factors that influence that support. A survey will be mailed to 1,400 Rhode Islanders in the next two weeks that researchers hope will start to gauge how much aquaculture development residents will tolerate.

According to Tracey Dalton, URI professor of marine affairs and the leader of the study, the number of aquaculture farms in Rhode Island has grown from 22 to 55 in the past 10 years, and it’s expected to continue growing. She seeks to understand what she calls the “social carrying capacity” of aquaculture in the state or the amount of aquaculture a water body can support before Rhode Islanders deem it no longer acceptable.

“Most aquaculture farms are relatively small, about three acres, but as more farms are being proposed, there have been some pretty contentious public meetings about them,” said Dalton, who is collaborating on the survey with a researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “We want to see what the threshold is before people say ‘no more.’ And we expect this threshold will be different for different groups of people.”

State policy limits aquaculture in Rhode Island’s salt ponds to covering no more than 5 percent of the surface water.

“But that was based on ecological studies and a political process to determine what would work best,” Dalton said. “We’re trying to use a more scientific approach to determine if that number is appropriate.”

The second study, led by Robert Thompson, URI professor of marine affairs, will focus on how people use the Quonochontaug, Ninigret and Point Judith salt ponds in South County. From June through early September, URI researchers will use a Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) boat to traverse the ponds and record what activities people are engaged in. They will also visit public access points to the ponds to interview local residents and other users of these waterways.

“The way people are using the ponds is changing, especially with the increasing number of aquaculture facilities being proposed,” Dalton said. “So we want to know what people are doing there now and see how it may change as environmental conditions and policies change.”

This study follows up on a similar one conducted of the public uses of upper Narragansett Bay. The salt-pond study was launched last year, but many of those interviewed were tourists, so this year the researchers will try to reach more of those who live near the ponds.

“At public meetings about aquaculture proposals, people often talk about all the other ways people use the ponds, but there is not much real data about what’s happening out there,” Dalton said.

The data she and her colleagues collect will be useful for planning aquaculture and other potential future uses of the ponds. DEM officials, who are collaborating on the study, are especially interested in how much the ponds are used for recreational fishing.