By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
JAMESTOWN, R.I. — Phil Larson spent two decades as a chef at a waterfront Newport restaurant known for its fine seafood, and a chief source of frustration for him was the consistent inability to serve customers quality oysters from local waters.
Since his retirement from the commercial kitchen a decade ago, Larson’s frustration with the Ocean State’s oyster harvest hasn’t waned. To address his concerns about the quality and quantity of Rhode Island oysters, Larson has been on a mission to turn the abandoned World War II mine storage building at Fort Wetherill into an aquaculture center.
“We generally couldn’t get good oysters from Narragansett Bay,” said the 58-year-old Larson, who worked at The Mooring Seafood Kitchen & Bar from 1980 to 2000. “The Fort Wetherill site would be a great place for aquaculture purposes. It would be a great site for depuration.”
Depuration — or purification — is a process by which shellfish are held in tanks of clean seawater under conditions that maximize their natural filtering abilities. A mature oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day. This natural filtration clears the water and allows for more sun penetration and, thus, more marine plant growth and the habitat it creates.
This process results in the expulsion of the oysters’ intestinal contents and enhances separation of expelled contaminants. Bivalve mollusks, such as oysters and mussels, concentrate contaminants from the water column in which they grow. These contaminants may then cause illness to humans when the shellfish are eaten. For microbial contaminants, the risk is enhanced by the fact that these shellfish are often eaten raw or relatively lightly cooked.
Limiting the risk of illness depends partly on sourcing the shellfish from areas in which such contaminants are at relatively low levels.
Depuration was developed to address the problem of a large number of shellfish-associated outbreaks of typhoid — caused by the bacterium salmonella typhi — that caused illness and death at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century.
The Jamestown Aquaculture Movement (JAM) was established in 2008 to create a broad-based educated mindset that is supportive of sustainable aquaculture businesses in the Ocean State, according to Larson.
The JAM initiative includes the possibility of a research component in association with Roger Williams University, the University of Rhode Island and the state Department of Environmental Management; a trade school offering an accredited associate’s degree in marine hatchery management; a commercial cooperative shellfish nursery and a purification, marketing and testing facility at Fort Wetherill; and development of the adjacent cove for edible seaweed production.
Such a project, said Larson, who is chairman of the movement, would create local jobs by promoting and assisting the procurement of local aquaculture, leased growing beds and a supply station for the necessary equipment.
JAM members, there are about 500, said money could be obtained through grants and fundraising, and the town of Jamestown would maintain ownership of the building. JAM’s plans don’t interfere with the Fort Wetherill Boat Owners Association, and traffic, parking and noise would be minimal, according to members.
JAM is actively looking for an organization that might want to lease that building from the town for an aquaculture purpose. Also, wind, tide and solar power would be explored as viable energy sources for the facility, members said.
“In this economic climate we can choose to complain or we start to fix things locally,” said Larson, a Cape Cod native who has spent plenty of time digging for shellfish, spearfishing and lobstering. “The Fort Wetherill site would be perfect for a nursery but not for a hatchery because the water is too clean. There’s not enough algae.”
There are about 200 aquaculture farmers in Massachusetts, but only 33 in Rhode Island. JAM members believe there is a substantial amount of aquaculture growth to be realized in the Ocean State, including a hatchery for oyster, clam and scallop spat.
Rhode Island doesn’t have a commercial hatchery. Rhode Island shellfish growers must buy their needed spat from out of state — typically from nurseries in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Maine. Roger Williams University has a hatchery, but those oysters are for study and restoration — not retail.
Of course, the approval process for the JAM initiative would be tedious. In fact, Larson, who has a degree in zoology from the University of Maine, started JAM because there is so much confusion in the state regarding the aquaculture industry. Not only are the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) and state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) involved, but so are the state Department of Health (DOH) and the National Shellfish Sanitation Conference.
“Oysters can be grown for consumption and for restoration,” Larson said. “Nobody wants anybody getting sick from eating shellfish, but the overall advantages of this industry can surpass those concerns. We want to educate the public so we can become a political force in this state. The movement is already here. People want to become closer to their food source, like we have done with agriculture.”
The oyster industry was once a much bigger part of Rhode Island’s economy. The amount of submerged lands leased for aquaculture peaked in 1911 at about 21,000 acres — roughly 20 percent of the entire bottom of Narragansett Bay, according to Michael Rice, a professor of aquaculture at URI.
That year, the local aquaculture industry produced 1.4 million bushels of oysters valued at $135 million in 2006 dollars, according to Rice’s report entitled “A History of Oyster Aquaculture in Rhode Island.”
According to the CRMC’s latest report completed in 2009, Rhode Island’s 33 oyster farms, most of which are in coastal ponds, were leasing 134 acres and had a market value of $1.7 million.
A number of factors of played a role in diminishing the Ocean State’s oyster harvest, including pollution from textile mills, a buildup of silt and lack of oxygen in the water, declining interest in the business and the Great Hurricane of 1938, which destroyed much of the industry’s infrastructure and oyster beds.
JAM is now hoping to help return oyster harvesting to its heyday.