The Hummel Report

Investigative Reports That Get Results

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A Delicate Balance

Aquaculture is a $4 million a year industry in Rhode Island that has seen tremendous growth over the past several years. But some who live near a proposed oyster farm in Narragansett say it would be located in the middle of a prime boating and shell fishing area. What does the state say? Jim Hummel goes out on two coastal ponds in South County to take a look for himself.

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Point Judith Pond is one of Rhode Island’s jewels, a four-mile stretch of crystal-clear water bordering Narragansett and South Kingstown. Tucked up on the northeastern side is Champlin Cove - adjacent to a housing development called Briggs Farm.

Maul: `A good number of people in this developments have boats right here - they go fishing, they go boating, they pull tubes, water-skiing, clamming, diving, you name it they do it.’’

Jeff Maul is one of them. He’s lived here for the past decade and is often out on the water in his 18-foot powerboat, enjoying the beauty of the cove - and the larger pond beyond it.

Over the years Maul has seen an increasing number of buoys in the water - marking oyster farms approved by the state of Rhode Island. They vary in size, from just an acre or two up to 20 acres. It is land leased by the state and off limits to boaters and other shell fishermen.

Maul: ``Two or three years ago another one appeared over here, just across form us at Ram Island. The following year that one doubled in size. Another one appeared on the other side of Ram Island. This past year there’s probably been a half a dozen or more permits that we’ve seen and we’ve seen these buoys pop up everywhere. They  basically rope off an area and it’s no longer public.’’

Maul says he has no issue with aquaculture itself, the official name for oyster farming, which has grown into a $4 million annual industry in Rhode Island - nearly all of it coming from the 52 oyster farms spread across the state’s waters. It’s the placement of one recent proposal that he and his neighbors oppose.

Maul: ``It’s right across from our marina, it’s in an area where people do a lot of tubing, water skiing. It’s in the expansion of the end of the cove and that’s generally where people do a nice wide sweep with their boat. Now the buoys, the farm we’re concerned with - it hasn’t been authorized yet but they’ve staked it out. The buoys are showing that this thing is protruding a third of the way into the cove.’’

That application - from Narragansett resident David Bartley - resulted in dozens of homeowners in Briggs Farm writing to the Coastal Resources Management Council, which is responsible for approval - or rejection - of oyster farm licenses. And we began asking questions last month about the proposal as well.

Beutel: ``We try to avoid what we call user conflicts.’’

David Beutel is CRMC’s aquaculture coordinator and will decide whether to recommend approval of Bartley’s application to the full council. The plan originally called for a 2.9 acre oyster farm just east of Ram Island in Champlin Cove.

Beutel: ``Mr. Bartley has been debating on how to go forward and they finally a week or so ago decided that he would like to try and address some of the objections that have come in by making the proposed area smaller, more narrow, give a little more room in the theoretical channel.’’

The revised proposal reduces the size by an acre, but Maul says does not fully address concerns about conflicting uses on the water. And that is the sometime difficult balance between the state and the people who live near and use Rhode Island’s waterways - particularly the coastal ponds.

Twelve years ago Perry Raso  opened the Matunuck Oyster Bar restaurant, which borders Potter Pond, just over from Point Judith Pond. Raso gives weekly tours of his seven-acre farm, which is in an ideal location. It is shallow, making it easy for him and his employees to get in and out of the water to tend to the oysters. It also has good water flow in and out of the pond, which helps the oysters grow. The oysters, in turn, help improve the quality of the water where they live.

Raso’s farm is well out of the boating channel, but Beutel says he works with local officials to determine if proposed farms, like Bartley’s, would be inconsistent with any activity on the water. If they receive approval from CRMC the oyster farmers lease the designated area of water at $150 for the first acre and $100 for each additional acre.

Hummel: ``What was your feeling and your observation in terms of boat traffic - and maybe water skiing or tubing and trying to get in and out of there?’’

Beutel: ``My initial review of it was that there’s sufficient room for both. I do acknowledge and understand that if somebody strayed and there were cages in that area that would be a problem if they fell. I’m happy to see that Mr. Bartley wanted to make it narrower into the shallow part of the area, the proposed area.’’

Maul: ``Once the aqua culturists puts out his cages, these will be wire cages that at low tide, might be a few inches below the surface of the water or they might even be partially exposed. Water skier goes over the top of that, it can be some very serious damage. If somebody drives their boat over it, they can destroy their prop.’’

Beutel: ``Once it’s a leased area it should be marked and it should be marked clearly. That doesn’t mean people understand what the marking is. It’s a learning curve for them as well as the aquaculturist. Usually they don’t make that mistake twice.’’

State law caps the area of land for aquaculture in the coastal ponds to 5 percent. It’s at about 3 percent right now in Point Judith Pond.

Beutel: ``We do have limited space so it’s only going to grow so much, unless we’re going to change regulatory and statutory law, which I’m not convinced that’s going to happen. However, there’s room for considerably more than we have now.’’

Maul and his neighbors are concerned the Champlin Cove proposal might go through with their having a chance to object at a public hearing.

Hummel: ``For people who sit over there and say `The state has a tin ear, they’re not listening to us, we don’t feel like we’re getting a say in this process. Can you respond to some of those concerns?’’

Beutel: ``I’ve heard that complaint. The process is very public. If we get one objection I will guarantee that there is a CRMC public hearing.’’

That will likely come sometime this fall.

On Point Judith Point, Jim Hummel for The Hummel Report.