a publication of Rhode Island Sea Grant
and the University of Rhode Island Coastal Institute.
One of the founding members of the Ocean State Shellfish Cooperative, Arnoux grew up on the water. He began his fishing career shellfishing with his uncles on the south shore of Long Island and, when he moved to the Ocean State at 18 to earn his bachelor’s degree in coastal policy and management from the University of Rhode Island, he started quahogging and working on fish trap boats. It was in 2002 that Arnoux “put four years of college to good use and continued quahogging,” he jokes. He said what made him eventually turn his eye to oyster aquaculture was the declining price in littlenecks (from a high of 25 cents to 15 cents or less). “It just kept drifting down as the price for everything else was going up. I saw the writing on the wall, at least short term, and decided it was time to do something else,” he said.
For the first few years, until his farm was fully up and running, Arnoux supplemented his income both by continuing to quahog and working as a fisheries observer up and down the East Coast, at one point commuting from Washington, D.C., where his fiancé was working as a lawyer. “You suddenly get to the point where the farm is your full time job. It happens slowly and then suddenly you realize ‘this is what I do now,’” said Arnoux, adding that all of the members of the co-op were traditional commercial fisherman before venturing into aquaculture.
The Ocean State Shellfish Cooperative comprises six different oyster farms in Rhode Island, all touting unique tastes and characteristics. On its website, the cooperative refers to itself as a “microbrewery for oysters.” Joining East Beach Farms in the cooperative are Cedar Island Oyster Farm, East Beach Oyster Co., Matunuck Oyster Farm, Ninigret Oyster Farm, and Rome Point Oyster Farm. Together, the six farms lease roughly 50 acres. Arnoux’s farm raises East Beach Blondes, oysters that boast a taste that’s “silky and smooth with a mild and salty flavor.” According to the company’s website, “the finish is mild and lingering with hints of minerals.”
In order to grow his Blondes to their tastiest, Arnoux purchases small oyster seed from several hatcheries and places it in an upweller system, one of about 10 in the state. The solar-powered upweller system acts as a nursery and uses a pump to force water through the oysters at a faster rate so they get more food more quickly. The upweller is owned by fellow co-op member Rob Krause of Ninigret Oyster Farm. Arnoux, Krause, and Papa have shared duties at the nursery since 2011. After the oysters near an inch in size (in 6 to 8 weeks) under Krause’s care, they are moved into shallow grow-out areas where they are placed in bags suspended by racks, where they are tended for the rest of the summer and fall by Arnoux and Papa. From seed to plate, the average oyster takes 18 to 20 months to grow.
The Ocean State Shellfish Cooperative paints a picture of a small business-led aquaculture industry in Rhode Island, and that’s mostly true, according to Arnoux. While there are a few larger companies, most of Rhode Island’s shellfish farming industry is comprised of owner-operators with a small number of employees and relatively small leases.
“It’s kind of quirky,” said Arnoux. “Our shellfish and our gear are private property, but we lease public space.” He said that he felt the overall public opinion seems to favor more small operators leasing small areas than a few big companies leasing large areas. Some of this sentiment may be attributed to the size of the state’s oyster industry in the early 1900s, when much of upper Narragansett Bay was leased to oyster companies.
The biggest hurdle the industry faces, in terms of expanding, is the small size of Rhode Island. The Ocean State lives up to its moniker and different users, from farmers to beach-goers, want to use the water in their own ways.
“We’re a small industry but we’re growing,” said Graham Brawley, a spokesman for the cooperative. Brawley said that the industry often gets pushback when looking to expand, whether from regulatory agencies or from landowners who prefer to see jet-skis to a working waterfront. Brawley is salesman and manager of the cooperative. According to Arnoux, “he basically runs the shop.”
“There are plenty of areas in the country where a working waterfront does not detract from the value of the home,” said Brawley, adding: “We’re not talking about skid row, or the longshoreman docks of San Jose. We’re talking about Charlestown, Rhode Island and the quaint little coastal ponds where there can be farming.”
In addition to contributing to the state’s economy, shellfish farming improves the health of the coastal environment, said Brawley. “Putting shellfish back in the ponds is going to help them continue to get healthy,” he added.
A number of the state’s growers, including Arnoux, have completed oyster restoration work with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The work, currently on hold, contracted farmers to grow oysters-on-cultch until large enough to be placed on beds of clamshells within the Department of Environmental Management’s spawner sanctuaries to help restore natural oyster populations and habitats.
Although the official reports on how the oyster reefs sustained themselves haven’t been publicized yet, Arnoux said he could see a noted improvement in some areas. “I know, just from what I’ve seen, just searching around when I have time in the pond, there’s more oysters there than there were a few years ago.” In certain areas, the oyster repopulation led to more areas for harvesting for certain fishermen. “So the program provided an economic benefit beyond just the ecological value of creating these oyster reefs,” said Arnoux.
The aquaculture industry is growing, but Arnoux believes, for long-term success, it also needs to start diversifying. “At some point, it would be nice to see something bigger, whether it’s the existing businesses expanding or a couple of people come in with a vision to do something new,” he said.
“Oysters will probably always be the main species grown here. The waters here produce really great oysters and they’re in demand,” said Arnoux, who added that he worries what price pressure or coast-wide overproduction will do to the industry in the long term. He said there should be more research to develop help growers develop suitable culture methods for other species, such as bay scallops, razor clams and seaweed. This will give growers a lot better protection against either a price drop or a potential disease with oysters.
“Every 10 years or so, some area waterbody always has a catastrophe with oysters where a disease or other natural event comes through and just wipes a big number of them out,” he said.
The main issue with diversifying is that many of the culture methods used in aquaculture are both site and species specific. While Arnoux said several growers are looking to develop mussel farms, the main problem in that regard is that farming mussels takes up significantly more acreage than the rack-and-bag style of aquaculture commonly used for oyster farming.
“So the issue is: Where does it fit in the state, given all the different water uses?” asked Arnoux, adding that he still saw “big potential” in mussel farming.
Other potential species include bay scallops and razor clams, which Arnoux called “trickier to grow and, in the case of bay scallops, more sensitive to environmental conditions.” Bay scallops only live two years and farmers can lose much of their crop over the first winter, still “there’s potential there,” said Arnoux. To make it work, both farmers and regulators are going to have to be flexible, he added. Diversifying will require utilizing more than just the bottom of the water column, and gear that would be visible such as floats and buoys.
“Right now the emphasis in general is to have gear out of sight to maintain aesthetics, especially in the ponds. Keep things on the bottom and out of sight, but that doesn’t work for every species,” said Arnoux. “The burden isn’t all on state regulatory agencies. Some of it is just on growers to be economically viable enough to go out and take a risk with another species. That’s definitely at least half the equation,” he said, adding that the general desire for aquaculture gear to go unseen might discourage growers from taking a chance with other species.
Currently, Rhode Island Sea Grant is working with the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council and the R.I. Department of Environmental Management, as well as area shellfishermen, to create the Rhode Island Shellfish Management Plan (SMP), a document designed to provide policy guidelines regarding the management and protection measures for the shellfish located within the state’s waters. Arnoux said he believes the SMP process is a good opportunity to reduce regulatory redundancies and a chance to help the shellfish farming industry flourish in Rhode Island. One of the ways that’s possible is by recognizing aquaculture as a farming and regulate it accordingly, said Arnoux.
“There’s always been a pushback between fishermen and regulatory bodies,” said Brawley, “but farming is not the fishing industry. It’s very, very different, and our approach to how we manage our own product is very different from the way that fisheries should be managed and have been managed in the past.”
Rhode Island’s aquaculture industry is approaching $3 million in annual sales and roughly 85 to 100 jobs, including some seasonal and part-time workers. On average, the industry has grown at roughly a 20 percent clip each year.
“The industry is growing, but it would be nice to see it get to another level and see, in the next five to ten years, a $10 million industry with 500 jobs or 1,000 jobs,” said Arnoux, adding that he hoped that common problems, such as use conflicts and ecological carrying capacities, can be researched and addressed publicly through the SMP process.
“You look at this piece of water and see the different uses and say: ‘Well this is the commons, this is the number of people who are using or want to use this area, but what’s its highest value?’” said Arnoux. Currently, aquaculture leases in the state’s salt ponds cannot exceed, in total, more than 5 percent of the area of the pond. “Ecologically speaking, recent research has shown that the ponds could support far more than that 5 percent limit. But also pushing against that is: What’s the social carrying capacity with all the different uses or even just the availability of waterfront access and infrastructure? If we can find a balance and recognize that aquaculture is a very productive use of the commons, then I think the industry can continue to grow.”
Ending on a lighter note, Arnoux made sure to add: “Shellfish farming is really a wonderful business to be in right now, yet sometimes I take it all too seriously because you never know when nature is going to put you out of business,” he said. “That said, the industry in Rhode Island is filled with a number of innovative and creative people who are going to take it to the next level if given the freedom to.”