Naughton's vision has helped rebuild RI's shellfish farms

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One of the major accomplishments of Representative Eileen Naughton (District 21-Warwick) has been to boost the economic well being of the state through her major initiative stretching over many years to rebuild the state’s shellfish aquaculture industry, an industry that had been in decline for over 50 years. 

Because of her legislative efforts, a half-century of state and federal investment in water pollution control has begun to yield considerable economic return to the state. Her long-term vision and skilled legislative efforts have brought together industry members, governmental regulators and the environmental community into a cooperative effort in rebuilding one of Rhode Island’s most iconic maritime industries, now exceeding $5million/year in direct sales of shellfish, with considerable additional economic benefits in the related industry support and tourism industries.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Rhode Island was one of the major producers of farmed oysters. According to reports of the RI Shellfisheries Commissioners in the peak production year, 1911, about 1.4 million bushels of live oysters were sold in addition to about 1.3 million gallons of shucked oyster meats. This would be worth some $750 million in oyster sales alone if expressed in today’s dollar value. The oyster aquaculture industry flourished in Narragansett Bay and the coastal salt ponds until the 1930s when several factors including soil erosion and siltation of the oyster grounds, effluents from the metal plating metal finishing, and jewelry industries and the widespread adoption of the flush toilet caused millions of gallons of pollutants per day to be dumped into Rhode Island’s coastal waters.  The decline of oyster farming in Rhode Island was further hastened by socio-political changes in 1935 that spawned public policies less favorable toward “mill town” style industries, including the oyster farming as it had been traditionally practiced. And the Great Hurricane of 1938 devastated the old shucking houses and other important capital assets of industry.

The modern small-boat quahog fishing industry of Rhode Island arose immediately after World War II as the GIs returned home from military service abroad, and they were looking to build careers based on harvest of “wild stocks” of abundant Rhode Island quahogs that had taken hold where some of the old oyster farms had been. By 1954, the last of the old oyster leases (Warren Oyster Company) was revoked by the state, and by the 1981, the aquaculture laws (GLRI 20-10) were rewritten so that permitting review of aquaculture farms in state waters was spread among multiple state and federal agencies, making it exceedingly difficult for any entrepreneurial shellfish farmers to get started. Representative Naughton first took an interest in rebuilding Rhode Island’s very lucrative aquaculture industry in 1994, when she became aware of the formation Ocean State Aquaculture Association (OSAA), Rhode Island’s aquaculture trade organization, and some work by URI’s Cooperative Extension and Sea Grant Programs to offer series of workshops in shellfish aquaculture for fishermen. In 1995, her first legislative effort to rebuild the aquaculture industry was to author a House Resolution (95-H 5615) that formed a thirteen member legislative commission with a charge to, “promote, protect, and stimulate aquacultural commerce in Rhode Island.”

The aquaculture commission conducted several months of televised hearings, and output of the commission included three documents of note: a) the initial 1996 aquaculture legislation (96-H 8276a “An Aquaculture Act”) that became public law and began the consolidation of the aquaculture permitting process under a single state agency; b) a strategic plan for aquaculture for the state authored primarily by Dr. James Anderson and others at URI in 1998 based on the commission findings; and c) an omnibus aquaculture bill in 1998 (98-H 8816) that closely followed recommendations found in the strategic plan. Rep. Naughton’s omnibus aquaculture bill offered a variety of measures designed to grow the aquaculture industry, defining aquaculture as a form of farming, recognition of aquacultural crops as private property not subject to wildlife conservation regulations, and extension of agricultural tax incentives and ‘right to farm’ protections to aquafarmers. The legislation also created the of position of State Aquaculture Coordinator within the Coastal Resources Management Council to assure timely review by multiple state and federal regulatory agencies, as well as including the boosting of state capabilities in use of aquaculture methods for restoring and enhancing wild fishery stocks.  In stepwise fashion between 1998 and 2002, virtually all of the provisions of Rep. Naughton’s original omnibus aquaculture bill became state law, and the law remains in force until now.

Rep. Naughton’s aquaculture legislation has been the catalyst for considerable growth of the aquaculture industry. In 1995 when the state resumed collecting aquacultural production statistics after a 60-year hiatus, there were only 6 shellfish farms in the state with a total area of 9 acres, producing $83,518 in shellfish in farmgate value (amount paid to the farmers), mostly oysters, and employing eight people, all part time. Over the years, the shellfish farming industry has been growing at in excess of 10 percent per year. In the most recent available statistics from CRMC, the farmgate value of Rhode Island’s farmed oysters was about $5.6 million from 61 farms on about 241 acres of leased grounds. Rhode Island oysters have regained their nationwide reputation for good quality, and there has been good collateral growth of “seafood tourism” in the state as a result of this explosive growth in the RI’s aquafarming industry. At present, 171 people are now being employed directly by the farms with many others in the growing number of trendy oyster bars popping up about the state. Rep. Naughton’s legislation to rebuild the aquaculture industry in Rhode Island has been a model for other states. In recent years, elements of Rhode Island’s aquaculture laws have been adopted by Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Delaware, among others.  Additionally, the growth of oyster farming in as an environmentally friendly and lucrative industry in Rhode Island has been studied by officials visiting Rhode Island from a number foreign countries, including Indonesia, and Gambia and Ghana in West Africa where they aspire to develop their own shellfish industries along the lines of ours.

We have a considerable way to go to match Rhode Island’s shellfish farming industry of the early 20th century, but I applaud Rep. Naughton’s approach toward fostering economic development as exemplified by her aquaculture legislation. It took her time to develop broad consensus for moving forward, but as a result, there have been environmental and social benefits derived from the farms in addition to contributing to the state economy. These are sustainable small businesses that build upon our proven heritage of a robust, diversified coastal economy.  Rep. Naughton “gets it.” Quick fixes usually don’t work and are often counterproductive.

The author, Michael A. Rice is a professor of Fisheries and Aquaculture at the University of Rhode Island and a former state representative from South Kingstown.      

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