Left to right, Robert Rheault, executive director for the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association; Perry Raso, owner of Matunuck Oyster Bar; URI Professor Marta Gomez-Chiarri; and U.S. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) appear Tuesday, April 11, 2023, at a groundbreaking ceremony for the Matunuck Shellfish Hatchery and Research Center. (Photo by Lucas Masiello for Rhode Island Current)
The mound of overturned dirt sitting across from Matunuck Oyster Bar doesn’t look like a breeding ground for scientific innovation.
But the groups planning a $2.4 million hatchery on that dirt pile say it will turn the tides for Rhode Island’s growing aquaculture industry.
“We’re going to get that perfect shape, fast-growing animals with racing stripes, everything you want,” said Robert Rheault, executive director for the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association.
Before any breeding of elite-level shellfish gets started, there needs to be a building.
Project partners including Perry Raso, owner of Matunuck Oyster Bar, and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) gathered for a groundbreaking of the Matunuck Shellfish Hatchery and Research Center on Tuesday.
Five months from now, the site will house a 4,000-square foot, two-story building filled with high-tech spawning tanks filled with water heated to the perfect temperature to induce oyster breeding. The millions of spec-sized baby oyster larvae will then be attached to shells, studied and cared for until they are ready to be sold to local shellfish farmers.
Federal funds cover over half cost
The project is a partnership between the University of Rhode Island and Raso’s Matunuck Oyster Farm, with $1.3 million in federal funding secured by Reed and the remainder covered by Raso’s business.
Raso, a famed restaurateur and oyster farmer, stressed the importance of having a predictable and reliable way to buy oyster seeds. A 20-year veteran of the oyster farming business, Raso still runs into problems buying the millimeter-sized seeds from other hatcheries, usually outside Rhode Island.
“It’s unpredictable,” Raso said. “Hatcheries are a lab, so anything can happen.”
Hatcheries are a lab, so anything can happen.
– Perry Raso, owner of Matunuck Oyster Bar
Anything including disease, climate change and adverse weather conditions, all of which can throw off the delicate dance of time, temperature and process for oyster spawning.
Even when Raso is able to find the 20 million seeds he is looking for, there’s no guarantee those seedlings will survive the journey to the plate.
All those risk factors around time, temperature and weather are magnified once the young oysters are thrust from the lab into a pond, bay or other natural habitat.
“Losing 50% of your crop is not uncommon,” said Raso, adding that it has happened to him in years past.
That’s where the University of Rhode Island comes in, with a team of expert researchers and scientists working to understand what makes certain oysters thrive when others do not. Eventually, the goal is to breed oysters and other shellfish with these survival traits to create new, “boutique” species tailored to different habitats and temperatures, said Marta Gomez-Chiarri, a professor of fisheries, animal and veterinary sciences at URI.
“An oyster that grows in Texas is very different from one that has to withstand cold conditions here,” Gomez-Chiarri said.
Reed touted the new hatchery as a way to cement Rhode Island’s standing in the aquaculture industry, nationally and even internationally, while growing the state’s aquaculture economy.
Accelerating industry growth
Rhode Island’s aquaculture industry was valued at $7 million in 2021, with 84 in-state oyster farms, according to a report by the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council. The 2021 “farm gate value” marks a rebound from a two-year pandemic slump, and an even bigger jump over the $300,000 value when Reed first started working on carving out a name for Rhode Island aquaculture in 2002.
“And we’re not stopping there,” Reed said. “This is going to accelerate the growth of the industry.”
An oyster that grows in Texas is very different from one that has to withstand cold conditions here.
– Marta Gomez-Chiarri, professor of fisheries, animal and veterinary sciences at the University of Rhode Island
In addition to the $1.3 million in federal funding for the building project, Reed’s office has also secured $1 million for URI aquaculture initiatives, including research into the environmental threats to seafood production, according to a statement from his office.
The building is slated to be finished in September, with a first batch of oyster seeds available for area aquaculture farmers by next year, according to Raso.
Once finished, it will be the third – and the largest – hatchery in Rhode Island, with others at Roger Williams University and at Ninigret Landing Marina.
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