RWU aquaculture research farm aims to boost bivalve industry

State coastal regulators approve permit Tuesday night

By: - May 23, 2023 3:30 pm

Oyster aquaculture research will take place in Mount Hope Bay close to shore on the Bristol campus of Roger Williams University. (Photo by Janine L. Weisman/Rhode Island Current)

When Tim Scott started teaching at Roger Williams University in the late 1990s, aquaculture was hardly a part of the vernacular, much less a moneymaker for the state. 

In the intervening years, the biology professor has watched the industry explode, with  whopping increases in annual wholesale sales along with spreading appreciation for the science of – and end product from –  shellfish farming.

Baby shellfish from Roger Williams University’s aquaculture research program are shown. (Photo courtesy of Timothy Scott/Roger Williams University)

“It’s one of the fastest growing segments of our economy,” Scott said, pointing to a 2021 report that pegged the value of state aquaculture products at $7.5 million. 

But the Ocean State’s bivalve boom could be bigger, especially when compared with other states, Scott said.

Which is why the university wants to launch a research and education-focused aquaculture farm adjacent to its Bristol campus. The 1.78-acre lease in Mount Hope Bay would serve as a breeding ground for experimenting with equipment and species that in turn, could help Rhode Island shellfish farmers grow their own businesses.

“There really isn’t a purely experimental shellfish farm in existence on the East Coast,” Scott said. “This is a fantastic opportunity to go out and try things without asking farmers to have to dedicate a portion of their farms to attempt something.” 

It also cements the university’s foothold in the much-discussed blue economy, complementing its longstanding Center for Economic and Environment Development (CEED). 

CEED already has a shellfish program centered around a hatchery where adult oysters are bred, a dockside upweller system acts as a kind of incubator to grow the baby oysters to a “predator protected” size, and a 1,000-square-foot aquaculture farm in the Bay. But that farm is too small to do much research, said Scott , who serves as CEED director.

A view from the dock on the Bristol campus of Roger Williams University. (Photo by Janine L. Weisman/Rhode Island Current)

Hence, RWU’s application to the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Coastal seeking approval of a permit and three-year lease for a bigger aquaculture farm. The council approved the application at its meeting Tuesday night on the recommendation of staff.

Scott described the permitting process as “arduous.” A combination of faculty retirements, pandemic shutdowns and just the regular red tape has dragged the proposal out for eight years.

Oyster farms have also become a hot-button issue in coastal communities, with residents and vacation home-owners decrying how they interfere with recreational water activities, and the eyesore created by the floating equipment. Acclaimed Rhode Island restaurateur and oyster farmer Perry Raso, who recently invested in a new research hatchery across from his Matunuck restaurant, is among those facing resistance to his oyster farm expansion plans.

The university has not faced the same backlash to its proposed research farm from Bristol town officials and residents, though it has scaled down its original lease area – from 2 acres to just under 1.8 acres – to accommodate boat traffic through the area, Scott said.

And the public denouncement of unappealing-looking buoys floating across the water is one hurdle that research could potentially solve. One former faculty member is testing a submerged, remotely operated vehicle to travel along the seabed to gather the bivalves without needing floating buoys, Scott said.

Other research ideas include growing shellfish with different types of gear, or growing other species altogether: scallops, clams, kelp and more. Testing how oysters bred to resist the warming and acidifying ocean may endure climate change better than their counterparts is also on the agenda.

“There’s a lot of different tricks out there, things that are used by other cultures and countries,” Scott said. 

None of the oysters grown in the farm would be sold, but instead donated to local nonprofits like the Rhode Island Shellfisherman’s Association, according to the application.

Scott hopes to have researchers and students testing equipment and species in the new farm area by next spring. 

Mike Healey, a spokesperson for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, which collaborates with the university on its shellfish programs, issued the following emailed statement about the project:

“Rhode Island has made tremendous progress over decades protecting and improving the quality of our waterways. We have enacted laws to replace and phase out outmoded cesspools that pollute our groundwater. We have insisted on upgrades to our wastewater treatment facilities and improved collection and treatment of stormwater. These hard won, often expensive, gains have led to dramatic improvements in water quality and habitat in our rivers and Narragansett Bay. This is the context of Roger Williams University’s exciting announcement about establishing an aquaculture farm. RWU is a national leader in aquaculture science and DEM looks forward to its experimentation, data gathering and analysis, and potentially consequential discoveries in the increasingly important realm of aquaculture.” 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect approval by the CRMC.


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Nancy Lavin
Nancy Lavin

Nancy Lavin is senior reporter covering state politics, energy and environmental issues for the Rhode Island Current.