Aquaculture applications are down. The battle for Tiverton’s Sapowet Cove might be why

Three years, two brothers, and one wild campaign to dissolve a dream of starting an oyster farm

By: - Monday August 14, 2023 5:01 am

Aquaculture applications are down. The battle for Tiverton’s Sapowet Cove might be why

Three years, two brothers, and one wild campaign to dissolve a dream of starting an oyster farm

By: - 5:01 am

Brothers John (left) and Patrick (right) Bowen want to create a 1-acre oyster farm in Tiverton’s Sapowet Cove. (Jocelyn Jackson/Rhode Island Current)

Brothers John (left) and Patrick (right) Bowen want to create a 1-acre oyster farm in Tiverton’s Sapowet Cove. (Jocelyn Jackson/Rhode Island Current)

Four buoys bobbing above the rippling waters of Sapowet Cove in Tiverton are the only tangible evidence of Patrick and John Bowen’s vision.

Below the surface of those nutrient-rich waters, the Little Compton brothers see a world of opportunity: a chance to educate, promote local food sources and protect the environmental jewel of Rhode Island’s waterways.

That’s a lot riding on their proposed 1-acre oyster farm, which if approved by coastal regulators, would be among the smallest in the state. But the duo are steadfast in their conviction, which has evolved from a passion project to a principled stand against their many opponents.

“You shouldn’t have to hire a lawyer to be a farmer,” said John Bowen, who works as an aquaculture coordinator for the state of Massachusetts. “Rhode Island is supposed to be encouraging aquaculture. Let’s see them do that.”

More than three years have passed since the brothers, now in their early 50s, submitted their lease application to the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, which has yet to render its decision.

Buoys mark the outline of the 1-acre oyster farm that Patrick and John Bowen want to build in Sapowet Cove on Tiverton’s western shore. (Jocelyn Jackson/Rhode Island Current)

They face an unlikely band of opponents, spanning waterfront residents, fishermen, elected officials and even the state’s aquaculture association. The primary objection, as laid out in hundreds of letters, yard signs, a website and even a bill introduced at the Rhode Island State House: the wade-in oyster cages just a few hundred feet from the shoreline will get in the way of people using the popular fishing, boating and recreational area.

All of which has made the Bowen brothers dig their heels in more, for their own sake, and for the other oyster farmers whose projects crumbled under the pressure of fiery criticism.

“People with money get what they want,” said Patrick Bowen, who teaches carpentry at Dighton-Rehoboth Vocational High School “These are wealthy people, from somewhere else, and they don’t want this perceived lifestyle change.”

He referred to a handful of oyster farm applications submitted, but withdrawn or rejected in the time his proposal has been under consideration. And he wondered how many other prospective oyster farmers never even submitted an application, deterred by the controversy.


Aquaculture projects drop in number

In the last five years, the CRMC reported a marked decline in applications for new or expanded aquaculture leases. The agency received seven applications in 2018, all of which were approved, while it received a single application this year, which has not yet been decided, according to Benjamin Goetsch, CRMC’s aquaculture coordinator. There were no applications submitted in 2022.

Goetsch declined to comment when asked if opposition was to blame for the decline in proposed projects. 

Aquaculture opposition is hardly new. For decades, the projects have rankled homeowners and area fishermen.

Just ask Robert Rheault, whose 1989 application to open a 2.3-acre oyster farm in Point Judith drew 600 letters of objection from waterfront homeowners and shellfishermen, he said. Rheault’s farm, Moonstone Oysters, was narrowly approved by the CRMC, and in the intervening years, many objectors who decried the eyesore created by floating cages came around, even buying oysters from him.

Rheault sold his farm to his partner five years ago, and now heads the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association and the 22-member Ocean State Aquaculture Association, the latter of which voted not to support the Bowen brothers project in an unprecedented move. Watching the reaction to recent oyster farm proposals, including the Bowen brothers’ project, he’s seen a shift in the tenor and intensity of opposition.

“It’s become kind of this mob mentality,” said Rheault. “COVID has made it worse. All of society has gotten more contentious and litigious. And social media definitely hasn’t helped.”

Opposition to the Sapowet Cove project spawned an entire website, with an accompanying newsletter and Instagram page, aimed at rallying residents to “preserve the valuable habitat” of Tiverton’s waters for public use. The website names the Bowen brothers project, as well as a second oyster farm originally proposed for nearby waters, as the targets of its opposition.

Rocky Rhode Oyster Co. owner Brad Boehringer, later withdrew his proposal for a 3-acre farm off Sapowet Point. Boehringer did not return multiple calls for comment.

Rheault had supported Boehringer’s project but felt the Bowen brothers venture — at just under an acre, with up to 200 bottom cages — was hardly big enough to be considered a commercial enterprise.

“They’ll sell enough oysters to buy T-shirts or raise a little money for the school,” Rheault said. “But it’s causing more angst and distress than is really worth it.”

Broad opposition unites

Sprawling houses with sea walls protecting their waterfront views flank the small strip of shoreline leading to the water where the Bowen brothers want to build their farm.

They bought the eighth of an acre parcel along Seapowet Avenue for $100,000 in 2021, intending to use the stretch of overgrown grass and gravel to park their cars when tending to the oyster farm. About a half a mile direct distance from the proposed oyster farm, leading opponent Kenneth Mendez paid more than $787,500 in 2018 for a two-story Colonial, according to town tax records.

Mendez filed a formal objection to the application with the CRMC, and sent countless emails to the various agencies that reviewed the application to express his concerns. Mendez has also helped organize opponents through community events. Mendez, who splits his time between Tiverton and Arlington, Virginia, declined to comment for this story, citing the CRMC’s ongoing review. 

But other opponents said it was simplistic to label their criticism as NIMBYism.

While some are indeed waterfront homeowners, there are also fishermen, hunters, boaters and people for whom the cove is a rare point of public access to an otherwise inaccessible shoreline.

“To my knowledge, there is no other place along the entirety of the Sakonnet River that provides this type of access in all of Middletown, Portsmouth, Little Compton and Tiverton,” said Michael Woods, chair of the New England chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, which opposes the project. “If we had a couple dozen of those places along the 10-mile stretch of the Sakonnet River, people might feel differently. I think it’s unfair to say this is just about wealthy homeowners who don’t want to look at oyster cages.”

Also opposed is the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association, which in a rare move, objected to the Sapowet Cove oyster farm because of its popularity for fishing.

“We are generally not waterfront homeowners,” said Rich Hittinger, first vice president of the association. “Our members are blue collar fishermen.”

Many of the group’s 2,000 anglers consider the cove an easily accessible fishing point, rich with species thanks to the outflow from the Sapowet Marsh, Hittinger said.

I think it’s unfair to say this is just about wealthy homeowners who don’t want to look at oyster cages.

– Michael Woods, chair of the New England chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers

Fred Definis travels from his Middletown home to Sapowet Cove to fish, hunt or just enjoy a beachfront picnic with his wife at least two dozen times a year. Even in the dead of winter, he said he encounters fellow fishermen, wildlife photographers and beachgoers. Which is why he finds it hard to stomach the idea that all those people would be forced to give up their pastimes for the sake of a 1-acre oyster farm which he said would generate, at most, $24,000 in revenue.

“One or two people are going to make a modest amount of money in return for inconveniencing and alienating a whole lot of people,” Definis said.

John Bowen pushed back.

“I think we have different definitions of what ‘commercial’ can be,” he said.

The Bowens hope to sell up to 20,000 oysters in the first year and a half, ideally direct-to-consumer and to local restaurants. Neither brother plans to quit his day job, for now at least.

But later on, they envision growing their passion project into a full-fledged career, including wholesale. Also central to their vision is the educational component. As a wade-in oyster farm accessible from the shoreline, the farm offers a unique opportunity for students from grade school to graduate school to visit and learn about the aquaculture, Patrick Bowen said.

While Rheault remained unconvinced of the commercial merits of the project, he acknowledged that opponents’ arguments are often embellished.

“People like to play fast and loose with the truth, and twist the facts,” he said. “I wish we could have lie detectors, honestly.”

Opponents to the Sapowet Cove oyster farm voiced their criticism through yard signs, letters to state regulators and an online petition. (Jocelyn Jackson/Rhode Island Current)

On a sunny Wednesday afternoon in early August, the cove was empty. That’s typical, said the Bowen brothers, who visited the fishing and boating spot throughout their childhood in Little Compton.

Not according to Rep. John Edwards, the Tiverton Democrat who introduced legislation attempting to block the project. Edwards said he counted up to 50 cars parked along the shoreline on a summer Friday afternoon. John Bowen said the only time he had seen that many people there was when the neighborhood organized a community protest against their project.

Jeremy Thurston, a Little Compton resident who parked along the adjacent marsh that same Wednesday, said he’s never seen more than two or three fishermen in the cove at a time. 

To say otherwise is a “lie,” Thurston said, chalking up opposition to “control and ego.”

The Bowen brothers also said they welcome kayakers and fishermen to continue using the cove, even with the oyster farm.

“These are our future customers,” Patrick Bowen said.

In the initial public meeting in February 2020 with state and local regulators, known as a preliminary determination, only one member of the public voiced opposition, according to the staff report written by Dave Beutel, CRMC’s former aquaculture coordinator. The Tiverton Harbor Commission also voted to recommend the project for more thorough review. The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management expressed concern with the project’s interference with recreational shellfishing, but subsequently backed the project after it was shifted outside the shellfishing area.

The project also received a positive recommendation from the Rhode Island Marine Fisheries Council, although the narrow 4-3 vote in June 2021 was described by Robert Ballou, council chairman, as “one of the most challenging recommendations rendered in recent memory,” according to a letter to the CRMC.

A CRMC meeting scheduled for that same month was postponed at the request of Mendez, according to the CRMC staff report. The council was slated to consider the application at its July 2023 meeting, but then postponed the matter.  

Goetsch in the staff report for that meeting wrote that the application met the technical requirements of the state laws used to evaluate aquaculture farms, but he deferred to the council to consider how objections relate to these approval criteria. If the council approves the application, Goetsch recommended several conditions, including prohibiting expanding the lease area and designating the Sapowet Marsh Management Area off-limits. He also recommended limiting working hours during winter months to minimize conflict with waterfowl hunting and the proof of a $5,000 performance bond.

The Sapowet Marsh refuge, owned by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, sits directly northeast of the Sapowet Cove in Tiverton where the Bowen brothers want to start an oyster farm. (Jocelyn Jackson/Rhode Island Current)

The Bowens requested the latest continuation while they consider whether to hire their own attorney. But they weren’t happy with the two-year pause between now and the last hearing. 

“How this got delayed for two years, I have no idea,” said Patrick Bowen.

Woods pointed to a similarly long span in deliberations over Matunuck Oyster Bar owner Parry Raso’s second oyster farm proposal.

“It’s really disappointing how long these deliberations go,” he said. “The applicants aren’t getting a fair shake either.”

Red tape and a push for a moratorium

For many opponents, the Sapowet Cove oyster farm fight speaks to bigger problems with the permitting and approval process. 

Woods cited lack of coordination between state agencies as a source of frustration. For example, more than $41,000 in state and federal funds was funneled into preserving the Sapowet Marsh Wildlife Management Area in 2016. In Woods’ eyes, the oyster farm seems to undo the effort and funds of the project.

Then there’s the permitting process itself. State regulations prohibit oyster farms in quahogging or commercial fishing grounds, on eelgrass beds, or shipping channels. Otherwise, it’s open season on where applicants pick to propose a farm. The CRMC offers a host of information, from water nutrient levels to recreational fishing activity, some of which is also available in an interactive map, to help them choose a spot. 

How this got delayed for two years, I have no idea.

– Patrick Bowen, applicant

But it’s only after an application is submitted that potential objections are heard. 

“I don’t think it’s fair for some person who wants to develop an oyster farm to go through a lot of effort and plan something in an area that’s not a good area,” Hittinger said. “They should know that early on.”

Goetsch, meanwhile, defended the permitting process, which has been used by other states including Delaware to create their own versions.

“The applicants themselves need to develop and craft applications that are data-driven,” he said. “We’ve done our best to provide access to that data.” 

A pair of bills introduced in the 2023 legislative session would have limited where new oyster farm leases could be approved along the Sakonnet River, putting a two-year moratorium on new oyster farms within 1,000 feet of the shoreline. Edwards, a Tiverton Democrat who introduced the House version of the bill, said the legislation was requested by the Tiverton Town Council in an attempt to block the Sapowet Cove oyster farm.

The bill never advanced out of committee, but Edwards said it “grabbed a lot of attention” at the State House. It might be too late by the time the 2024 legislative session begins to reintroduce the legislation – at least if the intent is to stop the Sapowet Cove oyster farm – but he stressed the importance of better state guidelines.

“If the CRMC had laid out better guidelines, we wouldn’t be having an issue like we have at Sapowet,” Edwards said. “Legislation is the only tool I have, but there are other mechanisms to do this.”

Patrick Bowen points to the area of Tiverton’s Sapowet Cove where he and his brother want to open a 1-acre oyster farm. (Jocelyn Jackson/Rhode Island Current)

A month before lawmakers finished their session, the Tiverton Town Council took matters into its own hands, sending a letter to the CRMC detailing the council’s objections to the oyster farm and asking for a full public hearing in the town prior to a council vote.  

The eight-page letter also points to a “clear conflict” in the CRMC’s legal representation, Anthony DeSisto, who also serves as solicitor for the Little Compton Town Council. The Little Compton Town Council submitted written testimony opposing Edwards’ bill.

Denise deMedeiros, the president of the Tiverton Town Council, was not available for comment. 

Robert Mushen, president of the Little Compton Town Council, rebutted the alleged conflict of interest, having heard from DeSisto that there was no conflict.

While Little Compton has not weighed in on the Bowen brothers project specifically, Mushen said it was “antithetical” to Tiverton’s history to attempt to limit oyster farming along the Sakonnet. He also stressed the economic benefits of aquaculture for the state as a whole. 

A growing industry

The 84 aquaculture sites across the state as of 2022 were valued at $8.2 million, including seed and consumption sales, an 11.2% increase over the prior year, according to the CRMC’s latest report. The industry employed 246 full and part-time workers, up 9.7% over the year prior.

Economically, it’s extremely important for the state,” said Robbie Hudson, fisheries and aquaculture specialist for Rhode Island Sea Grant. “For the number of people it employs, it’s bringing in a lot of money.”

Not to mention the environmental benefits, reducing nitrogen in the water which in turn fosters better habitats for other species.

Despite these advantages, Hudson foresees more conflict on the horizon as the available areas for aquaculture farms get gobbled up, yet the tourism dependent economy hungers for more fresh shellfish. 

One solution: changing the way oysters are grown, including different gear, to help promote the industry amid limited space and rising tensions, he said.

Rhode Island Sea Grant researchers are also working with recreational fishermen and CRMC to improve data about recreational fishing hot beds using GIS technology, with the hopes that science-driven information might ease some tensions in the aquaculture wars. 

Meanwhile, the battle over Sapowet Cove continues, with no end in sight. The CRMC has not yet rescheduled the July hearing on the case, said CRMC spokesperson Laura Dwyer.

However long it takes, the Bowen brothers say they will wait.

“We see our project as kind of a bellwether for what’s to come,” Patrick Bowen said.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the author of the original CRMC staff report on the Sapowet Cove oyster farm application.


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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.