EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Even if you order Rhode Island oysters at a Rhode Island restaurant, the briny bivalves that make their way to your table have been through a lot to get there. It’s a process that starts deep in the state bureaucracy, even before the oysters are nurtured and grown from a speck the size of the period at the end of this sentence.
They will now need to take yet another step before they get to your plate.
Under state rules unveiled last month, people who want to expand or start new aquaculture farms in Rhode Island will have to identify property owners within 1,000 feet of the boundaries of their project. The Coastal Resources Management Council, Rhode Island’s coastal regulator, will then notify those abutters about the proposal. It’s akin to what you have to do if you want to build a new in-law apartment in the suburbs — tell the neighbors what’s coming so they can weigh in. And like local zoning fights, aquaculture projects sometimes come under fierce opposition.
CRMC is also encouraging, but not requiring, would-be shellfish farmers to hold community meetings.
“Go out and explain what you’re trying to accomplish,” Jeffrey Willis, CRMC’s executive director, said at a February virtual meeting outlining the rule changes. “Try to work out some of the kinks there.”
The new rules are part of state coastal regulators’ efforts to navigate the disputes between the shellfish growing industry and opponents of particular projects. Though CRMC has always had some notification and public input, this is more formal and earlier in what can be a years-long and contentious application process.
On both sides of these disputes, people accuse each other of trying to monopolize public resources for their own purposes. Opponents can include recreational anglers and nearby property owners, who warn of obstructions to recreation or unsightly cages and noisy equipment.
As part of its package of new guidelines, CRMC also announced rules calling for the use of lower-profile gear and at least 750 feet of distance between floating gear and homes.
What effect will these new rules have on the local aquaculture industry? Even within the industry itself, opinions vary as much as the taste of oysters from different salt ponds.
“We like the new changes,” said Travis Lundgren, a 29-year-old South Kingstown resident who works in the industry. “We don’t want to be on anyone’s bad side. We want to be good neighbors.”
Lungdren and Brad Boehringer were involved in a proposed shellfish farming project in Tiverton, in the Sakonnet River off Sapowet Point. Opponents rallied, and in a common refrain, said they weren’t given enough of a chance to weigh in. Lundgren and Boehringer have now withdrawn that application without affecting their ability to re-apply, which they might do through this more robust process.
“Nobody’s going to feel like we’re sneaking by them,” Lundgren said.
Another proposed farm in nearby waters, though, sees things differently. Brothers Pat and John Bowen are also trying to get a lease for an aquaculture farm in the Sakonnet River. Of the two Tiverton projects, the Bowen project was more controversial, even as the brothers tried to convince people that they’ve accommodated concerns about things like recreational fishing.
Though the new rules wouldn’t apply to them, because their application is already in, the Bowens said they could give the most wealthy property owners a disproportionate voice.
“It is concerning to us that the changes CRMC has made will likely result in the reduction of aquaculture in Rhode Island,” Pat Bowen said in an email to the Globe after the new rules were rolled out. “This decision would seem to favor waterfront property owners and recreational activities, (waterskiing, kitesurfing, jet skiing, etc), over the historic, cultural and economic significance and benefits of seafood production in Rhode Island.”
Opponents of these projects are uniform in their responses to the new rules: They don’t go far enough.
“When you actually see what they’re doing, the changes are very minimal, and they are just not enough to make the system work for us,” said Rich Hittinger, the president of the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association and a member of a House commission studying CRMC.
Notifying abutters within 1,000 feet of a proposed project might be fine for the person who owns property within 1,000 feet, but not for the person who lives on the other side of Rhode Island and travels to the Sakonnet River to fish — few of whom will be on the CRMC’s e-mail list serv, Hittinger said.
Michael Woods, the chair of the New England board’s chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, credited the CRMC with trying to do something, even though he didn’t feel like it would be enough to balance the interests.
“In a way, it’s saying these abutters have more of a domain over this area than the rest of the people,” Woods said.
Of course, aquaculture farms in Rhode Island produce more than just controversy. They also produce more than just oysters. But oysters are the bumper crop. Easier to grow than some species like scallops, they can be shucked and eaten raw with a squirt of lemon and cocktail sauce, cooked in a stew or fried and tossed in jambalaya. Those are just a few offerings at the state’s most famous pond-to-table restaurant, the Matunuck Oyster Bar, whose menu includes the word “oyster” 45 times.
As popular as it is, even the Matunuck Oyster Bar has run into opposition. Its owner, Perry Raso, has a pending application before the CRMC to expand his own aquaculture operations to 3 new acres in Segar Cove, a part of Potter Pond. The resistance has been fierce. The CRMC’s professional staff recommended that the Segar Cove project be approved, but a committee of its politically appointed council recommended against it. No final decision hearing has even been scheduled, Raso’s lawyer Beth Noonan said.
Despite these headwinds, aquaculture is a growing industry in Rhode Island: The number of aquaculture farms in the state increased slightly in 2020, from 81 to 84, with almost 350 acres under cultivation. Six million oysters were sold for consumption that year. It’s back-straining, leg-aching labor, often done in chilly weather. But people can make a living that’s sustainable in every sense of the word: Oysters and other bivalves are like natural Brita filters in the water, helping, not hindering, the fishing ecology, its proponents say.
With that growth, the technology has advanced in the last decade. Newfangled floating cages that bob above the water grow more shellfish than submerged gear. But the developments have also ratcheted up the conflicts, said Bob Rheault, executive director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association.
“It’s on the surface, it’s in your face, and the waterfront homeowners don’t like to look at it,” Rheault said. “It has become rather contentious.”
Rheault, for one, does not mind the notification rules. But he said the industry was not given enough of a chance to weigh in on other guidelines, like the use of lower-profile equipment. It remains to be seen whether they’re guidelines or ironclad rules.
“I can’t say I’m happy,” Rheault said. “They are quite restrictive.”
Brian Amaral can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @bamaral44.