BRISTOL, R.I. — Ioannis Miaoulis loves oysters. Back in 2016, even before he became the president of Roger Williams University, he ate 180 of them in one hour at a restaurant in New Orleans, a food challenge that got his name immortalized by the Acme Oyster House.
But he’d never gotten to see, so up close and personal and wet to the knees, all the work that goes into making them — until Monday, when he donned waders and joined U.S. Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse for a tour of RWU’s campus oyster farm.
And the big takeaway? Hard as it is to eat 15 dozen oysters, it’s even harder to make them.
“You wonder why it’s a dollar or two dollars [for an oyster] — it’s a lot of work, and it takes a lot of time,” Miaoulis said.
Reed and Whitehouse say their recent $1.6 million federal earmark for Roger Williams University will help make growing oysters and other shellfish more effective and accessible to would-be farmers. Reed and Whitehouse, who are both Democrats, supported the earmark. Their tour Monday to highlight the earmark included the oyster farm as well as the labs where they start growing oysters from scratch.
“It’s not just some money — it’s an investment in our productivity and our people,” said Reed, who added that it would be “shellfish” of him to not recognize Whitehouse’s support for the earmark.
Shellfish farming is, to borrow another pun used Monday morning on the RWU campus, a growing industry in Rhode Island. But there are barriers to entry. The rules around getting a lease to start a shellfish farm are constantly changing and can sometimes take a long time to navigate. And even if you’ve managed to get through that process, you also have to get totally separate licenses to actually sell the things.
Shellfish farms can be politically challenging, too. Nearby property owners have raised stiff opposition to projects in Tiverton and South Kingstown, for example, some of them citing the effects on views, traffic, and neighborhood tranquility. Outdoor enthusiasts from jetskiiers to kayakers to anglers have also raised issues about floating oyster cages and the effect that could have on water navigation and access. Even a proposal by the owner of the nationally recognized Matunuck Oyster Bar has been caught up in the state’s regulatory system for years because of opposition.
The $1.6 million federal earmark will help people who want to be the next Perry Raso of Matunuck Oyster Bar fame, so they can understand the complexities, the science, and the legal background, and grow shellfish safely, RWU says. It will be spread, like so many tiny oyster seeds, across different places in the university. Reed and Whitehouse got to see most of it over their two-hour tour Monday. It started in the water itself with Susanna Osinski, RWU’s shellfish field technician. She showed the senators a working oyster cage in the water.
“Oyster farming is a really sustainable way of growing food,” said Osinski, who grew up on a Long Island oyster farm. And with the federal money now in hand, “we’ll be able to help a lot more local farmers.”
Within the $1.6 million, there’s federal money for the expansion of university’s upweller systems. An upweller is basically an oyster incubator. The oysters have grown large enough where they can get out of the lab, but not large enough to survive on their own in the bay, so they keep growing in tanks while salty bay water — packed with their food — gets pumped in and out like the tide. The RWU campus already has an upweller on the dock jutting out into the water, but with the federal money now they’ll be able to expand it to allow local farmers to rent it out. That way, the farmers who might not have the space or resources for their own upwellers can mature their oysters in the university’s upweller systems, rather than having to buy their own mature, more-expensive oysters.
There’s also money to buy equipment for a histology lab, where they’ll be able to research and study diseases and pollutants that put oysters and other shellfish at risk.
And there’s money for the School of Law’s Marine Affairs Institute to do policy and legal research. Julia Wyman, the institute’s director, said they’ll be able to hire an attorney for a year to do research on what sorts of barriers aquaculture businesses face, and how to navigate them.
Much of this work is taking place now at RWU, already a resource for the industry and a training ground for people who want to get into it. But the federal earmark, supporters say, will help advance and expand the efforts of people like Kristen Savastano. A recent RWU grad, Savastano showed Reed and Whitehouse the greenroom where they keep tanks of algae to feed the very young oysters in the lab. She was wearing a T-shirt that said, “got shellfish?” After the work from the lab, where they start to grow oysters from scratch, to the bay itself when they’re older and ready to go out on their own, they would indeed.
Savastano, a recent graduate of RWU, said she might be interested in starting her own oyster farm some day.
“But first I would really like to get into researching more of the impacts that the environments have on these little guys,” Savastano said. “Because they’re very important.”