OUT OF THEIR SHELL: Aquaculture is expanding in Rhode Island, in part thanks to a growing number of shellfish farms in the state, Above, Jeff Gardner, owner of Shellfish for You in Westerly, harvests oysters in Winnapaug Pond.
In the Ocean State, it’s only natural that aquaculture is part of the economic mix. Even though fish farms – mostly shellfish farms – are only a small part of Rhode Island’s economy, there’s a vital point – the aquaculture industry is growing.
The Ocean State has 50 fish farms, up from 43 in the previous year, said Dave Beutel, aquaculture coordinator for the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council.
“There have been increases in production and better marketing. Last year our oysters were sold in 48 states and Canada,” Beutel said. Oysters account for more than 98 percent of aquaculture in Rhode Island, with other crops, such as littleneck clams and blue mussels, rounding out the mix.
There’s potential for other crops.
“Some people are working on seaweed,” said Beutel. “And there are experimental projects on bay scallops.”
Aquaculture’s farm gate value – that’s the value of products sold – was $2.5 million in 2011, said Beutel.
The slow but steady rise of the farm gate value, from $2.3 million in 2010 and $1.8 million in 2009, is obviously a welcome trend, with Rhode Island’s weak economy and unemployment rate of 10.4 percent.
Aquaculture, however, is not a quick road to steady employment, from the perspective of oyster farmer Jeff Gardner of Westerly. He’s spent 20 years developing his company, Shellfish for You, and his trademarked Watch Hill Oysters, which are sold in fine restaurants from Chicago to Palm Beach and San Diego.
“I sold my two record stores at a profit and my wife works, so that helped when I decided to make a life switch and start growing oysters,” said the 59-year-old Gardner, who farms seven acres of oyster beds, year-round, in Winnapaug Pond.
“I invest $30,000 a year in seed. To grow an oyster takes two-to-three years. In any new business, in the first three-to-five years, there’s a screw-up factor. So for maybe six years, you have to plan on not making any money,” he said.
Gardner has seen many working water men try to transition into aquaculture and said it’s not always a good fit.
“They are two different approaches. A fisherman goes out and harvests what he needs from the wild and he’s done,” Gardner said. “A farmer, which is what I am, goes out and buys seed and seeds the oyster beds.”