New oyster sanctuary being developed

Using shells from Block Island restaurants
Sat, 08/05/2017 - 6:45am
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A $136,000 incentive-based grant from the USDA Resource Conservation Service of Rhode Island will aid in the development of a new oyster reef sanctuary in the Great Salt Pond, using shells collected from Block Island restaurants.

Chris Warfel, owner of Sun Farm Oysters, is the recipient of the funding and is building the sanctuary, which is part of a statewide NRCS oyster restoration initiative designed to restore the functions and values of oyster reefs by creating new reefs in approved areas in the state. The project has not yet received permitting approvals. 

Walter Marshall, a spokesman for the NRCS, told The Block Island Times that, “Sun Farm Oysters, LLC has been awarded an Environmental Quality Incentives Program contract for $136,000. The contract was awarded in Sept. of 2016 and is for five years.” The funding is per Rhode Island’s Oyster Restoration Initiative under the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.   

Dave Beutel, an aquaculture coordinator for the Coastal Resources Management Council, said, “The CRMC does not have a reason to deny a permit for reef construction at this location.” Although the project has not been permitted yet, Beutel said, “I expect that the project will be permitted at some point.”

Warfel said the reef is being developed using 3,000 pounds of shells, a combination of oyster and clam shells, collected from Block Island’s restaurants and the Sun Farm Oysters farm. The oyster sanctuary project will be the second reef developed by Warfel’s Sun Farm Oysters in the Great Salt Pond.

According to its website, the Rhode Island NRCS states that, “Oyster reefs and beds (reefs) provide an essential ecological habitat and are an integral and critical component of restoring coastal habitat. In addition to serving as a high protein food source for migratory waterfowl and other marine organisms, the water filtering capacity of healthy and abundant oyster beds can improve water quality, as well as water clarity.” 

“It is anticipated that oysters in the sanctuary will spawn and populate the Great Salt Pond,” said Warfel. “It will be a self-sustaining spawner sanctuary that will help improve the pond’s water quality and hopefully provide oysters for the Island's residents.”

An oyster reef sanctuary “is a reef constructed of shell and spat on shell that will eventually grow into a nearly monolithic assembly of oysters and shell held together by the oyster's natural predisposition to secrete calcium to adhere to a substrate,” said Warfel, noting that the shells “will act as a base, and they will be used in a nursery to serve as the surface that baby oysters (spat) will attach to.”

Warfel said his company collected oyster and clam shells for the past three years “hoping to be selected” by the NRCS for the sanctuary project. “We collected the shells from several restaurants, with Finn’s being the biggest contributor,” he said. “We also collected the shell off our own farm.”

The shells were “bagged into 10-pound sacks and brought to a nursery and placed in large tanks where oysters spawn and progeny (spat) attach to the Sun Farm Oysters’ shell,” explained Warfel. “The shell with the spat was trucked back over to Block Island, and will be grown out in Harbor Pond until late fall. At that time, they will be placed in Cormorant Cove, and sequestered well into the future.”

Warfel said it’s important to note that the oyster sanctuaries “are protected from harvesting and disturbing. We know some people have harvested off the reef, causing damage. Please respect that it is off limits to harvesting. Years of work and much money will have been wasted. It will do far more good as a sanctuary, than as a quick fix for someone's dinner.”

Once the oysters have fully grown, and been transferred to Cormorant Cove, they will be available for harvesting by anyone “who can legally harvest them,” said Warfel.

Per the Town of New Shoreham’s shellfish brochure, harvesting of shellfish requires a license. Oyster season is Sept. 15, 2017 through May 15, 2018, and all oysters must be measured by a gauge and “measure three inches across the longest axis of the shell. The Town of New Shoreham is authorized by Rhode Island General Law to regulate the taking of shellfish and other fish in the Great Salt Pond.”

Fines for violating the town’s shellfish laws can range from $50 to $2,000 and be referred to The New Shoreham Police Department and Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. The shellfish brochure can be found at: www.new-shoreham.com/docs/ShellfishBroch.pdf.