Shellfish Commission, Sun Farm Oysters reach agreement

Fri, 02/21/2020 - 2:30pm
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Sometimes the process works, and to the benefit of all. In January, the Shellfish Commission began the process of reviewing a request from Sun Farm Oysters, owned by Chris Warfel, to relocate a portion of his aquaculture lease in Trims’s Pond.

At the Shellfish Commission’s meeting on January 21, Warfel explained to the commissioners that a portion of his lease had a bottom that was too mucky and he wished to give up that area in exchange for a shallower, sandier area closer to the shore. The Commission’s initial concern was whether the move would take over an area popular among recreational clammers.

The Shellfish Commission doesn’t actually have any jurisdiction over the matter – that is the purview of the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council, but they do have the right to weigh in on the matter by forwarding their thoughts to the Town Council, which can, in turn, forward those to the CRMC. Members of the public are also able to send their comments directly to the CRMC.

Comments are then considered by the CRMC in what is known as a preliminary determination meeting. Based on the meeting, Dave Beutel, aquaculture coordinator for the CRMC, makes recommendations, as necessary, for the applicant to make changes or modify the application. If any notable matters emerge, the application may be sent out for a public hearing.

At the conclusion of the Shellfish Commission’s Jan. 21 meeting, members decided to go for a walk in Trim’s Pond to explore the area, paying particular attention to the state of the bottom. The plan was to reconnoiter on January 28 to formulate their comments for the CRMC.

New commission member Jon Berry took the exploration one step further. Using both high tech, and low tech, Berry overlaid a map of Trim’s Pond with colored zones classifying the relative muckiness of the bottom.

The high tech was the use of the Strava app on his phone to record the GPS coordinates of the areas as he “walked a rough grid pattern in the pond. Whenever the consistency changed, I would make a note of the time and the new consistency.”

The low tech was how Berry determined his classifications, which range from “easiest to walk in” to “extreme sinking when I worried I would get stuck if I stayed still. Walking was difficult and required varied movements to extract foot from mud for next step.”

The resultant map indicated that there were areas of the Sun Farm lease that, although not currently used, potentially could be, as the bottom was firmer.

When it came time to formulate their comments to the CRMC at the meeting on Jan. 28, the commissioners present were clearly frustrated by the lack of a quorum to discuss the matter. One commissioner was ill, and one had to recuse. It would be their last to chance to meet before the CRMC’s preliminary determination hearing on Feb. 6., and there would be no time to send their recommendations or concerns to the Town Council.

Not to be deterred, commission member George Davis attended the CRMC hearing as an individual. He reported back to the Shellfish Commission at its meeting on Feb. 11. Earlier that morning, Davis said he had received a summary of the meeting from Beutel.

There were five things that Warfel needed to do, according to Davis. These include finalizing coordinates and calculating areas for the lease changes. But, most importantly, and based on changes Warfel has made to his application, the matter will now be considered as a modification of the original lease as opposed to a brand-new lease application.

“I’m no longer asking for a new area,” said Warfel, “so it’s not a new lease.”

Based on the work of Berry, and at the suggestion of the Commission, Warfel has decided to reconfigure his work areas within his existing lease, instead of moving part of the operation to another location.

Warfel said he “wanted to compliment you. In this process I did learn I had better area. I appreciate it.”

As for the problem with the tight, 30-day timeframe for comments and advisories to be formulated, approved, and sent to the CRMC, Davis said that Beutel told him that the Town Council could ask the CRMC for an extension of the 30-day period, as long as it was made within that period.

The Shellfish Commission then turned from oysters to clams. Based on the discovery of defective clamshells by Jon Grant a few months ago, the commission is considering transplanting clams from certain areas. The defective clams showed significant shell deterioration although the meat inside was still good. The problem was determined to be a result of the combined effects of ocean acidification and a stagnant bottom.

There was a lot of discussion on the merits of moving the clams, and whether it would need to be done with a bull rake, or a clam dredge. Either way would help to aerate the bottom; however, Davis said: “Right now, under town regulations, dredging is prohibited.”

Commissioner Wendell Corey suggested working with maps and charts to “say this is the area want aerated.”

Commissioner Sadie Flateman had concerns about disturbing the bottom and if there were any negative environmental effects.

“Yes, there will alteration to the bottom,” said Davis. “In this instance the long-term effects [better clam habitat] outweigh the short-term effects.”

“I look at it like aerating a garden,” said Corey.

“It could be another way to get rid of debris on the bottom,” said commissioner Ray Boucher. “So, we have things to look into.”

One of those things will be whether the Department of Environmental Management, which has done some transplant work in Narragansett Bay, can be utilized. “Maybe make it a research project,” said Davis.