RAW NUMBERS: Jim Arnoux, owner of East Beach Farm, said his lease for the small area in Quonochontaug Pond is one way to grow and protect his oyster business. More than 6 million Rhode Island oysters were sold for consumption in 2013.
Oysters, which account for about 98 percent of all Rhode Island aquaculture products, increased in value by 49 percent in 2013 compared to the previous year, according to David Beutel, aquaculture coordinator for the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council.
That growth is in farm gate value, which is what the farmer gets for selling the product to the dealer, which was about 65 cents per oyster last year, said Beutel. That price can be higher than 65 cents when oyster farmers sell directly to restaurants, he said.
The farm gate value reached $4.2 million in oysters for consumption in 2013. Additional value from oyster-seed sales brought the combined value of Rhode Island aquaculture products to about $4.4 million, according to CRMC’s “2013 Annual Status Report on Aquaculture in Rhode Island,” authored by Beutel.
Demand is strong – 6.4 million Rhode Island oysters were sold for consumption in 2013.
“Rhode Island farmers are getting better at producing oysters. The farms are more efficient than ever,” said Beutel.
Growth of the industry in the past six years reveals that the recent upward trend is consistent.
The state had 34 aquaculture farms in 2009 and 37 in 2010. The number of farms reached 50 in 2012 and 52 last year.
“I anticipate continued steady growth,” said Beutel. “It won’t be skyrocketing because of the process involved and the time it takes for an application for a lease. We’re leasing out public lands.”
All aquaculture leases in Rhode Island are on submerged state land, whether in ponds or in Narragansett Bay, said Beutel. An application that moves along smoothly could take six months because of the long list of agency and organizational reviews required, and if there is opposition, public comment adds to the application time.
That opposition has ranged from concern about oyster farms limiting recreational activities, which are generally not much impacted, to one actual objection because, “My dog swims there,” said Beutel.
Despite a lengthy application process and the few years it usually takes to work out the kinks and get a mature oyster crop on a sustainable schedule, the number of aquaculture farm workers increased 21 percent in the state last year. Rhode Island had 127 aquaculture workers in 2013, up from 105 the previous year, said Beutel.