UNCHARTED WATERS: A contractor from East Coast Construction uses a high-pressure hose to deploy oyster shells in Quonochontaug Pond for a project spearheaded by The Nature Conservancy. The oyster shells are from Newport Harbor Corp.’s restaurants and Matunuck Oyster Bar, which are collaborating with the group.
Wild oysters, with their craggy shells and the natural, complex reefs they grow on, are almost just a memory in Rhode Island – 99 percent of them are gone.
“What happened to the wild oysters? The answer is complex. No one knows exactly why they’re disappearing,” said John Torgan, director of ocean and coastal conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Rhode Island.
“There have been water-quality problems in salt ponds and estuaries,” he said. “It’s a combination of environmental conditions and over-harvesting.”
Rhode Island does produce plenty of oysters – those are farmed oysters, however, from the state’s growing aquaculture industry. Those oysters grow in more-regularly shaped shells that sit nicely on a plate on a restaurant table.
Demand for them is strong – 6.4 million were sold for consumption in 2013, according to David Beutel, aquaculture coordinator for the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council.
“There’s an appetite for boutique oysters on the half shell,” said Torgan.
While “boutique” oysters are important in their own right, Torgan is focused on wild oysters, which were once common in Rhode Island waters.
That focus is not just on the wild oysters, but on a broader and deeper environmental vision to restore oyster reefs, said Torgan.
Oysters have an important impact on water quality. A large, adult oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water per day, which not only clears the water, but also supplies vital nutrients to the reef, he said.
Oyster reefs also provide habitat for many species of marine life, including juvenile flounder, sea bass and tautog, he said.
Wild oysters are not completely gone from Rhode Island waters, said Beutel. “There are some spots where there may be oysters on concrete or rocks.”
Some of them, however, are in waters where shellfishing is prohibited because water quality would make eating them a health hazard, he said.
“I’ve found oysters as big as my foot,” added Beutel. “They’ve gotten that big because they’re in prohibited waters and no one can take them.”
And three years into a project called Oysters Gone Wild, which is restoring some natural oyster reefs in Rhode Island waters, the pace has picked up due to collaboration among The Nature Conservancy, Matunuck Oyster Bar and five restaurants owned by Newport Harbor Corp.