The Shellfish Commission meets with the CRMC

Ben Goetsch was present virtually at the February 8 meeting of the Shellfish Commission. Goetsch is the Aquaculture Coordinator for the Rhode Island Coastal
Resources Management Council (CRMC), and had an abundance of interesting information to share with Block Island shell enthusiasts.

Goetsch started by explaining a bit about what he does for CRMC. As the Aquaculture Coordinator, he keeps track of all shellfish farming leases in the state.
This involves inspecting all paperwork, doing field checks at farms, and making sure what’s allowed on paper matches what’s on the water. He checks the locations of farms to ensure they are delineated in the correct places and told the commission that all farms are now recorded with GPS coordinates “within a fairly tight tolerance”.

He explained to the group that most of the problems he encounters are solved by communicating with the farmer and encouraged the group to contact him if there is a problem.
“It always helps to have extra eyes and ears,” he said. He also mentioned that there is an enforcement branch of the CRMC for serious breaches.
Although Block Island is quite a distance from the rest of the operations he follows, Goetsch said he plans to go out this spring to meet harbor master Kate McConville and check out the Great Salt Pond.
The state has a five percent coverage rule for aquaculture, which means that only five percent of a particular water body listed in the state’s Salt Pond Special Area Management Plan can be devoted to aquaculture. This dictates the number of leases Goetsch can authorize and where they can be located. Goetsch informed the group that the Great Salt Pond was not on the CRMC’s Salt Pond Special Area Management Plan and therefore was not subject to the Five Percent Rule. This surprised some members of the commission, but all agreed that the traffic on the pond, as well as access problems, kept the number of applications for shellfish farms low anyway.

The Five Percent Rule came into effect in 2009 as a way to manage “carrying capacity” in Rhode Island ponds and bays. Carrying capacity is the maximum amount of shellfish culture that can occur without unacceptable ecological impact.
Since 2009, however, Goetsch told the group that other studies had been done that put the true number closer to 40% coverage before there were negative ecological impacts. He said the 5% aquaculture coverage was more of a “social carrying capacity” because there are other uses of the state’s ponds and bays, such as recreation, fishing and recreational shellfish angling. .

As often happens at Shellfish Commission meetings, the conversation turned to the re-establishment of clams in the GSP. While acknowledging that the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) “is responsible for the restoration,” Goetsch provided some information on the subject. He said that from what he had observed, many efforts throughout New England had been “hit or miss.” In addition to “harvesting pressures” and other factors such as predation, Goetsch said “the acidification of our sediments” also plays a role.
Saying the “ancients” knew by taste, with sour-tasting acidic sediment, Goetsch said the extremely thin shell of soft-shelled larvae can dissolve in acidic sediment faster than it can regrow.

President George Davis said he thought there was “acid soil here”.

Goetsch explained that this is a common problem, often caused by an algae bloom that becomes too dense, causing the lower parts of the plant to die, sink to the bottom and rot. Decaying algae creates sulfuric acid, which can contribute to the “low tide smell”. For Goetsch, this indicates an “unbalanced ecosystem” because the nutrients in the water nourish the algae, but there are not enough animals to eat the algae before it rots.

There are several solutions for “acid soils”. One is to stir up the bottom with bull rakes, which Goetsch says might help. He said other places in the country were stirring up sediment using hydraulic dredging. Although hydraulic or mechanical dredging of shells can significantly stir up sediment, it is prohibited in Rhode Island. Goetsch said it was banned after World War II in favor of hand fishing as a way to promote as many people working in the industry as possible. Outlawing
of mechanical dredging created a situation where “a guy, a rake, and a boat could be a business,” Goetsch explained.
While using bull rakes to stir up the soil at the bottom of the pond is a solution to acidification, Goetsch offered another option: raising the pH through the return of spent shells. Chris Warfel spoke about the public and said he had been pushing for a shell collection program for years, saying many restaurants currently throw the shells in the trash.
Goetsch said that to use the shells in this way, it is necessary to sort them and let them sit outside for at least six months. During this time, he said the pile needed to be turned occasionally to ensure even decomposition of the remaining meat stuck to the shell.
“You can’t put rotten oysters back (in the pond),” Goetsch said. He said the shells can also serve as a “basic substrate” on which other oysters can land, and used shells can also be taken to hatcheries to put oyster larvae back on. Goetsch said these placed oysters would not become “pretty, like restaurant quality,” but would still do the “same eco-friendly job.”
The Shellfish Commission ended the meeting by authorizing expenditures of up to $1,000 for the acquisition of seeds, pots and nets for the purpose of growing clams in the Great Salt Pond.

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