A NEW BEGINNING: MODERN OYSTER FARMING
WINNING PERMISSION TO CHANGE
Michael Rice, PhD is a professor in the Department of Fisheries, Animal and Veterinary Sciences in the College of Environmental and Life Sciences at the University of Rhode Island. He received his PhD from the University of California at Irvine in 1987. When Mike came to URI, he soon met then graduate student Bob Rheault who had started a shellfish hatchery on campus nine years before and was trying to start a farm. In the ensuing years, the two worked closely together. Bob tells the story like this:
“When I first started as Spatco Ltd. In 1986, my business plan wasn't to raise a half‑million oysters a year for the restaurant trade. I was a young, idealistic graduate student at the University of Rhode Island's (URI) Graduate School of Oceanography. I envisioned Spatco as a small shellfish hatchery, producing scallop seed to replenish the wild stocks that had been wiped out by the "brown tide" algal bloom that virtually eliminated scallops from Rhode Island waters in 1985.”
He soon discovered that he had a problem – not enough food to hand feed the baby shellfish. He needed direct access to algae-laden natural waters, but could not legally place mesh bags full of baby scallops directly into the pristine Bay. So he set about trying to change the regulations. Eventually, he was granted permission to feed his baby shellfish in polluted waters as long as he agreed to complete the grow-out process in clean waters. It was only through accompanying minor experiments with baby oysters that he realized that he might be more financially successful with oysters. They grew well and tasted wonderful. He began growing oysters in lobster cages and with 50 cages, he soon had 60,000 market size oysters to sell. He sold them to restaurants and registered the trademark for them as “Moonstone” oysters. He eventually sold his original hatchery to URI.
Bad news followed. He was cited and fined by regulatory authorities for conducting illegal aquaculture without a lease. In those days, the notion of obtaining a lease for oysters meant dredging. The concept of obtaining a lease to place grow-out bags did not yet legally exist. The bags were there every day, just like raising vegetables on a farm! It took two years of political and legal fights to finally win his regulatory permission. He had to alter both the regulatory environment and gain the tolerance of the reluctant boating and fishing community. Much of the reluctance was based upon the previous problems of an oyster industry from a previous generation. Another portion was just fear of the unknown – “Not in my backyard.”
Being a farmer teaches patience and determination. Harvesting shellfish in the depth of winter makes you tough. Nature itself is a battle for survival. Like all successful oyster farmers, he learned to control shellfish diseases and solve grow-out problems. Until quite recently, Bob served a dual role as both oyster farmer and spokesman advocate for the industry. He finally sold Moonstone to his partner and is devoting all of his time defending an industry that he helped to establish. He serves as Executive Director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association and was recently appointed to NOAA’s Marine Fishery Advisory Council.
Remember Michael Rice? He continues in his role fostering oyster farming and teaching at URI. He has also pursued political interests. From November 2008 to January 2011, Professor Rice represented the 35th District in the Rhode Island House of Representatives. He is a former U.S. Peace Corps volunteer and has recently visited the country of Gambia to observe and assess oyster farming techniques, and help the Peace Corps train farmers. He has also been commissioned to review fish and fishery product regulations for the European Union. Sound familiar?
Bob and Michael are not satisfied to raise shellfish or even create a farm full of them. They have helped to pave the road and created a model for others to follow. Bob helped to create a Rhode Island coop for seven local oyster farmers. The State of Rhode Island now has a total of 48 oyster farms, 165 acres of leases, $3M+ in sales. The surprising average yield of $18K per acre belies the investments of time and equipment needed to reap the harvest.
Along with several other like-minded advocates, Bob helped establish the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association to represent the 1000
farms on the Atlantic Coast. The ECSGA gives a voice in DC to our elected representatives and regulatory agencies. At his new post with NOAA’s Marine Fishery Advisory Council, Bob is charged with advising the Secretary of Commerce on matters related to fishing and aquaculture. As mentioned, Mike is even serving to help perfect the regulations of the oyster farming community in other countries. Their efforts together are affecting millions of oysters around the world. Today, you probably can’t consume an oyster that they have not in some way helped bring to your plate.
In life you can seek fame, love, and wealth. Most times, you get two out of three. Like so many people of creative genius in any given domain of interest, these 2 guys have been satisfied to let others solve the formula for economic success. When Perry Raso came to Bob with the idea for a restaurant selling his own oysters at farmside, Bob expressed extreme skepticism. Like Bob, Perry invented his own vision for success, and set about to realize it.
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