A BRIEF HISTORY OF RHODE ISLAND OYSTER FARMING
The Early Years
In order to appreciate today’s efforts in farming oysters, it is useful to take a quick look at the history of the last 200 years. The “Ocean” State of Rhode Island is a good place to start. In our own lifetimes, profound progress has occurred, in part due to efforts by key Rhode Islanders. And it is still a State leading by creative example.
The history of Rhode Island oyster aquaculture began with the native Indians. Shell piles known as middens were left by them and remains are sprinkled along the coast. The Rhode Island story follows a similar trajectory to that of many New England seacoast states from Colonial times. Many of the European immigrants landed in the New
World with knowledge, skills, and an affection for seafood of various kinds. When they pursued a livelihood in their new country, they often attempted to apply their knowledge and extend it in new but similar endeavors.
The major rivers of Rhode Island empty into the sea at several key points providing the necessary brackish environment, climate, and food for natural C. virginica oysters to live. So the early task was simply to locate and harvest the plentiful supply. The “oyster farming” aspect consisted of profiting from the growth cycle and encouraging oyster growth in places where they could be more easily monitored and harvested. Young oysters were just relocated to a more convenient place to grow. Shells or other similar substrates were found that made a successful early resting spot for the spat to attach. Once the spat was attached, the substrate itself could be relocated.
Regulations pertaining to oyster farming were not passed into law in Rhode Island until the late 18th Century. The State did not setup a leasing system for oyster farms until the Oyster Act of 1844. Leases for farming in the various fertile locations sold for $10 per acre. It was the era of the Gold Rush in California and trains full of miners seeking quick fortunes went west from the east. Oysters were much easier to find than gold locally so the competition was great. It was an unruly
time and laws governing leases had to be amended to improve controls. By 1864 the laws were in place to allow the industry to prosper. By the end of the 19th Century, the importance of scientific research supporting oyster farming was recognized and established in Rhode Island. At its peak in the early 1900’s, there were over 20,000 leased acres – producing over 1.4 million bushels of live oysters.
As human populations of oyster consumers increased, the once fertile oyster beds began their long decline. There were several causes. Cholera outbreaks in cities dampened demand, the workforce went off to fight in WWI, and natural sets failed from Virginia to Maine for three consecutive years (1910-12). Then, as beds were being buried in silt and the industry was in decline, the hurricane of ‘38 took everything back to square one. Hatcheries were established in the 1930’s. But by 1952, the last oyster Rhode Island lease ceased production.
It took another 30 years for interest in oyster farming to rekindle Rhode Island oyster aquaculture. First in 1972 and then again in 1981, the statutes pertaining to aquaculture were reconstructed and updated. The modern era of oyster farming and creativity was about to begin.
TO CONTINUE, PLEASE CLICK PAGE 2 ON THE BAR TAB