The decline of natural oyster communities in Rhode Island waters is not just bad news for shellfish lovers. Oysters play a critical ecological role and by filtering water, keeping it clean.
To reverse the effects of overfishing and habitat change, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service is working with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and local shellfish growers to restore oyster reefs in protected water bodies, like Bissel Cove in North Kingstown.
That is why NRCS employees and a DEM contractor were out on Bissel Cove one chilly October day: to oversee the deployment of live oyster seed onto reefs made of cultch, which is a mass of empty shells that the young oysters will attach themselves to.
The deployment involves shellfish growers dumping containers of oysters overboard from their boats in designated places throughout the cove.
“Each of the oyster growers – and there are four or five oyster growers in this pond – have their square or rectangular shaped plot, which is determined by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management,” explained Ghyllian Conley, soil conservationist for NRCS.
“Last week we deployed the cultch, which are just dry, clean shells, to create the reef,” added Ghyllian. “And, today we're out here with the growers deploying the live oysters. They've been growing their stock of oysters on the side for us – approximately 45 totes worth – for the last few months and now they're on average over an inch.”
Jim Turenne, NRCS assistant state soil scientist, explained that the oysters need substrate on which to grow. “It's either a hard bottom or rocky shoreline or, in this case, the reef that we're building,” Jim said. “Without a substrate, you're not going to get oysters or scallops to attach. So, that's what we're doing here.”
“The increased structure off the bottom provides good habitat for small fish, helps them avoid predation, and provides a resource for them, as well,” said Patrick Barrett, fisheries specialist for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, working under contract with the state DEM. “Hopefully, with the concentrated effort of re-seeding and improving the habitat, we can help restore the oyster population, as well as provide habitat for these fish.”
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