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Contested Point Judith Pond aquaculture farm heads to CRMC Tuesday

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Contested Point Judith Pond aquaculture farm heads to CRMC Tuesday

Sep 25, 2023 | 12:04 pm ET
By Nancy Lavin
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Contested Point Judith Pond aquaculture farm heads to CRMC Tuesday
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The latest battle over aquaculture farming in Rhode Island centers on a .6-acre lease in Point Judith Farm, where a proposal to grow oysters and quahogs has drawn opposition from neighborhood property owners. (Photo by Hugh Hastings/Getty Images)

Another day, another aquaculture war.

This time, the fight centers on just over half an acre in Narragansett’s Point Judith Pond, where shellfish farmer Andrew Van Hemelriijck wants to grow oysters and quahogs. But waterfront property owners say the aquaculture farm will make it harder, and even unsafe, for them to boat, fish and enjoy the pond.

Another consideration: The aquaculture lease within Point Judith Pond, if approved, would be the last available, since it will hit the upper limit of commercial aquaculture activities allowed in coastal ponds under state regulations.

All this is to say, the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) has a big decision on its hands, and it’s scheduled to make that call Tuesday night.

It’s hardly the first contested oyster farm to come before the coastal regulatory agency. Indeed, oyster and quahog farms have grown increasingly contentious in recent years, with waterfront homeowners, fishermen and, in one case, even the state’s aquaculture association rallying against projects they say interfere with waterfront recreation or commercial fishing activities. 

Meanwhile, the state’s aquaculture industry has blossomed, with seed and consumption sales valued at $8.2 million in 2022, up 11.2% from the prior year, according to the CRMC’s latest report. But finding space to grow them – without running afoul of neighbors or fishermen – is getting harder.

Van Hemelrijck, a South Kingstown resident whose family owns property along the pond, has already tested the waters with back-to-back, temporary leases for a much smaller aquaculture farm (1,000 square feet) from 2017 to 2020. His 2020 application allows him to permanently grow oysters and quahogs in bottom cages in a much larger area, according to the CRMC application.

Van Hemelrijck did not immediately return calls for comment on Monday.

A slew of state and local agencies have signed off on the project, including the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management Division of Marine Fisheries and the Rhode Island Marine Fisheries Council.

But a group of waterfront property owners on Narragansett’s Mollusk Drive are rallying to stop the project. Leading the charge are Roger Coutu and Maureen Hobson, who in a letter addressed from their Warwick law firm, cited opposition from 22 fellow homeowners who boat and fish in the area. 

“In its proposed location, the oyster farm constitutes a hazard to navigation and deprives Mollusk Drive homeowners and members of the general public of use of the Salt Pond as a community recreational space,” the letter, dated June 23, 2020, stated. “Given the desire to preserve the waterfront for public use to the extent possible, it hardly seems justifiable that the CRMC would grant an assent that is in opposition to the public interest, and more particularly, financially better an individual with no benefit to the state.”

The staff report includes 16 other, identical, letters from Mollusk Drive residents, all referring back to Coutu and Hobson’s letter for an explanation for their opposition.

Hobson and Coutu did not immediately return calls for comment on Monday. 

However, the report prepared by Ben Goestch, CRMC aquaculture coordinator, states the farm is unlikely to interfere with sailing, recreational shellfishing or other community uses.

But Goetsch stopped short of recommending council approval outright, instead deferring to the appointed, voting body on how the objections relate to state regulations.

If the council does approve the lease, Goetsch recommended adding conditions to limit hours during the winter season and require a $5,000 performance bond.

The CRMC meets at 6 p.m. on Tuesday.