The Marine Fisheries Council, in a 5-1 decision, voted down Conimicut Point resident Bob Morvillo’s bid for a 3-acre oyster farm directly off his property in the upper bay.
Morvillo appeared before the council Monday evening, appealing to allow his plans for a sustainable oyster farm for an initial lease term of 15 years.
Morvillo testified on his own behalf, as did Warwick resident Jody King, who appeared in opposition to the proposed aquaculture farm.
“My particular venue is Conimicut Point, facing south towards Rocky Point, at condition ‘A’ area, closed approximately 60 percent of the time,” said Morvillo.
Morvillo focused on a recent shellfish survey conducted on the proposed 3-acre farm area, which produced one live clam. Morvillo highlighted the lack of shellfish in the area, in accordance with historical accounts, which he said is exactly why he believes his oyster farm would not only be a benefit to him, but to the health of the bay and the “wild catch” fisheries.
“It is a non-productive area,” Morvillo said. “I wish there was. I wish they had discovered millions of clams. They [shellfish] should be there doing their jobs.”
Morvillo proposed a sustainable oyster farm, seeded with a million and a half seed oysters, which he believed would produce a 30 percent harvestable crop.
Morvillo also mentioned the work being done by the state and federal government to improve water quality in the bay, particularly the water flowing into the upper bay from Providence. Morvillo noted that governmental efforts coupled with the natural water cleansing abilities of the oysters would produce a sustainable farm, contributing to the rebirth of shellfish and natural fisheries habitat off Conimicut Point.
Although the council recommended that Morvillo’s application be denied, he felt the one vote received in the affirmative was a positive step in the right direction.
“I feel like I’m making progress,” he said in an interview on Tuesday. “I got one vote.”
Morvillo’s failure to succeed at the Fisheries Council level was not the last step in the sometimes-lengthy path to a successful aquaculture project.
“The Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) ultimately determines the outcome of an aquaculture lease application,” said CRMC chairman Robert Ballou. “Pursuant to state law, DEM [Department of Environmental Management] has certain responsibilities that it has to fulfill in making a recommendation to the CRMC, and the Marine Fisheries Council has a separate statutory responsibility.”
Each of the three agencies has a separate role in determining the viability of an aquaculture lease, with CRMC making the final determination. The Marine Fisheries Council was tasked with reviewing Morvillo’s application and determining whether the aquaculture activities proposed within were consistent with competing uses “engaged in the exploitation of the marine fisheries.”
According to Dave Beutel, CRMC aquaculture lease coordinator, the results of the shellfish density survey that Morvillo referred to were true.
“The people who conducted the survey,” said Beutel, “were fairly competent at digging shellfish and there really were very few shellfish.”
Jeff Grant, a member on the fisheries council and vice president of the Rhode Island Shellfisherman’s Association, provided commentary as to the Shellfish Advisory Panel’s unanimous recommendation to “not approve” Morvillo’s application.
“The basis for the objections of the Shellfish Advisory Panel was based on potential uses and past conflict uses,” he said. “This area is in the middle of the steamer management area – the Conimicut Point Steamer Management Area. Conimicut Point had a steamer boom several years ago and this is located within that area.”
The 3-acre proposed farm is less than 1 percent of the area designated as the steamer management area, according to testimony.
The area in question was an area where steamers naturally set and were harvested in the past. According to Grant, there are several theories as to why the steamers are not there now, including the two major hurricanes that affected the area in recent years.
“Basically, between fishing efforts and hurricanes, they have wiped out the Conimicut Point steamer beds,” said Grant.
Grant also said that there were objections from whelk fishermen who fish the area during a whelk run in the fall.
In opposition, Jody King, a former member of the council and chair of the Warwick Harbor Commission, who helped develop a plan for aquaculture in the state, testified that the lease wasn’t in conformance with appropriate aquaculture development.
“Part of the aquaculture plan that we developed was that as fishermen, as aquaculturists, as scientists and as managers, we came together and developed maps and charts of areas that were appropriate for aquaculture, its development, management and growth,” said King. “This lease does not even come close to the area that we set aside for this operation.”
King further testified that in his 20-year tenure with the Harbor Commission, they had never voted against an application such as Morvillo’s. King previously recused himself as chair of the commission to testify against the application, as did Grant.
King noted that the area was closed 60 percent of the time and that Morvillo would not be able to actively maintain the farm without a hired detail officer to provide oversight during closures.
King also cited concerns voiced at the commission hearing in May, mainly that the proposed farm is in an existing shellfish management area, the location is used by commercial and recreational shellfishermen, the use of the site might prevent others from fishing in the management area and the proposal would take shellfishing in the area away from others and would limit shellfishing in the 3-acre area to Morvillo.
Grant advised the council that the area in question was “on the hottest spot” in Conimicut Point where the best steamer harvest occurred.
“I really believe that this lease conflicts with the potential uses of the area,” said Grant. “The area is on a downside, but we’re hoping it will come back.”
The council’s recommendation to deny the application will be forwarded to the CRMC for consideration.