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OYSTER WARS

JOURNAL WATCHDOG REPORT

Antonia Noori Farzan Providence Journal USA TODAY NETWORK

As soon as you turn onto Seapowet Avenue in Tiverton, the bright yellow signs appear in quick succession. “PRESERVE YOUR RIGHT TO SEAPOWET WATERWAY,” they urge, from rustic stone walls and gently sloping meadows. “ACT NOW!!!” Driving past open fields, baled hay and old farmhouses until you get to the shingled summer cottages and grassy marshlands that sit at the edge of the Sakonnet River, you might start to wonder what could be threatening such an unspoiled corner of Rhode Island.

A nuclear power plant? A medical waste facility upstream from Sapowet Creek? A massive marina for 150-foot megayachts?

None of the above.

The specter looming over this tranquil coastal community is the prospect of two new oyster farms a short distance from shore — a move that opponents say would be akin to “putting a power plant in the Grand Canyon.”

Yes, oysters help to clean the water, and, yes, they’re the kind of delicacy that only tastes better when it hasn’t traveled a long distance to get to your plate.

But people with homes in the Seapowet area say the cages used for growing shellfish are ugly, and claim they will get in the way of people trying to swim, fish or kayak. They have nothing against sustainable aquaculture, they emphasize. They just think this isn’t the right spot for it.

See OYSTER, Page 14A

ABOVE: A plate of oysters, cultivated at Potters Pond, is shown at Matunuck Oyster Bar. Proposed oyster farms have sparked fierce opposition from coastal homeowners, with the latest battle lines being drawn in Tiverton. THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL

TOP: Brothers John and Patrick Bowen of Little Compton stand near the spot on Tiverton’s Sapowet Cove where they hope to put their oyster farm. ANTONIA FARZAN/THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL

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It’s a refrain that growers have heard again and again as Rhode Island’s oyster industry continues to make a remarkable comeback. From the Sakonnet River to the salt ponds of South County, homeowners are waging aggressive and increasingly litigious campaigns to keep the farms out of their backyards. And the stretch of coastline near Sapowet Point is the latest battleground.

“A lot of these people love to eat the oysters,” says Robert “Skid” Rheault, who faced his share of opposition when he began trying to revive Rhode Island aquaculture more than 30 years ago, and who now serves as executive director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers’ Association. “They just don’t want to see them being grown.”

Neighbors fear ‘industrial’ invasion of Sakonnet River

Kenneth Mendez likes to joke that he makes all his major life decisions based on fishing.

It’s only a slight exaggeration — he did spend more than a decade as one of the top executives for Trout Unlimited, the nationwide conservation group. (He now heads the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America in Washington, D.C.) And when Mendez and his wife, Liz, began looking for a second home that would serve as a family retreat and eventually become their full-time base in New England, they spent four years searching for the spot that would offer the best fishing. Upon discovering the Seapowet area, Mendez recalls, “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.”

Their new home was surrounded by miles of protected wetlands, and just a short drive from the Sapowet Marsh Wildlife Management Area, which offers public access to a small stretch of sandy beach along the Sakonnet River. It was a place where Ken could fish and Liz, who describes herself as a conservationist, could paddle her kayak.

They’d been there just two years when Mendez learned that two brothers from Little Compton wanted to start an oyster farm in Sapowet Cove — the same spot where he likes to wade out in the evening and cast for striped bass.

The farm would take up slightly less than one acre of the cove, and anyone fishing in that area would run the risk of snagging a line on the oyster cages.

John and Patrick Bowen, the brothers behind the proposal, say that still leaves the majority of the cove wide open for recreational fishermen. And one of the ecological benefits of oyster farms is that the habitat created by the reef-like structures leads to a greater diversity of fish in nearby waters, they point out.

Mendez frames it differently: The oyster farm is a case of private commercial interests encroaching on a public good, he argues. And as far as he’s concerned, the cove already has enough fish.

He registered his objections in a May 2020 letter to the Coastal Resources Management Council, which is in charge of deciding whether to grant aquaculture leases. But the farm continued to make its way through the approval process. Earlier this summer, with a final vote looming, the Mendezes began going door to door.

It turned out that most property owners in the Seapowet neighborhood had no idea about the plan. Ken Mendez asked the attorney general’s office to intercede and put the application on hold, saying that Coastal Resources Management Council staffers had overlooked what he saw as problematic aspects of the proposal and seemed to be “promoting personal agendas on behalf of the oyster industry.”

Neighbors followed suit, sending a flurry of letters to the CRMC and local media outlets. They began speaking up at public meetings, expressing concerns that an oyster farm would hurt their property values. And they joined forces with another group of residents who had been fighting a proposal to place a different oyster farm on the opposite side of Sapowet Point, uniting under the name “Save Seapowet.”

Sapowet Cove offers the exact conditions that oyster growers are looking for, acknowledges Richard Metcalf, a vocal opponent of the plan whose waterfront home overlooks the site that the brothers picked out. That’s led to fears that if one farm gets approved, others will soon follow.

“Once these two farms are approved, the Sakonnet River will change forever,” states the group’s splashy website, which features panoramic drone footage of the area. “These two applications are just the beginning. Without real notification to allow for community feedback, the industrial use of the Sakonnet is our future.”

In a little over a month, Save Seapowet’s crowdfunding campaign for a “legal defense fund” raised more than $12,000. A final CRMC vote on the brothers’ application, which had appeared to be on track for approval, was put on hold. “I have really mixed feelings about blowing up a fishing spot, and letting people know how good the fishing is here,” Mendez said. “In the end I just decided, for the greater good, we need to somehow publicize this.”

Oyster farmers: ‘We just want to do something good’

The Bowen brothers say they’re trying to remain positive.

But they’re growing increasingly frustrated by what Patrick describes as “rabid opposition” to their oyster farm that’s coming from people who typically spend most of the year in wealthy Boston suburbs or northern Virginia.

The Bowens are fourth-generation Little Compton residents. John, whom everyone calls Sean, has a small farm where he grows garlic and a day job at the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, where he teaches people about composting and aquaculture food safety. (The custom license plate on his compact Ford truck bears the word ALLIUM.) Patrick, who recently purchased a small apple orchard that he intends to run as a family farm, is a carpenter by trade and teaches at Fall River’s Diman Regional Vocational Technical High School. Between them, the Bowens have five children, some of whom hope to follow them into the oyster business.

“When we were kids, quahogging was still pretty productive. Lots of people were making a living bullraking for clams,” Patrick Bowen recalls. “But if you think of a kid growing up in Tiverton today, and wanting to stay in Tiverton, what kind of jobs exist for them?”

Part of the appeal of the Sapowet Cove site is that the water is shallow enough for the Bowens to wade out and tend to their oyster cages at low tide, which means they won’t have to rely on a motorboat. They already own a small quahogging skiff but would prefer to make the whole operation

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BOB BREIDENBACH/THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL

BOB BREIDENBACH/THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL

ANTONIA FARZAN/THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL

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carbon-neutral, they say.

They also envision bringing in students from local public schools to teach them about aquaculture. Maybe, Patrick suggests, middle schoolers in Tiverton could manage one cage as a class project — and then sell the oysters as a fundraiser.

Ideally, he adds, all the oysters grown at Sapowet Cove would be sold locally, rather than getting shipped up to restaurants in Boston. “We just want to do something good for the environment, for our children,” Sean begins.

“I hope that doesn’t sound too sugary,” Patrick cuts in.

‘Whipped up into a lather by misinformation’

Part of the Bowens’ frustration stems from their sense that opponents are deliberately conflating their farm with the one proposed for the north side of Sapowet Point, which would be three times larger and hasn’t gotten as far along in the approval process.

The larger farm would be run by two men from South County and rely on floating oyster cages, which tend to have higher yields. The Bowens don’t plan to use that kind of gear, because people often feel that it spoils the view. Their cages will be fully submerged, even at low tide, they say. But it’s easy to get confused: Both the Save Seapowet website and fundraising page feature photographs of black plastic oyster cages floating on the surface of the water.

And other objections that have been raised against the farm range from misinformed at best to fictitious at worst, the brothers say.

The Save Seapowet website warns there could be “unknown ecological damage to wildlife and environment in close proximity to the Seapowet Marsh.” That’s false, the Bowens say: The ecological benefits of oyster farms have been well-documented.

Opponents note that the cages will periodically have to be rinsed by a gasoline- powered pressure washer at low tide, and say they’re concerned about the noise and the smell. Besides, they say, what if low tide falls in the middle of the night? And won’t trucks coming back and forth to the small strip of land that the Bowens have purchased mean more noise, and more air pollution?

The Bowens say they’ll switch out equipment and clean it back at the apple orchard or the garlic farm, since the seaweed is good for the soil. They say no one will be working on the farm at night, and question how their trucks are any different from the Amazon Prime delivery vans that are a regular presence in the neighborhood.

Then there’s the argument that the oyster farm will get in the way of recreation at the small beach that is part of the wildlife habitat run by the Department of Environmental Management — and one of the few places along the coast where you don’t have to purchase a beach sticker.

“It’s not only those of us who can afford to live over here who are affected,” says Cindy Aber. “People come who have been living in tenements, just trying to get out of the house because it’s so darn hot.”

There’s no conflict between the farm and the beach, the Bowens say: The area is already too shallow for most powerboats and sailboats, and people can easily swim or paddle over the cages, or in the roughly 25 feet of space between each row.

Opponents say they know the area better, and they’re not convinced that cages reaching up 16 inches from the river’s bottom will be fully submerged at low tide. They worry that kayakers hoping to avoid the farm and nearby sandbars will head further away from the coast and encounter more challenging conditions.

Paddling through the oyster farm presents a safety hazard, they claim, because an inexperienced paddler could roll out of their kayak and get cut on the cages. They acknowledge that they are not aware of any instances anywhere in the country where recreational boaters have been wounded by oyster cages.

“That’s akin to saying that if you’re on a motorcycle and you hit a telephone pole, there shouldn’t be electricity,” says Patrick Bowen.

As far as fishing goes, it’s true that lines can get snagged on the cages, the Bowens say. But it’s just as easy for them to get snared by lobster traps, which lobstermen could theoretically put down without applying for permission.

“I think people have been whipped up into a lather by misinformation,” Sean Bowen says.

Bradley Boehringer and Travis Lundgren, the two men who applied for an aquaculture lease on the north side of Sapowet Point, didn’t respond to interview requests. Lundgren has written on Facebook that the Save Seapowet website is “almost entirely full of misleading and flat-out false statements about the farm we are applying for.”

The Bowens say they don’t use social media and aren’t interested in spending time trying to defend themselves online. Until now, they haven’t even talked to any reporters. But they did look into suing the creators of the Save Seapowet website, feeling that it was “clearly libelous” and could tarnish their reputation in the community, Patrick says.

In the end, it turned out they didn’t have much of a case. And though the Bowens considered hiring an attorney to get them through the CRMC application process, since their opponents were lawyering up, they decided to represent themselves as a matter of principle.

Otherwise, there’s a risk that oystering becomes the kind of “elite activity” that’s only accessible to people who can afford lawyers, Sean says.

Familiar opposition, but new tactics against oyster farms

Skid Rheault has seen this all before.

When he applied for an aquaculture lease in Point Judith Pond in the 1980s, decades after pollution led to the collapse of Rhode Island’s oyster industry, his file soon grew thick with around 600 letters from people who objected to the plan. Most were coastal homeowners, Rheault recalls.

“Invariably, the people who own these waterfront homes tend to be rather affluent and well-connected, and they have a sense of entitlement,” he says. “But they don’t own the water.”

Rheault eventually prevailed and went on to found Moonstone Oysters, which he ran for two decades before selling to a new set of owners. Opposition to oyster farms may be nothing new, he says, but the tactics have changed. For one thing, it’s becoming far more common for homeowners to hire expensive lawyers, allowing them to have a “disproportionate impact” on the application process.

Objectors used to claim that oyster farms would be a disaster for the environment, Rheault adds. But hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific studies have proven otherwise. As a result, oyster farm opponents are “grasping at straws” and making the claim that the cages present a hazard to navigation, he says.

It’s true that it’s a bad idea to steam through an oyster farm when there’s not enough space for your boat’s draft, Rheault says. But “the Army Corps of Engineers says if you can get from Point A to Point B, but now you have to go around an obstruction, that’s technically not a navigation hazard. That’s navigating.”

Disputes over how heavily an area is used for recreation also have a way of derailing the application process, because it can be difficult to determine which side is portraying a more accurate picture.

When Perry Raso of Matunuck Oyster Bar applied to expand his farm into what he categorized as a little-used corner of Potter Pond, neighbors gathered up family photographs and created PowerPoint presentations that showed people waterskiing, tubing, paddleboarding, kayaking and sailing in the area.

Raso responded with a 259-page document that contained photos taken at the same time nearly every day for three months, showing a pond that was mostly empty.

“People will say, ‘I swim in that spot every day,’ or ‘I walk by that spot every day,’” says Joseph Pinheiro, a Jamestown- based oyster farmer who runs the Sunset Beach Aquaculture Project with his father, Antonio. “I know they don’t, because I’m out there every day.”

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ANTONIA FARZAN/THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL

ANTONIA FARZAN/THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL

CHRISTOPHER STEDMAN PARMENTER

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Only so much room for oyster farms in Narragansett Bay

The fact that these debates are taking place across the state makes one thing abundantly clear: Rhode Island’s oyster industry is undergoing a dramatic resurgence.

In 1996, there were just six oyster farms in the state. Today, there are 84.

Twenty-five years ago, aquaculture sales brought in less than $84,000 annually. They now top $6 million a year — the vast majority of that sum coming from oysters sold for consumption.

Still, the current boom is nothing compared with the industry’s peak in 1911, when oyster leases took up nearly a quarter of Narragansett Bay. Today, there are about 356 acres of aquaculture leases statewide, covering about 3.5% percent of the coastal salt ponds and less than 1% of the Bay.

Many modern-day oyster farmers have found that the salt ponds offer optimal growing conditions. Responding to fears that recreational users would be supplanted, the CRMC in 2009 instituted a policy that no more than 5% of a pond’s total acreage can be used for aquaculture. Many assumed — wrongly, it turned out — that leaving the other 95% open would be enough to satisfy critics.

“I would like to think that most people would agree that, in the abstract, dedicating 5% of our waters to the production of sustainable seafood is a good thing,” Rheault says. “But when you take it out of the abstract and put it in front of someone’s waterfront home, it immediately draws fire.”

Only Point Judith Pond, which is at 4.9% capacity, is close to hitting the cap. Potter Pond, where Raso’s fight to expand his farm has dragged on for more than three years, is at 2%. But Save Potter Pond, the group fighting the expansion, argues that those numbers don’t tell the full story.

“I think that 5% is a very deceptive number,” says David Latham, who primarily lived in Brooklyn until last year but considers Matunuck his “spiritual home.” Most of the pond, where his family has a summer house, is too shallow for activities like powerboating, waterskiing and sailing, he says. By his calculations, the expansion would take up at least 30% of the “usable deep water.”

There’s no cap on aquaculture leases in other parts of the state, which is one reason that homeowners often fear that one farm will be followed by others. The northern shore of Jamestown’s Dutch Island Harbor, for instance, is now home to four oyster farms, at least two of which have been seeking to expand. Some residents have expressed concerns that there’s no clear limit on how much space should be devoted to growing shellfish.

“People say, ‘We didn’t buy into this,’” says Pinheiro, who ran into objections from residents who made the dubious claim that the oyster farms were responsible for an uptick in foul-smelling seaweed on local beaches. “They don’t understand aquaculture has been in Rhode Island for hundreds of years.”

People who don’t want oyster farms near their homes like to say that Rhode Island has hundreds of thousands of acres of water where the growers can go, but that’s not entirely true. Aquaculture leases can’t be in an area that’s used for quahogging or commercial fishing, or that is home to environmentally critical eelgrass. Shipping channels are off-limits, for obvious reasons. So is anywhere with high levels of pollution, which means that farms can’t be near a marina or a wastewater treatment plant, or in much of the upper portion of Narragansett Bay.

Get too far down the Bay, however, and there won’t be enough nutrients to feed the oysters. Dutch Harbor, just below the Jamestown-Verrazzano Bridge, is about as far south as farmers have managed to go.

That leaves a fairly small chunk of the West Passage, East Passage and Sakonnet River, plus the salt ponds. And farmers have additional factors to consider: Finding a sheltered area is key to ensuring storms don’t wipe out the cages, and being relatively close to a dock eliminates the need to use large amounts of fuel.

All that “invariably puts you in front of someone’s waterfront home,” Rheault says. Property owners who “value their view and don’t want to see dirty, muddy people” will try to push the farms further away from the coastline, which then leads to complaints that they’re in the way of larger boats.

“We’re trying to find ways to fit in that don’t inconvenience too many people,” he adds. “But it’s crowded out there.”

Both oyster farmers and property owners felt blindsided

In Tiverton, many of the people opposing the Bowens’ oyster farm see themselves as stewards of the environment.

They drive Priuses and Teslas and say they chose this neighborhood because it’s home to so much preserved open space, from the Audubon wildlife refuge to the potato farms to the statemanaged wetlands. A Saturday spent on the water involves kayaks, not jet skis.

They’re also quick to add that they’re not NIMBY — Not In My Back Yard — types. They may not live in Tiverton year-round, but that doesn’t mean they’re wealthy. And it’s certainly true that many of them were lucky to buy affordable summer cottages decades ago, back when middle-class families could still purchase a slice of Rhode Island’s shoreline. Those simple homes would go for the high six-figures now, if their owners were ever willing to sell.

Many say their frustration with the Bowens’ plan comes from feeling that they weren’t consulted — by the brothers or by CRMC staff.

In most towns, you’ll get a heads-up from zoning officials if your neighbor plans to make major changes to their property. But if someone wants to grow oysters within view of your back porch, the CRMC doesn’t have to mail you a notice.

Unless you’re in the habit of perusing the agency’s website or subscribed to its aquaculture listserv, you’ll most likely first learn of the plan when it comes up on a town meeting agenda or gets covered by a local newspaper.

By that point, the shellfish farmers may have already spent months or years adjusting their proposals to get the necessary approvals from agencies that you might expect (like the DEM and the Coast Guard) and others that you might not (like the Rhode Island Historic Preservation and Heritage Commission.) Many homeowners say they felt blindsided to learn an oyster farm might be coming to Sapowet Cove only after the plan had already cleared every regulatory hurdle short of a final nod from the CRMC, and the Bowens were closing on a small parcel of land in the neighborhood. The Bowens say they felt blindsided when objections popped up at the last moment, more than a year after they first applied for the lease.

Residents had even more opportunity to weigh in than they usually would, because the pandemic led to delays in the approval process and meant that public meetings took place online, the Bowens argue.

At a July CRMC meeting, agency director Jeffrey Willis said the council was reviewing its notification process. But it’s not clear that more advance notice would lead to the end of the oyster wars. Seapowet residents are adamant that no changes the Bowens could make would satisfy them — they don’t want the farm in their neighborhood at all.

Who has a greater claim to Sapowet Cove?

Central to the fight over Sapowet Cove is the question of whose wishes should matter more — the homeowners who are both emotionally and financially invested in making sure the neighborhood doesn’t change, or the farmers who live in the next town over but will still be out on the pebbled shoreline in their waders on a gray January day after just about everyone else has left for the season.

“We feel like we’re a target, because we’re not full-time,” says Liz Mendez of the Save Seapowet group. “Like we’re not legitimate.”

“We pay very high taxes in Tiverton for part-time use, and we don’t have any say in what happens in Tiverton,” adds Mary Dexter, who spends winters in Newton, Massachusetts. “That’s offensive to me, to say that I’m ‘just here parttime.’ To do what, to appreciate this beautiful area? Well shame on me for paying this extra money to live in this gorgeous area.”

Meanwhile, some question why the Bowens don’t just raise their oysters in their own town, suggesting that the farm will do more harm than the brothers are letting on.

“I can guess why they didn’t attempt to put an oyster farm in Little Compton — the many wealthy people who own/ live on the coastline would never allow it,” says one letter sent to the CRMC. “We Tiverton residents may not be able to match the wealth of Little Compton residents, but it does not mean we love our natural resources any less.”

Actually, the Bowens say, it’s just a matter of geography. Sapowet Cove is an ideal location for an oyster farm because it’s sheltered by the long spit of land that juts out into the Sakonnet River at Fogland Point, and there’s nowhere in Little Compton that would be as wellprotected.

Besides, they add, the two towns are so interconnected that they tend to feel like one — especially if you grew up living here year-round, cut off from the rest of the state by the water.

“We very much feel that we’re from here,” Patrick says. “We certainly wouldn’t do anything that runs contrary to the community and the beauty of this place.”

ANTONIA FARZAN/THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL

BOB BREIDENBACH/THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL

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