Recent Trends

Owing to its unique geology, the NBW provides an ideal environment for shellfish cultivation, primarily of eastern oysters and blue mussels. This report focuses solely on the aquaculture farms in RI, as aquaculture in MA is mostly outside of the NBW.

  • Rhode Island defies the national trend of aquaculture decline: in the U.S. from 2005 to 2013, the number of saltwater aquaculture farms declined by 27% and acreage fell by 34%. During the same time, the number of aquaculture farms in RI increased by 91% and acreage grew by 90%. The value of sales in this time increased 489% in RI compared to a national average of 26%. Including non-NBW areas, the number of farms in RI increased from 13 in 2000 to 70 in 2016, and acreage increased from 30 to 275 acres. Of these 70 farms, an estimated 28 farms were within the NBW. This increasing trend is in part due to improved water quality in the Bay (NBEP 2017).
  • Aquaculture revenues are expanding: in 1995, there were $67,000 in sales (2016 dollars) in the NBW portion of RI alone. By 2016, this figure increased 40-fold, with over $2.8 million in sales (2016 dollars) (see graph).
  • More than just oysters: in 2016, NBW farms produced 2.2 million oysters and 27,000 lbs. of mussels. Since 2016, nine farms have expanded to also grow sugar kelp and this number is expected to increase. Currently, no farms produce fish.

Future Outlook

Shellfish in the NBW have a history of being affected by environmental pollutants, which has led to the closure of shellfish farms at various points in history. However, overall area open to shellfishing has increased in recent years due to improvement of water quality, specifically in the upper portion of the Bay. These improvements are threatened as climate change brings extreme precipitation, heat, and droughts, leading to increased stress on our oceans. Such conditions are exacerbated by increased development and more impervious surfaces, which causes polluted runoff into local waters, increasing the likelihood of toxic algal blooms which can affect shellfish. In 2016, RI experienced its first harmful algal bloom in history, which reoccurred in 2017. Outbreaks of Pseudo-nitzchia species, some of which produce domoic acid, a neurotoxin, can affect oysters, resulting in shellfishing area closures. While aquaculture has skyrocketed since 1996, this additional pressure will require farmers to consider innovative and adaptive strategies to continue the industry’s growth in the region.

Read the full aquaculture chapter

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