Oysters are big business in Our Backyard. The economic value of the shellfish farmed here jumped 24 percent last year to $5.2 million, and the value of the 2015 harvest is expected to reach $6 million – another double-digit increase. Employment grew by over 20 percent and the number of aquaculture farms is up 54 percent since 2010.
That kind of growth is generating a lot of attention. There are the recent inaugural Ocean State Oyster Festival, an international oyster symposium, and a seminar at the University of Rhode Island’s Metcalf Institute. RI PBS will even air a story about the Matunuck Oyster Bar, which harvests its own oysters on a 9-acre farm in Great Salt Pond in South Kingstown.
That’s a huge improvement compared to 20 years ago. Over-fishing and the introduction of diesel-powered draggers – prior to that, local oyster fishermen collected oysters by hand with tongs or rakes – led to the near extinction of the native oyster population. Now, that South Kingstown oyster farm and restaurant alone employs more than 100 people.
It is unlikely that the growth of the aquaculture industry in Rhode Island will slow anytime soon. Rowan Jacobsen, author of A Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur’s Guide to Oyster Eating in North America, sums up Rhode Island’s oyster industry: “As the area awakens to the glory of its local oysters, more and more growers are investing the time and energy to grow premium oysters, knowing that the market will reward them.”