Owner: Rob Krause
Oysters raised: Charlestown Salts, Ninigret Cups
Farm size: 2 leased sites totaling 3 acres
Location: Ninigret Pond, Charlestown, RI
A Close-Knit Community
After earning a Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Science and Biology from Springfield College in Massachusetts, Rob Krause moved to Rhode Island with plans to start an oyster farm. He took graduate courses in Aquaculture at the University of Rhode Island and during this time, he worked on Moonstone Oyster Farm with John West, who now owns and runs the Cedar Island Oyster Farm with his wife Cindy. The two worked together for six years, and now as owners of independent farms and both members of the Ocean State Shellfish Cooperative, remain close friends.
“We’re part of a tight community of (oyster) growers, even with other local growers who don’t belong to the cooperative. We don’t see each other as competition.”
– Rob Krause
Circle of Friends
Rob’s farm, Ninigret Oyster Farm, is one of three farms located on Ninigret Pond, a stunningly beautiful pond with waves of the Atlantic visible just beyond the protective barrier beaches that frame it. Along with the owners of the other two farms, Nick Papa and Jim Arnoux, they share not only the pond, but a strong friendship. In addition to running independent oyster farms, the three farmers work together to help one another whenever the need arises. They also attend charitable events together, like the Annual Milford Oyster Festival, put on by the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association. They donate their oysters and their time to at least ten local events every year. If you attend the annual champagne and oyster fundraising event for the Salt Ponds Coalition, you’ll likely see them shucking about 1000 of their delicious oysters for lucky attendees.
Three Farms, One Nursery
The only nursery on the pond, the nursery raft is originally part of the oldest oyster farm in Rhode Island, which was established in 1977. While ownership of the nursery belongs to Rob Krause, farmers Nick and Jim also use the nursery to raise their seed, and they pitch in to maintain the raft and its systems. The nursery holds 50% of Rob’s gear, and at the height of summer, demands about 90% of his time.
Once oyster seeds reach 2 mm in size, to accelerate their growth they are moved to the upweller system which is built into the raft. Mounted along the raft’s south-facing side, solar panels harness energy to power pumps which push pond water through troughs in the raft’s upweller system where very young oysters are held. Oysters experience the fastest growth in their first five to six weeks. Twice a week in the summer, the nursery stock is sifted and sorted. Faster growing oysters are moved to new containers so that the slower growing oysters can have better access to the food they need for growth. After about a year, oysters are moved from the nursery to cages, or are placed loose on the pond’s bottom.
Located in a “no wake zone,” the raft’s walkways sit almost even with the surface of the pond. Local boaters are respectful of the farmer’s site and gear, taking care not to disturb the raft. Prior to the arrival of a hurricane or large storm, Rob will move the raft from its open water spot and into one of the pond’s coves for protection from wind and wave action.
The Life of a Farm-Raised Oyster
It takes 15 -28 months for an oyster to grow to market size. Seed starts out on the nursery raft. From the upweller system, oysters are moved to floating screens (netted bags). By the time an oyster reaches one inch in size, it is placed in cages. Once it reaches 2 inches in size, it is moved into hanging cage systems near the raft that use stackable trays. For the final stage of growth, oysters are moved to one of the other sites on the pond and about 50% are placed in cages and 50% are placed loose on the bottom. There’s no need to dredge the bottom when harvesting the oysters. The oysters are harvested by hand since the water is shallow, averaging only about 2-3 feet in these areas.
Oysters make up about 95% of Rob’s crop. He also grows soft shell clams (steamers) and hard shell clams (quahogs) which he sells at local farmer’s markets. Rob is grateful that oyster demand seems to remain high, despite the down economy.
In the winter of 2010, a foot of ice had formed on the pond. For this reason, Rob drives a boat that’s made of aluminum. With the metal boat, he can cut a small channel through the ice and keep it open for a few weeks if necessary, to allow the farmers access to their sites.
In that same year, excessive seaweed growth covered everything on the bottom of the pond. According to Rob, the seaweed doesn’t seem to impede the oysters’ growth, but it becomes a nuisance when handling and sorting the oysters and when maintaining the gear.
Creating a Reef in the Pond
All of the members of OSSC participate in reef restoration projects funded by the USDA. Most of the growers are planting oysters in areas that are in the same body of water as their farms, at growing sanctuaries designated by the Department of Environmental Management. Oyster larvae attach themselves to empty shells in a lab. The farmers take these oysters attached to shells back to their farms and raise them until they grow to about an inch in size. At this point, the oysters and shells are ready for planting. Every year, Rob and the other two farmers on the pond plant these oysters in piles measuring 10 feet square within established reef sites.