By Sarah Schumann
Brawley and assistant Katie Martin with some of this week's harvest.
Over the last decade, oyster aquaculture has been one of Rhode Island’s fastest rising industries. But this flourishing sector is unlikely to experience much growth this year, says Graham Brawley, manager of the Ocean State Shellfish Coop. In fact, it may be among the local economic sectors hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Like most oyster businesses across Southern New England, the Coop sells 100 percent of its product into the raw bar market. “There is no other destination for Southern New England oysters,” Brawley states plainly.
Raw bars, with their skilled shuckers, depend in turn on dine-in restaurant traffic. With restaurants closed or operating at reduced capacity this spring and summer to slow the spread of Covid-19, oyster sales were a predictable casualty.
Typically, the Ocean State Shellfish Coop varies its business model with the seasons. In summer, when local demand swells due to coastal tourism, it sells most of its oysters to Rhode Island wholesalers who pick up directly from the Coop’s facility on Walt’s Way in Narragansett. In winter, the Coop ships its product to larger wholesalers serving out-of-state metropolitan areas. It was operating in winter mode when the pandemic struck.
“It was March 11,” Brawley recalls. “That’s the date that I remember when things just stopped.”
After receiving calls from wholesale customers who were suddenly stuck with unsalable inventory, the Coop made the difficult decision to accept returns and offer refunds.
“I brought oysters back, so that farmers could put them back on the farms, just to sort of help bail out some of the wholesalers,” Brawley recounts. “They had tens of thousands of oysters in their coolers, and they weren’t going anywhere.”
With springtime sales reduced to a trickle, the Coop -- which has six member farms but regularly purchased from up to fifteen farms before the pandemic – also had to decide how to allocate its limited sales opportunities.
“I had to scale back a little bit on the number of farms,” Brawley explains. “I had to basically say to guys who’ve been selling through the full year, I’m going to stick with you. But some of these smaller guys, I just can’t put it on my plate or on our list for that matter. Because it wasn’t like people were knocking on our door looking for new oysters.”
Thankfully, the partial reopening of restaurants over the summer threw a lifeline to the industry, says Brawley. “June, July, and August were fairly robust. There was plenty of demand for that local flavor and taste for the oyster, which was great.” But even so, the Coop’s sales never exceeded 60 percent of their typical summer volume.
What troubles Brawley the most is thinking about this coming winter. Although he expects a small uptick in sales during the holiday season, his outlook is generally bleak.
“In the winter, when the local market takes a significant dip, I can always count on New York and Boston,” he explains. “And I think that we haven’t seen the worst of it for New York and Boston.”
Accordingly, many oyster growers planted fewer seed oysters than they would normally plant for next year’s harvest, Brawley says. Many have postponed boat and equipment purchases or put business expansion plans on hold.
Federal relief programs like the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) have helped hold the oyster industry together at the seams. Many growers took advantage of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), enabling them to pay their crew to tend oysters and maintain gear even after as sales figures plummeted. Brawley and his assistant Katie Martin received Pandemic Unemployment Insurance (PUA) while furloughed this spring.
The CARES Act also helped alleviate one of the most vexing aspects of the pandemic for oyster growers: the fact that even though sales were on hold, nature was not. The summer surge in phytoplankton production provided extra nutrition for unsold oysters, and by August, oversized oysters taking up so much farm space that there was little room for next year’s crop. To make matters worse, these oysters had outgrown the raw bar market: their colossal size made them tough to shuck and awkward for customers to slurp down in a single dainty sip.
The CARES Act helped by compensating Rhode Island growers to plant their oversized oysters in areas with degraded water quality, in hopes of restoring wild reefs to support enhanced water filtration and fish habitat. This was a temporary expansion of the US Department of Agriculture’s Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) program, which works with oyster growers to seed spat-on-shell oysters on restoration reefs. The nineteen oyster growers who participated in the program received a combined total of $809,000 for their oversized oysters this summer.
This ups and downs of 2020 have forced Brawley and others in the Rhode Island oyster industry to focus on the importance of diversification as a strategy to buffer against future shocks. Brawley has a few suggestions to offer.
“I think that there’s an opportunity for small businesses to set up a commissary kitchen on this side [of the state], to give guys that may have ideas for value-adding their product an opportunity to do that,” he says. A commissary kitchen is a shared kitchen space like the Warren-based Hope and Main facility. There is currently no equivalent facility in South County.
But Brawley’s long-term vision for Rhode Island oysters goes even further, to what he calls “the big picture.”
“Our market is strictly part of food service, food industry,” Brawley states. But what if we thought of oysters as more than food? Building on the thinking behind the EQIP program, he suggests exploring additional markets for oysters that are based around the ecological services they provide: not just water filtration, but also protection from the harmful effects of climate change.
“Turning oyster crops from strictly a niche food item into a tool for environmental resilience long term is essential,” Brawley asserts. “Covid is here right now, but the changing shoreline is here for the next twenty-five years. What truly is this industry’s legacy? Is it just for a raw bar industry that clearly can be shut down pretty fast with a pandemic? Or does it become more of a solution? We should be thinking about building up our shoreline with some reefs that help in case storms come along. That would be huge. But that would take a different mindset that what exists right now.”
In 2019, the 81 farms comprising the Rhode Island aquaculture industry tallied $5.74 million in sales . This year’s figures will no doubt be quite different. But in Brawley’s view, if the crisis of 2020 can foster a more imaginative vision of what an oyster-based economy can look like, then perhaps it will have at least one silver lining for Rhode Island’s young aquaculture industry.
Total dollar value of aquaculture in Rhode Island, 1995-2019. 
 These figures include oysters, other shellfish, and seaweed. Oysters are Rhode Island’s main aquaculture crop. Source: Beutel, D. 2019. “Aquaculture in Rhode Island 2019.” Coastal Resources Management Council. http://www.crmc.ri.gov/aquaculture/aquareport19.pdf.
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