Bob Morvillo has lived most of his life on Conimicut Point, overlooking Narragansett Bay. He, like many from the area, recalls shellfishing with his family as a kid. Now, Morvillo hopes to help revitalize Narragansett Bay by bringing oysters back to Conimicut.
Morvillo hopes to have the state lease him three acres of the bay, a rectangular area directly in front of his property, so he can create a sustainable oyster farm that to produce 500,000 oysters every year.
“The sustainable part is what I am trying to express,” said Morvillo.
Morvillo says for Narragansett Bay to function properly it needs shellfish in the area, especially oysters, which he calls “nature’s water treatment plant.” According to Morvillo, who has been participating in Roger Williams University’s Oyster Gardening for Restoration and Enhancement (OGRE) program for three years, one adult oyster filters 50 gallons of water each day. He says if oysters are returned to the area, the overall health of the bay will improve.
Oysters are a keystone species, meaning they control the environment they live in by cleaning the water and providing habitat to smaller creatures. Morvillo says his farm will result in the removal of 250 to 500 pounds of nitrogen from the water, reduced turbidity, improved light penetration and water quality, reduced anoxia, improved species abundance and diversity, more habitat for juvenile winter flounder and tautog, crabs and other shellfish, and increased eelgrass recovery and wild shellfish harvest.
“Historically, naturally, there were millions [of oysters] here,” said Morvillo, who has done research to discover that in the early 1900s there were large oyster farms throughout the upper bay. He even learned from his neighbor that there used to be an oyster house directly on Conimicut Point. “Nature had a reason for the oysters to be there.”
Although he is not a trained biologist, Morvillo, who sells commercial real estate in Jupiter Beach, Fla., has been researching oyster farming, as well as caring for 20,000 to 30,000 oysters from Roger Williams University’s program in the water near his property. His son, Nicholas, is also an oyster farmer in Florida. Although Morvillo spends the winter months in Florida, he says if he does get permission from the state for his farm, he and his son will be returning through the winter to take care of the business.
In addition to his son performing much of the physical labor associated with oyster farming, Morvillo says his wife Laura will manage the financial aspect of the farm, making it a true family business. Morvillo sees himself as the property manager of the three-acre project. Since he is home most of the time, Morvillo says he has the ability to monitor the fields.
“I need permission from the state to become custodian or steward of the land,” he said. “It’s a big responsibility for me to watch this area.”
Additionally, Morvillo says he would probably employ three or four individuals for the farm.
“I want to grow [the oysters] and wholesale them,” said Morvillo about his plans for the farm.
He also said he would invest between $50,000 and $100,000 into the project over three years, purchasing oyster seeds, supplies from local vendors and other expenses. Most of his supplies would be purchased from local vendors such as cages, ropes and buoys, but because there are no oyster hatcheries in Rhode Island, he would need to look elsewhere to find his oyster seeds.
“We need a hatchery for indigenous clams,” said Morvillo.
Because the mortality rate for oysters is only 70 percent, Morvillo says he would need to put 1.5 million oyster seeds to maintain a sustainable crop of 500,000. He will also keep a number of oysters in the water for breeding purposes.
While he believes oyster farms have their place and can work, Morvillo does not discredit the hard work put in by the commercial shellfishermen in our area, calling them the backbone of Rhode Island.
“If I could describe a Rhode Islander, I would say a commercial shellfisherman. I want to work with them,” said Morvillo. His hope is to unite all of the parties for the health of the bay.
And he already has a great working relationship with the industry. He volunteers assisting the shellfishermen with their restocking program. However, he believes that to have a sustainable presence in the area the farming method is the way to go.
Looking forward, Morvillo will go before the Rhode Island Marine Fishery Council on Sept. 9 at a meeting at the Bay Campus of the University of Rhode Island, where they will recommend whether or not the state should lease him the land. After that, Morvillo does not know what to expect and is taking things one step at a time.