July 4, 2022

House approves Ruggiero bill to contain outbreaks in aquaculture operations

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State House – Legislation sponsored by Rep. Deborah Ruggiero and approved by the House of Representatives today would speed up emergency closures of aquaculture operations by moving responsibility for them to the Department of Environmental Management (DEM).

Aquaculture is farming, and as such it is regulated by the DEM. But when an aquaculture operation poses a threat to the coastal environment — such as having become infected with a communicable disease — issuing a closure is currently the purview of the Coastal Resource Management Council (CRMC), which is a much smaller agency without DEM’s capabilities for swift action, since its decisions must be made at a meeting by its board members.

The legislation (2022-H 7540), which now goes to the Senate, puts the director of DEM in charge of decisions about how to respond to situations when aquaculture activities pose a threat to public health or the environment, and spells out an appeals process to protect aquaculture farmers.

The legislation was sought by the Rhode Island Shellfishermen’s Association to defend against a non-native clam disease, neoplasia, which was identified in two aquaculture ponds in southern Rhode Island in 2020.

“Both shellfishing and aquaculture are important industries in our state. If there is a contamination, it can’t wait for a meeting of CRMC — it has to be addressed immediately. We don’t want a toxin from oyster beds disrupting the shellfish industry. This is likely to be more of an issue as our aquaculture sector grows, and as climate change continues to impact coastal areas with flooding and polluting runoff from land. This legislation will help contain contamination much more quickly and effectively, while also protecting farmers by creating an appeals process,” said Representative Ruggiero (D-Dist. 74, Jamestown, Newport).

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