by Betsy Corsiglia
The green water of the salt
pond glints as the morning sun peers from behind fast-moving clouds
and illuminates the low dunes. He sets two scallop dredges on the Aquinnah
side of the pond, and in just a few minutes he winches aboard the first
The mesh bag is filled with
clapping bay scallops, fat quahogs, seaweed, and the odd crab. As he
empties the bag on the culling board, he flashes a smile. It's a good
catch. Half a dozen other boats fishing in the same area, two operated
by Vanderhoop's brothers, are having similar luck.
In addition to being a shellfisherman
and running a charter fishing business in the summer, Vanderhoop is
the shellfish constable for the town of Aquinnah on Martha's Vineyard.
His father, William, held the job for more than a decade before Brian
took over three years ago.
"I'd rather be out
here working for myself than working for somebody else," Vanderhoop
says as he sorts the catch. "Plenty of shellfish, beautiful place."
He is a big man of Wampanoag descent with a boyish face and a ready
smile. He takes his job seriously.
Vanderhoop has reason to
smile today. The scallop harvest this year, more than 2,500 bushels
from the Aquinnah side of Menemsha Pond, is the best in over a decade,
and since scallops are scarce off-island, the price is the highest in
memory. The pond is also supporting a healthy quahog population, and
small-scale aquaculture of shellfish is growing here. Things are looking
up for shell fishermen in Aquinnah these days, but this has not always
been the case.
The early '80s were a boom
time in the bay scallop fishery on Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket.
Ponds and harbors on both islands were producing record harvests, and
supporting scores of fishermen. In 1982, Nantucket scallopers alone
landed 120,000 bushels.
Then something happened.
Vanderhoop says Menemsha
Pond yielded a record harvest in 1985. Then, from 1986 to 1996, the
scallops were 'just nonexistent," he says. The pond was closed
to scalloping. A similar
trend was reported in ponds and bays throughout the Northeast, and biologists
are still at a loss to explain why.
Scallop catches declined
at a time when the maritime communities of Cape Cod and the islands
could ill afford it. The collapse of the ground fish stocks on Georges
Bank was already forcing many fishermen into other fisheries--or out
of work. Most bay scallop populations remain in decline today, but they
are beginning to make a comeback in a few of the region's bays, harbors,
and ponds. These include Menemsha Pond, which is shared by the towns
of Aquinnah and Chilmark, and Lagoon Pond. Both ponds are on Martha's
Nestled among the oaks and pines on the shore of Lagoon Pond is the
solar-powered hatchery and tiny office of the Martha's Vineyard Shellfish
Group. This unusual organization, consisting of the shellfish departments
of five Martha's Vineyard towns, has been at the forefront of efforts
to confront the scallop decline with practical measures.
With a commanding voice
and an affable manner, Rick Karney, Shellfish Group biologist and director,
has a lot to say about shellfish. He has spent the past 23 years coaxing
scallops, quahogs, and oysters to spawn in the hatchery tanks with carefully
controlled temperatures and plenty of good food, then nurturing their
young until they are large and robust enough to be released into the
island's public shellfishing beds, a process called seeding. The work
of the Shellfish Group has become an example for other communities grappling
with shellfish management dilemmas.
Karney began working for
the Martha's Vineyard Shellfish Group in 1976 when the shellfish constables
of the island's six towns agreed to pool their resources to hire a biologist
to assist in their efforts to protect and enhance their shellfish harvests,
which at the time represented as much as 10 percent of the island's
economy. Scallops are a particularly important economic resource, because
they are harvested in the winter when service industry jobs are scarce.
As offshore fishing dried up, many fishermen were turning to scallops
to see them through lean times.
An early goal of the Shellfish
Group was to develop a hatchery program. It built a small shed to house
the fledgling project in 1976. The pilot shed is now dwarfed by the
hatchery building constructed in 1979. It uses active and passive solar
power to heat the building and warm the water for shellfish culture.
It was the first public hatchery of its kind.
"It hasn't always been
easy here," says Karney of the early days of the Shellfish Group
and the hatchery. Design flaws in the new hatchery and the fluctuating
commitment of some of the member towns were challenges. The
resolve and engagement of the island's shellfish constables, however,
were instrumental in seeing the project through this difficult period,
says Karney. "I really have to give them credit. They've supported
me to the end."
In 1980, the Shellfish Group
became a nonprofit corporation. Its board of directors is made up of
a selectman and the shellfish constable from each of the member towns.
Each of the towns contributes financially to support the program. Additional
support comes from grants, fund-raisers, and private donations.
Today, the Martha's Vineyard
Shellfish Group has a small, cluttered office and a year-round staff
of three. Last year it provided the member towns with 7 million quahog
seed, 4 million oyster seed, and more than 5 million scallop seed. The
one-millimeter bivalves are cultivated by the shellfish constables for
one year before being planted in the shellfish beds. In addition to
the hatchery, the Shellfish Group operates a scallop nursery on Chappaquiddick
in Edgartown, where seed scallops are raised in the clean and productive
water of Cape Poge Bay.
Over the years, Karney and
his associates have pioneered a number of innovative techniques to increase
hatchery production. "We are always tweaking the system to get
more animals to survive," he says.
The system uses no antibiotics
or chemicals, and it relies on selecting the strongest and healthiest
animals from the millions of tiny larvae in the brood tanks. The Shellfish
Group has developed several techniques for enhancing wild populations,
too. For instance, scallop-spawning sanctuaries are set up in many of
the Vineyard's ponds. These mesh cages protect adult scallops from predators
and hold them in warm, shallow areas most suitable for spawning.
On | Back to Clip Menu