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The Shellfish Game
Aquaculture Spawns a New Breed of Fisherman

Times of the Islands Magazine, Cover Story Winter 1999/2000


The work of the Martha's Vineyard Shellfish Group is proving valuable in towns around the Northeast. "They have done a terrific job," says Sandra Macfarlane, shellfish biologist with the Southeastern Massachusetts Aquaculture Center.

photos by Betsy Corsiglia

"They are the largest, longest producer of scallops on the East Coast. It's a tribute to what can be done on a local level."

"We're almost a model," Karney says. "Lots of areas want to have something like it. The fact that this works gives a lot of people hope that they can try to do this elsewhere."

The Martha's Vineyard model may work only where several towns can pool their resources, however, and building such an organization requires a delicate political touch to balance the interests and needs of several, very different towns. A similar effort to build a public hatchery on Nantucket failed. The small island just couldn't pay the $250,000 annual price tag to support the endeavor, according to Nantucket Marine Superintendent Dave Fronzuto. The former hatchery, located in the old Coast Guard boathouse at Brant Point, is now used as a small grow-out facility for shellfish seed cultured from Nantucket brood stock at commercial hatcheries.

Aquaculture on the Vineyard
Another project of the Martha's Vineyard Shellfish Group is the Private Aquaculture initiative. Since 1995, the group has received federal grants totaling $500,000, part of a government effort to re-train displaced Georges Bank fishermen. The program has trained 13 islanders in the culture of shellfish. An important aspect of the training was field trips to aquaculture sites in the region. Karney says the fishermen were initially skeptical about the viability of small aquaculture, and the field trips helped them to see the realities and the potential.

One of the first trips was in the dead of winter to visit a Wellfleet aquaculturist who grows littleneck clams. "It was blowing a gale, and the wind chill…" Karney smiles and shakes his head as he remembers walking with the group of shivering skeptics onto the mudflats that day. "Then this guy kneeled down on the mudflats and dug a little square of mud like this," he holds his hands about 18 inches apart. "He got a bushel of littlenecks, and he took it off to market. That was it." They were skeptics no more.

Each of the would-be aquaculturists received technical assistance from the Shellfish Group and $15,000 in materials. At first, they all tried to grow clams, but met a disastrous run of bad luck. In 1996, their first year in operation, bitter cold, fierce storms, and an unusual explosion in the lady crab population resulted in 90 percent mortality in the cultured clams.

Undaunted, Karney advised the group to redirect their energy. "I said, why don't you play around with the oyster seed," says Karney, shrugging. "The oysters' growth was remarkable. Survival was remarkable."

The first substantial crop of farmed oysters reached market size last summer. Now that the start-up phase is complete, the group has turned its attention to marketing the gourmet delicacy to restaurants, fish markets, and distributors. "So far, so good on that," says Karney. "If they were up to a high level of production, everything they could produce would be sold."

At first, potential buyers might balk at the price of the cultured oysters: 50 to 60 cents apiece wholesale, but the quality of the product usually sells them in the end.

In advising the oyster farmers, Karney stresses that the key to success is producing a super-high-quality product and maintaining good relations with local landowners and town officials. "I tell them, 'We're growing microbrew versus Budweiser oysters. Go out of your way to make it aesthetic. Use the best management practices.'"

Because they are grown in cages suspended in the water column, the Vineyard- cultured oysters are cleaner and lack the muddy taste oysters grown in the wild can have. Before they are taken to market, the oysters are pressure-washed so the shell is clean and white, aesthetically pleasing for presentation in a raw bar.

No Smoking Gun
Even with the limited recovery of the bay scallops in some areas, scallops are in decline in many ponds and bays on the islands. The reasons for the crash in the late' 80s and the continued decline still elude scientists who are investigating the matter. There may be no smoking gun.

"That's the question to which nobody has the answer," says Macfarlane of the Southeastern Massachusetts Aquaculture Center, which is studying the phenomenon as part of a scallop restoration project. "I can't find any common thread, except that it's dramatic. The situation in Southeastern Massachusetts, with the exception of towns that do propagation, is dismal."

She notes with interest, however, that in a few deeper-water areas, scallop populations seem to be rallying.

Many credit the small but surprising recovery of scallop populations in a few Vineyard ponds, at least in part, to the work of the Martha's Vineyard Shellfish Group. Karney stresses that the Shellfish Group's hatchery cannot produce enough to replace healthy, wild populations, and the fisheries that rely on them.

"That's not going to keep this fishery alive here," he says. "We're maintaining a brood stock."

Aquinnah's Vanderhoop believes that seeding and the use of spawning sanctuaries, in combination with steps taken to control invading predators and protect eelgrass beds where scallops take cover, are behind the apparent recovery of Menemsha Pond's scallop population. He is optimistic.
"This is just a start," he says. "Hopefully, next year we'll harvest 5,000 bushels"-double this year's catch.

Fronzuto on Nantucket is less sanguine. Scallops there have been on a steady decline throughout the '90s in spite of continued seeding efforts. For the coming year, with assistance from the state, they will conduct studies of scallop survivorship in Nantucket's harbors and develop a computer model of circulation patterns and water quality in Nantucket Harbor with the goal of instituting measures that will improve circulation. Everyone agrees that, although both islands enjoy good water quality, preserving or improving water quality will be critical to the future of the scallop fishery, and shellfish stocks in general.

This will not be an easy task. With the U.S. economy in good shape, everyone wants a piece of paradise. The construction industry is booming, and out-of-work fishermen easily find jobs building houses. Demands on island waterways are growing, too. Edgartown Harbor, for instance, has seen a threefold increase in traffic in as many years, and Nantucket Harbor has added 800 private moorings since 1990, bringing the total to 1,800. Officials on both islands are determined to preserve the pristine quality of island waterways, while at the same time boosting the commercial and recreational shellfisheries.
Karney says, "Considering the pressures on this place, the water quality is really remarkable. There are a lot of people looking out for this island. I hope we can hold the line on this one."

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