"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
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
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
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
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
"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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