Student Survey Shapes Statewide Shellfish Study

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Commercial fishing and shellfishing , Shellfishing

Shellfishermen harvest in a newly opened area of the Oyster Pond in Chatham in 2014. FILE PHOTO

HARWICH — These days, shellfishermen have to worry about much more than where to scratch for clams.

They face competing interests within the industry, with recreational and commercial shellfishermen, wild harvesters and aquaculturists all competing for resources. And then there are the pressures from outside the fishery, in the form of shorefront development, other maritime interests, and those seeking to use shellfish as a tool for mitigating water pollution. They also need to maximize the fishery's economic benefits.

For that reason, a coalition of conservation and industry groups is working to form a Massachusetts Shellfish Initiative to maximize the industry's economic and environmental benefits. A team of graduate students has created a survey designed to gather information from those in the industry, and shellfishermen are encouraged to take the survey online. 

On April 5, a small group of shellfishermen met with the organizers of the initiative, which includes the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen's Alliance, the Massachusetts Aquaculture Association, the Nature Conservancy and UMass Boston. The session, held at the community center, was one of a half dozen being held around the state.

“Not everything in this plan needs to be necessarily statewide,” said Melissa Sanderson of the Fishermen's Alliance. But in other places, statewide shellfish initiatives have led to better research, easier relations among user groups, more public support for the industry, and the opening of thousands of acres of new shellfish grounds, she said. In Massachusetts, the initiative is strongly supported by the state Division of Marine Fisheries.

A strong shellfish industry can yield many public benefits, from jobs and food to improved shoreline habitat and water quality, “but getting to those many benefits often requires trade-offs,” Sanderson said. To prioritize the industry's goals, UMass doctoral students have created an online survey for shellfishermen, available by clicking here.

The survey hopes to identify four to eight major issues to be addressed through the statewide shellfish initiative, and the surveys will help inform a draft plan that will go out for public review before any part of the plan is implemented, Sanderson said. To keep with their academic schedules, the student researchers hope to have the survey completed by the end of May, something that causes Chatham Shellfish Constable Renee Gagne some concern.

“There are some stakeholders, especially recreational folks, who are not going to really be able to come down and participate until the season,” she said. “How are you going to reach out to those people?” she asked. Organizers said they will do their best to publicize the online survey, and will also be recruiting public comment on any plan that emerges during the expected year-long process.

Suzanne Phillips, a member of the Orleans shellfish and waterways improvement advisory committee, said some in the industry may be more comfortable having a one-on-one conversation with a researcher rather than filling out a survey. Without direct outreach, the survey is likely to have a small number of responses, Phillips warned.

The survey asks a series of questions that target particular user groups, including commercial shellfishermen, town and state officials, recreational shellfishermen and others. Some questions ask whether the respondent thinks current regulations are adequate, and whether they support the current system of allowing municipalities to regulate the industry. Other questions ask whether enough is being done to market Massachusetts shellfish, and whether there is adequate acreage available for harvesting. One item asks respondents if they believe shellfish can reduce nitrogen in the water.

Legislation filed last year allows fast-track permitting for “oyster sanctuaries” designed to improve water quality, appropriating public shellfish grounds for that purpose without much public input, Sanderson said. This statewide initiative provides a chance to develop a cohesive plan for such activities, she noted.

“We feel this is a historic opportunity for the state to have everybody's voice heard in the planning process,” she said.

Orleans is among the communities experimenting with the use of oysters to reduce nitrogen in embayments. A pilot project in Lonnie's Pond using 200,000 oysters in 800 bags last year reportedly removed almost 26 kilograms of nitrogen from the waterway; the town's target for nitrogen reduction in that waterway is approximately 300 kilograms a year.

Shellfisherman Ronald Bergstrom of Chatham, a former selectman, said it is also important to recognize the social importance of shellfishing, which provides income during gaps in the seasonal economy or in times when other commercial fisheries are lagging.

“For many people, it's a fallback,” he said. Not everyone can afford unemployment insurance, but many can buy a commercial shellfishing permit and make extra cash, Bergstrom said.

Gagne said there are other benefits to a strong commercial and recreational shellfishery.

“It's an ecological value, because people get to learn about their environment” by getting out and interacting with it, she said.