WEST HARWICH — The former fishhouse on the Herring River is filled with happy clams.
With legal and regulatory issues related to the reconstruction of the former Lucas fishhouse at the edge of the river settled, Aquacultural Research Corporation of Dennis is now using the building to nurture seed quahogs in an effort to meet the increasing demand for shellfish by aquaculturalists.
“The quahogs are happy and healthy,” Rob Doane, president and CEO of ARC, said of the more than three million seed quahogs feeding on river nutrients. “They're climbing up the sides of silos and that's an indication they are happy and healthy.”
The nursery in the former fishhouse, owned by Fran and Debra Zarette, has been operating for a little more than a month. Doane and ARC general manager Paul Wittenstein are extremely pleased with the results they are seeing.
The nursery will have the capacity to grow as many as 32 million quahogs at a time. The seed is spawned in the company's hatchery in Dennis; at about one millimeter it is relocated to the nursery and feeds on the microalgae in the river water pumped into the tanks and silos. The seed has been growing quickly, Wittenstein said, from two to three millimeters to six to eight millimeters over a five-week period.
“It's very productive,” Wittenstein said.
Doane said the river warms up earlier in the season than the bayside waters where the hatchery is located. The microalgae starts growing in the upper river estuaries and flows down toward Nantucket Sound. Wittenstein said the microalgae grown at the hatchery is the same as what's in the river.
“It gets a lot of nitrogen, essentially pollution,” Doane said of the Herring River corridor. “By growing shellfish here we are preventing pollution from entering Nantucket Sound. They eat as much as you can give them and the faster the water (going into the system), the faster they'll grow.”
“The water flowing is music to my ears,” Zarette said of the new operation. “I never thought it would come to this.”
Shellfish reefs and aquaculture farming are established ways to abate nitrogen pollution in marine waters. The conservation commission is considering creating an oyster reef for essentially that purpose a little further up the river, possibly just south of the Lower County Road Bridge.
“It's an entirely natural process,” Doane said. “We are only removing from the water, not adding anything. It's an environmentally beneficial process.”
Doane said nurseries are essential to the business, explaining there is only so much capacity for seed at the Dennis hatchery. At one millimeter the tiny clams rely on natural feeding and have to be moved out. The hatchery, which was doubled in size in 2016, can produce hundreds of millions of seed in a year, but there have to be locations for the seed to feed.
ARC has a nursery under construction in Chatham, at Chatham Light Boatworks in the Mill Pond. Doane said the water supply lines and drains have been installed and work is underway on the tank system, which will house 24-inch silos; the Herring River nursery has 18-inch silos.
The Chatham nursery should be in operation by the end of July. It will have roughly the same capacity as the one in Harwich. Both nurseries will also accommodate oysters at certain times of the year, Doane said.
There is more demand for seed from the aquacultural community than there is supply. That's why these nurseries are so important. Doane also said multiple nurseries are important for risk reduction, should there be a killer algae breakout.
Doane said when seed gets to four millimeters or larger it can be transferred to field nurseries, tidal grants in Wellfleet and Barnstable. The quahogs have to be in the ground by October, he said, while oysters can remain in the nurseries through early winter.
“Growers want the seed as big as possible and as early in the year as possible,” the ARC president said.
ARC provides seed to the majority of aquaculturists on the Cape and in other areas of Massachusetts. The company also sells its product in Rhodes Island, Connecticut, New York and New Jersey.
The operation in the Herring River, which requires one or two people for a few hours a day to clean the silos, has drawn a lot of interest from people passing by, Wittenstein said. People want to know what they are doing in the refurbished structure, and usually get an education on growing shellfish, he said. “It's all positive feedback,” Wittenstein said.
ARC's efforts are growing more than seed. The company is helping expand aquaculture, providing jobs to people along the shoreline. The commonwealth has recognized their contribution and the importance to shellfish farming; this past year ARC received a $100,000 economic development grant from the Massachusetts Office of Business Development to acquire equipment and hire a couple of employees to work in the Harwich nursery. The grant is in the form of a refundable tax credit, Doane said.
“It's very gratifying to know we accomplished our goal,” Zarette said of the renovation of the old fishhouse. “It's helping ARC and shellfishing across the Cape, across Massachusetts.”
Zarette said the regulatory process has been complicated over the past couple of the years and it took quite a bit of structural engineering work to save the building. He said it was a learning process for him and he has learned lot about aquaculture as well.
Zarette said he hopes ARC continues to extend the lease. He said he hopes ARC can assume ownership of the building in the future.
“This is a great location, it's environmentally cleaning the water, it's performing a double purpose for the environment.” Zarette said.