Not A Sure Thing

Chatham officials are certain that filing legislation is the best way to resolve the dispute with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the western boundary of the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge. Last week, Rep. William Keating assured Town Manager Jill Goldsmith and Selectman Seth Taylor that he would submit a bill to set the boundary at low water within a few weeks, before legislators recess for the summer.

The sooner the issue can be resolved, the better off local fishermen and shellfishermen will be. While the Fish and Wildlife Service has said that no change in the way fisheries are managed in the waters west of Monomoy is imminent, the comprehensive conservation plan for the refuge approved earlier this year makes it clear that could change at any time. Town and state officials contend that the Monomoy Refuge's original western boundary, set in the 1944 order of taking, was low water, and that state and local authorities have been good stewards of the resources within a 3,000 acre area between that point and the boundary claimed by the Fish and Wildlife Service. The potential of losing access to that area – where such important resources as the Common Flat are located – is anathema to locals.

But even if Keating files the legislation in a timely manner, it may not be smooth sailing. As consultant Jeff Pike points out, the federal government is locked in an extremely unpredictable, highly politicized climate. Even a simple measure such as setting a specific boundary on a wildlife refuge could fall victim to any number of pitfalls. It may be instructive to recall what happened decade or so ago, when the Fish and Wildlife Service first floated the idea that Monomoy's Wilderness Area designation could mean that no commercial shellfishing could be allowed anywhere on the island. While the town embarked on a campaign, involving both lobbying federal officials and developing scientific evidence to prove that shellfish helped, rather than harmed, the interests of the refuge, other groups, including national conservation and wildlife advocates, backed a ban on shellfishing. There was a delicate balancing act involved in what resulted in a mostly positive outcome for the town and its shellfishermen. While the comprehensive conservation plan allows shellfishing within the refuge and Wilderness Area boundaries – making no distinction between commercial and recreational – any shellfishing in Wilderness Areas must be done using hand tools only, and shellfishermen must carry their catch manually, as any kind of mechanical device, even hand carts, are not allowed.

Peeling back the area of authority claimed by the Fish and Wildlife Service off the west coast of Monomoy could run into opposition of a similar kind. Town officials and Rep. Keating need to recognize this and be prepared for it. We believe the case for town and state control of the waters and bottom in that area is sound, but it is possible that other lobbying groups will seize the opportunity to further curtail commercial fishing and shellfishing by backing the agency's claim. Local shellfishermen are being asked to write letters in support of legislation, and Pike is no doubt right when he says that Keating will have to work to gain the necessary support. Town officials believe Gov. Charlie Baker will throw his support behind the effort. Chatham residents also need to lend their voices to the effort; nonresident property owners, especially, can help by contacting the federal representatives in their home districts and asking that they support Keating's bill.

Maintaining local control of the waters west of Monomoy is moving ahead, but is not yet a sure thing.