CHATHAM – The state is considering allowing aquaculturists to sell undersized “petit” quahogs in the state, a move local shellfishermen say could have a devastating impact on the town's shellfish industry.
Chatham has the largest quahog fishery on the Cape, with landings last year of 21,295 bushels worth $1.4 million. More than 320 commercial shellfish licenses were issued this year, and while about half that number work in the industry full-time, many other residents, including commercial fishermen, depend on shellfishing to help make ends meet. The new rule, shellfishermen say, threatens to lower both the value and reputation of the local wild harvest.
“Chatham shellfisheries support dedicated perennial harvesters, part-time off-shore fishermen, and serve as supplemental income for teachers, firemen and students alike,” states a letter to Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries Director David Pierce endorsed by selectmen Tuesday. “In no way should a regulatory rule change adversely impact an entire community.”
The issue pits the town against the Massachusetts Aquaculture Association, which lobbied DMF for the change.
“It's a real David and Goliath story,” said Shellfish Constable Renee Gagne.
“It's very much a threat to our local native wild fishery,” said Chairman of Selectmen Jeffrey Dykens, a former commercial fisherman. “This would be devastating to the prices they get, I think.”
Currently both farm-grown and quahogs harvested in the wild must be at least one inch in width; the rule change under consideration by DMF would allow the sale in Massachusetts of aquaculture-raised quahogs that are seven-eighths inches in width.
Shellfish officials say the rule threatens the sustainability of Chatham's wild resource, will lower the currently high quahog prices shellfishermen receive, and could spawn a black market in undersized quahogs.
Currently, Massachusetts aquaculturists can sell undersized quahogs and oysters out of state. According to a February memo from Pierce, the Massachusetts Aquaculture Association lobbied to expand the regulations to allow in-state sales.
The regulation change would allow in-state sale of undersized, aquaculture-raised quahogs, oysters and surf clams. The undersized shellfish would have to be marked with a red tag identifying it as “aquaculture raised.” One of three public hearings scheduled on the draft regulatory proposal, as well as a number of other proposed changes, will be held in Chatham on Thursday, July 14, at 5:30 p.m. at the community center.
While a fairer approach would be to allow harvesting of wild quahogs at the smaller size, that could pose a sustainability problem, said Shellfish Constable Renee Gagne. It's assumed that the one-inch size was set because by that time quahogs are able to release a few spawns prior to being harvested. If they are harvested at the smaller size, that might not happen. In its letter to Pierce, the town asks for a biological feasibility study on the long-term impact of harvesting quahogs at the smaller size.
Once local farm-raised shellfish can be sold in-state at the smaller size, growers from out of state can also sell petit quahogs here, Gagne said. That could flood the market and reduce the price. Chatham enjoys a reputation for high-quality quahogs due to the pristine environment, and local shellfishermen get high prices, between 23 and 28 cents. Petit quahogs sell for about 18 cents each. The state should conduct a market analysis on the impact of he smaller size shellfish before approving the regulation, the town's letter states.
“Chatham has a brand name,” said Shellfish Advisory Committee Chairman Jamie Bassett. “Chatham wild shellfished quahogs are well known.”
The Chatham-based Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen's Alliance owns 20 percent of shellfish grower ARC in Dennis. The Alliance's Melissa Sanderson told the shellfish advisory committee last week that its members, many of whom shellfish commercially, have not reached a consensus on the issue.
“We have people who are all over the map on it. We recognize it's a huge issue,” she said. On Tuesday she said the Alliance is setting up a meeting for sometime next week with DMF officials, aquaculturists, shellfish dealers Gagne and two members of the SAC.
“That hope is that we can come to some kind of agreement before the close of the comment period,” Gagne said. “I don't know how much hope I have for that.”
Over the last 10 years the value of commercial quahogs harvested here has ranged from a low of $873,459 in 2005 to a high of $2.4 million in 2010. In 2014, the total of wild quahogs landed in Chatham was nearly twice the amount of Cape Cod aquaculture-grown quahogs.
According to a memo from DMF Director David Pierce, the change grew out of a 2009 regulation that allowed aquaculturists to sell undersized oysters on a grower by grower basis because of anticipated losses to disease and other natural causes. The policy was halted in 2010, but later resumed with the addition that undersized quahogs could also be sold by growers but only outside of Massachusetts. In-state sales were not allowed out of concern that it would create a “local black market demand for wild caught sub-legal sized shellfish, which would negatively impact local resources and present a substantial enforcement challenge,” according to the Feb. 5 memo to the Marine Fisheries Advisory Commission.
Shellfish growers, however, lobbied to allow undersized shellfish to be sold in state. Last year, the Massachusetts Aquaculture Association voted to pursue the change with DMF. It was discussed with the agency's shellfish advisory panel last November. After a review of management practices in other states, the draft regulation was proposed.
“While it is clear enforcement challenges will exist if this request is accommodated, DMF believes that disparate aquaculture reared and wild caught minimum sizes should remain enforceable through property labeling and traceability requirements,” Pierce wrote. Potential illegal fishing can be mitigated by “enhancing enforcement (including at the local level) and consider hearings to suspend and/or revoke the permits of non-compliant fishermen.”
Tagging undersized quahogs, however, is not likely to prevent illegal harvesting of smaller wild shellfish, town officials said in their letter to Pierce. With this new market, “wild harvesters will be creative and find new pathways for illegal harvest,” the letter reads. The burden of enforcing the new regulations will fall on local shellfish constables “and their already taxed departments and municipal budgets.”
Bassett added that once the quahogs reach consumers, they will have no way of knowing their origin. He said the undersized quahogs are sometimes known as “gem clams” or “pasta clams.”
SAC member Wendy Homer said the move could backfire on shellfish growers if the market is flooded with undersized shellfish from out of state. “They're kind of shooting themselves in the foot by wanting to have a smaller size allowed in their own state,” she said.
Officials urged both shellfishermen and residents to write letters to DMF opposing the amendment. Selectman Seth Taylor said DMF has been very supportive of the town and its efforts to preserve fishing rights around the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, and he urged writers to be respectful and address the issue “without ranting and raving.”
The public comment period on the regulation change ends July 20. Comments should be sent to Director David Pierce by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or to 251 Causeway St., Suite 400, Boston, MA, 02114. The full language of the draft is available on the DMF website.