CHATHAM – The sentiment couldn't have been clearer: don't allow the sale of undersized, farm-raised quahogs in Massachusetts.
That was the message local shellfishermen sent to representatives of the state Division of Marine Fisheries at a hearing last Thursday on a proposed regulation change that would legalize the in-state sale of hard-shell clams that are under the current minimum size. The change would only apply to aquaculture-raised quahogs, not to those harvested in the wild.
“Simple supply and demand will tell you that this could be devastating to the wild quahog industry,” said shellfisherman David Likos, who is also a member of the town's shellfish advisory committee (SAC). Shellfishermen said they fear an influx of out-of-state product allowed under the regulation would undermine the price of local wild-caught quahogs.
Like the more than two dozen shellfishermen at the hearing at the community center, both the SAC and the board of selectmen vehemently opposed the regulation change, which would also allow the sale of undersized, farm-raised oysters and surf clams in state. In Chatham, only quahogs are an issue, and the town has become “ground zero of opposition to this rules change,” Shellfish Constable Renee Gagne said. DMF officials didn't appear to understand the level of fear and anxiety the proposed rules change caused, she added.
“This proposal has unfortunately created a divide between growers and wild harvesters that we did not create,” she said. Under the proposal, farm-raised quahogs could be sold when they reach seven-eighths of an inch in width, whereas wild harvested hard-shell clams would have to conform to the current one-inch minimum.
Pointing to what they said was a lack of scientific and economic data on the impact of the change, town officials and shellfishermen asked DMF to remove undersized quahogs, sometimes known as “petit” quahogs, from the regulation amendment.
Deputy DMF Director Dan McKiernan said the proposal was brought to the agency by the Masssachusetts Aquaculture Association. Regulations already allow shellfish farmers to sell undersized product out of state, but due to problems with winter mortality, they asked that in-state sales also be allowed.
For shellfish farmers, overwintering “runt” quahogs is a losing proposition, said Massachusett Aquaculture Association President Chris Sherman. The regulation change, however, was aimed more at oysters, which are not a commercial species in Chatham but which are the main crop for many aquaculture operations. Quahogs are a small percentage of their market, and farmers do not anticipate approval of the regulation having a negative impact on the price wild harvesters get for their product, he said.
“We never wanted to pick a fight with the town of Chatham,” Sherman said. “We have deep ties within the commercial fishing industry; we didn't want to see this pit commercial aquaculture versus wild harvesters.”
Petit quahogs are a “small, small percentage” of the farm-raised shellfish in the state, agreed DMF Fisheries Biologist Christopher Schillaci. McKiernan said the agency is required to assess the impact of regulation changes on the industry and found that the proposed change would have little effect on price.
Local wild harvesters didn't buy that argument.
“This regulation would mess up the industry,” said shellfisherman Bruce Gibbs. “Don't change the rules for the select few.”
Shellfisherman Ronald Bergstrom serves on the DMF shellfish advisory panel and said he raised objections to the proposed change.
“We're going into uncharted waters here as far as price goes,” he said. DMF's job, he said, is resource management, and the grower's economic concerns should not be within the agency's purview. A study should be done to understand the economics of the change before it is implemented, he said.
“Let's find out what's going to be the effect of seven-eighths-inch quahogs sold not only by local growers but by everyone else who sells them,” Bergstrom said.
Shellfisherman Charles Bonnano asked if the state would reimburse wild harvesters if the rule change drops the price of quahogs. “If it goes from 25 cents to 15 cents, is the state sending back 10 cents on every quahog?” he said. “We're going to lose money on this,” while growers, dealers and restaurant owners will profit, he added.
Shellfisher and SAC member Wendy Homer called the proposal “reckless.”
“Once the importation of out-of-state [quahogs] floods our market, the price for everyone will drop,” she said.
Chatham harvesters enjoy a high price for their product because of its quality, and that is not likely to be threatened by the availability of smaller farm-raised quahogs, which under the regulation would have to be tagged as being aquaculture products, McKiernan said. Schillaci said aquaculturists don't necessarily want to harvest the smaller quahogs, but see them as a seasonal bycatch, the sale of which would “do no harm” to the wild-caught market.
“Don't be fooled,” said shellfisherman Dominic Santoro. “This is about money. This isn't about overwintering.”
Fred Hochberger of Northcoast Seafood, one of the major shellfish buyers in the area, said the company favors lowering the size for in-state sale for oysters but not quahogs. Dealers, he added, don't want to see the price of wild-caught shellfish drop; they're more concerned with the sustainability of the wild resource.
“That's what we don't want to see compromised in any shape or form,” he said.
Jamie Bassett, chairman of the SAC, noted that the rules change was not well known within the industry, and many wild harvest shellfishermen outside of Chatham he talked to were not aware of the proposal. “How can a policy that could affect so many based on so little information be allowed to happen?” he asked.
Most of those present agreed dropping quahogs from the proposal was the best solution.
“If you look at it I think you will find eliminating quahogs won't make that much of a difference,” said Bergstrom.
The public comment on the rules change closed Wednesday, July 20. McKiernan said comments from this and two other public hearings will be submitted to the DMF advisory commission, which will make a final recommendation on the regulation change when it convenes in August.