CHATHAM – Petite quahogs are off the menu, at least in Massachusetts.
The state marine fisheries advisory commission has removed quahogs from a draft regulation that proposed allowing the in-state sale of undersized farm-raised oysters, surf clams and quahogs. Removing so-called “petite” or “gem” quahogs from the proposal was endorsed by Division of Marine Fisheries Director David Pierce and came at the strong urging of local commercial shellfishmen.
“We're very happy about this,” said Shellfish Constable Renee Gagne.
Local harvesters feared that allowing aquaculture-raised quahogs to be sold in-state at seven-eighths inch, rather than the current one-inch legal size, would flood the market with undersized quahogs, force down prices, impact the sustainability of the fishery and lead to enforcement difficulties.
Pierce cited “spirited” discussion at a public hearing on the proposal in Chatham last month in making his recommendation.
“The potential to open in-state markets to undersized quahogs was characterized as an 'existential threat' by a Chatham municipal official as he feared the net effect would be a depressed price for wild-caught quahogs,” Pierce stated in his Aug. 4 recommendation.
He wrote that his decision to recommend removal of quahogs from the regulation was difficult, but that it would be inappropriate to allow in-state sale of petite quahogs at this time.
“My decision to maintain the status quo was driven by comments, particularly from the town of Chatham, which highlighted that the proposal may undermine compliance resulting in an undue burden on municipal enforcement and potentially negatively impact local abundance,” Pierce wrote. “While the nuances of the oyster and surf clam industries mitigate the majority of the enforcement and biological concerns, they are more relevant for quahogs.”
The difference, he said, is the scale of the wild quahog fishery. There are more than 450 wild harvesters in the 39 towns in the state, most of whom harvest by rake and hand and represent about 67 percent of the state's commercial quahog landing value. Aquaculture is the predominant source of oysters, with little wild fishery, and the surf clam industry is primarily conducted by small dredge boats, according to Pierce.
Chatham has the largest quahog fishery on the Cape, with landings last year of 21,295 bushels worth $1.4 million. More than 300 commercial shellfish permits were issued this year. About half shellfish full-time, and most target quahogs.
If wild harvesters illegally take undersized quahogs to compete with aquaculture-raised product, “the impact could be widespread,” Pierce wrote, under cutting the health and threatening sustainability of the resource state-wide. “This could result in impacts affecting the biological and economic sustainability of the wild fishery. Addressing this potential non-compliance would be at the feet of municipal shellfish wardens who in many cases are overextended.”
Pierce wrote that he was uncomfortable making a recommendation on undersized quahogs at this time and that “there may be things to learn about compliance and enforcement” over time after allowing the in-state sale of petite oysters.
A 2010 regulation allowed the sale of undersized, farm-raised oysters and quahogs out of state. Last year, the Massachusetts Aquaculture Association asked that the prohibition on in-state sale be lifted. According to Pierce's memo, the group said market demand had shifted, making the undersized shellfish more attractive at the retail level and that it was sometimes difficult to find dealers with out of state accounts to buy the products under the current structure, which made it difficult to maintain a branded product year round. They argued that they should be able to harvest and sell their product when most beneficial to their business and not be subject to wild harvest minimum sizes that are designed to protect spawning stock.
Shellfish farmers can still harvest petite quahogs for sale out of state, under previously existing regulations.
Local shellfishermen had argued that a black market in undersized quahogs could develop in the wild fishery, and that could reduce spawning stock and cut into Chatham's otherwise very productive resource.