CHATHAM – Town officials and representatives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are scheduled to meet today to discuss a proposed memorandum of understanding regarding the western boundary of the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge.
There may be some give on the part of the federal agency in the latest draft of the memorandum of understanding (MOU). Scott Kahan, regional chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System, said the agency is willing to agree in principle to joint management with the town of the shellfish resources within the disputed area. The town had rejected an earlier MOU because officials wanted an equal say in management of resources west of the island.
Kahan said the agency hopes to expand the MOU to include the state, which manages other resources in the disputed area. State officials have been invited to today's meeting.
“We recognize that the service, the town of Chatham and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts have overlapping jurisdictions, mutual interest and a long history cooperatively managing coastal resources in the submerged lands east of the refuge's western boundary,” Kahan said in a statement.
Control over those submerged lands – more than 3,000 acres in Nantucket Sound west of the barrier island –
became an issue earlier this year when the Fish and Wildlife Service finalized the 15-year management plan for the refuge. The comprehensive conservation plan asserted federal authority over the area, including jurisdiction over fish and shellfishing resources that the town and state have overseen for years.
While the agency says that the submerged lands in question are within the original 1944 area of taking for the refuge, town and state officials counter that the taking only referred to lands above mean low water. To clarify the western boundary at the mean low water mark, the town has asked Rep. William Keating to file federal legislation. Keating has said he will do so when Congress returns to session after Sept. 6, but has asked that the town and Fish and Wildlife Service try to negotiate a solution in the meantime.
“He would prefer that we hold hands and sing 'Kumbaya' down on Monomoy,” Chairman of Selectmen Jeff Dykens said at last week's board meeting. Town officials, however, “have to have a full vote at the table. We're not going to just cooperate. We have to join in,” he added.
The Fish and Wildlife Service appears to be on the same page, at least when it comes to managing shellfish resources, a key concern of town officials. In the past, the flats west of Monomoy have been among the town's richest shellfishing grounds.
In his statement, Kahan, said the agency “believes it's time to come together with the town to outline how we will collaboratively implement management called for in the [CCP]. We believe this agreement should be long-term and run for the length of the CCP (15 years).”
Among the other aims of the MOU are to establish regular communications between the Fish and Wildlife Service, the town and the state through collaboration, “bringing the best science to bear to manage the resources we all care about.” Along with shellfish, Kahan cites management and protection of eelgrass, horseshoe crabs and mussel beds as critical. The CCP prohibits harvesting of horseshoe crabs and mussels; the town is concerned about the latter, since in the past commercially harvestable quantities of mussels have existed near the refuge. The agency wants their harvest banned because they are a food source for sea ducks and other avian species.
“The MOU could also outline how all parties would coordinate management of any new or emerging fisheries, ensuring a public process where all have a voice,” Kahan's statement continues.
Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said the town's working group on the Monomoy situation had not yet met to review the latest MOU and had no comment on it.
Meanwhile, town officials took aim at critics of the proposed federal legislation, whom they say misrepresent the town's position as an attempt to wrestle federal land away from the Fish and Wildlife Service. They say that it is the agency that is illegally taking submerged land that was never part of the refuge; the claim in the CCP, they assert, is a reversal of service's position of the past 70 years. In previous documents, the refuge has always been referred to as constituting less than 3,000 acres; now it asserts the refuge encompasses more than 7,000 acres, town officials say.
Selectman Seth Taylor cited specifically an op-ed piece by Massachusetts Audubon Director Jack Clarke. The claim, he said, “flies in the face of all the historic precedent and actions of everyone.”
He urged residents and property owners to write to Keating or their own federal representatives to support the legislation.
“This is serious business to us, that [Keating] shouldn't be cowed and he should continue to demonstrate the leadership, cooperation and support he has so far,” said Taylor, who authored a guest editorial on the topic in this week's Chronicle.
“Sometimes I feel it's a little bit of Don Quixote tilting at windmills, or David and Goliath,” Dykens added, “but we feel very strongly that we have a strong legal argument that we will press should we not get satisfaction elsewhere.”