CHATHAM – The value of commercial shellfish landed in town grew last year, but officials are concerned that the shifting sands along the east coast could make the most productive areas inaccessible.
The 7 percent increase in the value of the catch is based on a per-pound price assigned by the state division of marine fisheries, according to Shellfish Constable Renee Gagne. Chatham's numbers are probably a bit higher because shellfish harvested here are usually sold by the piece, not the pound, because of their high quality.
But there is concern that shoaling could make some of the best harvesting areas inaccessible, or even worse, cover over flats. That's particularly of concern in the old Southway area between South Beach and Monomoy. Right now that area is heavily worked by shellfishermen but “access to the resource will be a big question this year,” Gagne said.
The channel into the Southway is closing up more and more, especially during the winter. Shellfisherman Jamie Bassett, who chairs the town's shellfish advisory committee, said the eastern entrance to the South Beach and Monomoy system is changing on a weekly basis.
“Accessing the flats is proving to be a navigation challenge,” he said. “It is hard to say what the system will look like in the months ahead but it's safe to say that it will not be a simple boat ride.”
Gagne said shellfishermen are resourceful, however.
“If there's stuff there, they're going to figure out how to get there,” she said.
The total estimated value of commercial shellfish harvested in Chatham last year was $3,290,499, compared to $3,064,543 in 2015. That includes quahogs worth $1,620,658 and softshell clams valued at $1,180,419. There were also about half a million dollars worth of mussels landed in town last year, Gagne said. A month-long closure of Nantucket Sound to shellfishing during October didn't have a major impact, since the closure did not extend east past Morris Island.
South Beach is particularly low and narrow from Lighthouse Beach down to Monomoy, making it more susceptible to washovers, which pushes sand to the west into Outermost Harbor and the Southway. During a northeaster in January, a washover just south of Lighthouse Beach created a temporary channel that fanned sand out into the waters west of the beach.
Shellfish resources in Chatham traditional move around in response to changing natural conditions. In recent decades the Common Flats west of Monomoy were one of the primary harvesting areas in town; as that area became less productive, shellfishermen shifted their focus to new resources in Chatham Harbor and the Southway.