CHATHAM – The U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources approved legislation last Wednesday to restore the western boundary of the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge to mean low tide.
In last year's comprehensive conservation plan for Monomoy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared as the western boundary an administrative line in Nantucket Sound that essentially added nearly 4,000 acres of waters and submerged lands to the refuge. Local and state officials objected, saying the law that established the refuge set the western boundary at low water and that the area being claimed by the federal government had been responsibly managed locally for many years.
Rep. William Keating filed the legislation to restore what town officials say was the historically recognized western boundary.
“Today was a great day for our hard working men and women who make a living harvesting shellfish and fin fish in the waters west of Monomoy,” Selectman Shareen Davis said in a statement. She serves on a subcommittee on Monomoy with Selectman Jeffrey Dykens.
Since its establishment in 1944, all parties, including the Fish and Wildlife Service, recognized the western boundary of the refuge as mean low water, Dykens said. The town and state have “exclusively and effectively” managed the open waters and submerged lands west of the island during that time.
“All the legislation does is restore the status quo that was recognized for more than 70 years,” he said.
Gov. Charlie Baker, local legislators and the state's Congressional delegation all support the bill. Over a two-week period in July, more than 1,000 people from across the country asked Baker to support the legislation.
The bill is opposed by environmental groups like Mass Audubon, which see it as relinquishing federal control of an environmentally sensitive area. Town and state officials, however, see the current climate in Washington, D.C. as favoring the legislation, since it essentially reverses what they assert was federal land grab.
Andrew Nelson of Keating's Hyannis office said the bill passed the committee on a voice vote, which meant there were no objections; the group, he pointed out, is chaired by a Republican, Rob Bishop of Utah. It's up to the majority to determine if and when the bill will go before the full House, he said.
“We can't say what will happen to the bill now that it's out of committee,” Nelson said. If it gets through the full House, it would move on to the Senate, where the legislation has not yet been introduced. Massachusetts Senators Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren have been kept informed on the effort, town officials say.
“We look forward to working with Senators Markey and Warren to ensure the Senate approved the bill so it can be set to President Trump for signature,” said Town Manager Jill Goldsmith.
Although Fish and Wildlife officials said they had no plans to restrict traditional fishing and shellfishing in the disputed area, selectmen and others say that could change at any time, and local fishermen could find themselves excluded from an area that has, at various times through the town's history, held some of the most productive shellfishing ground in the state. The comprehensive conservation plan bans harvesting of blue mussels in the disputed area, seen as a food source for eider ducks. The fear is that harvesting of other species, including scallops and clams, could be prohibited if the agency determines the activity impacts the refuge's mission of protecting migratory shorebirds.
The bill, HR 1157, reads, “The Congress finds that the United States did not acquire any right, title, or interest in or to submerged lands in Nantucket Sound or the waters above such submerged lands as a result of the taking described in United States v. 3,000 Acres of Land, Misc. Civil Action No. 6340 (D. Mass., dated June 1, 1944),” the action that established the refuge.