The days are long now and if the tide is right, shellfishermen can head out to the flats of Monomoy, spend hours harvesting and return to shore with their limit as the sun sets and turns the horizon pink and purple.
But then they would lose $500 and all their hard work, because the wholesale companies they sell to close hours before the sun goes down, and shellfishermen can’t keep their product overnight – not without breaking the law.
“That’s not a problem in the winter, but now it’s light out until 8:30 p.m.,” said long-time shellfisherman Ron Bergstrom.
Bergstrom, who sits on the state’s shellfish advisory panel, has realized the problem for years and says it’s one of several rules that don’t make sense economically – people can lose two weeks of income because of the tides – or rationally.
It’s also an easy fix, say many, because it only takes an Igloo cooler.
So shellfishermen are asking that the new Massachusetts Shellfish Initiative (MSI) tackle the problem as it gears up to develop a blueprint for the future.
The last time the state looked at the future of shellfishing was in 1995, and that was a plan developed by people behind desks, not by those working the waters.
Among major questions raised now are whether the regulations in place for the wild fisheries still work in today’s world, and with more than 200 people on waiting lists for aquaculture grants on Cape Cod, how does Massachusetts grow shellfish aquaculture while maintaining wild and recreational harvests?
“This lack of planning threatens shellfish’s future as a sustainable and financially stable fishery,” said Melissa Sanderson, chief operating officer at Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance.
As has been known to happen, a potential solution emerged when a group of concerned folks went out for a beer. Led by Sanderson, a grant application was submitted and now the Massachusetts Shellfish Initiative has in hand $233,000 – including in-kind matching funds – from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
One of the first steps was to survey user groups, from those who steam out of Rock Harbor to dredge for quahogs to those who work on grants in Wellfleet, from those who scratch for wild clams in Chatham, to those who eat and serve shellfish.
Those results have been studied and now MSI, a partnership between the Fishermen’s Alliance, the Massachusetts Aquaculture Association and The Nature Conservancy, in collaboration with UMass Boston and the state Division of Marine Fisheries, is setting up partnerships and subcommittees to tackle the work ahead.
The industry is hugely important on the peninsula. Take Wellfleet, which from 1880 to 1910 produced more shellfish than any other New England town, shipping bivalves all over the country. Today 15 percent of the population is still involved in harvesting shellfish, and that doesn’t include restaurants, fish buyers or markets.
“In 2016, Wellfleet was ninth in the state for value of seafood landings at $6.2 million, most of which are oysters and quahogs, impressive for such a small town,” said Wellfleet Shellfish Constable Nancy Civetta.
Chatham’s story is different because it doesn’t give out grants, instead it fosters a wild fishery. If oysters, which are almost exclusively farmed, are taken out of the equation and numbers run just on quahogs, bay scallops, blue mussel, razor clam and soft-shell clams, Chatham is the top-valued shellfish port in the state with $2.38 million in landings.
“Different towns have different goals,” said Chatham Shellfish Constable Renee Gagne.
Gagne said in Chatham almost every spot has a history of being naturally productive, and so “the thought of taking public lands and putting it in the hands of one private grower (isn’t supported). Most people here buy a (shellfish) permit for an insurance policy. This is our blue collar industry. When everything else fails, everyone relies on the quahog.”
In addition to those who use the public fishery for income, close to 3,000 people buy a Chatham recreational permit.
The importance of the wild fishery has prompted the town to invest heavily in growing baby shellfish and placing them in local waters. The town plants an impressive 2.5 to 3 million quahogs, 200,000 oysters, and when available 250,000 bay scallops a year.
One thing Gagne wants from the MSI initiative is more funding for propagation. The town does get some state monies, enough for starting 500,000 quahogs, but that is much diminished from past state support.
Shellfishermen in town agree, but some have bigger ambitions as well.
They think that MSI should work with the state division of marine fisheries to allow “qualified” shellfishermen to sell directly to restaurants – now a middle man is needed – without buying a refrigerated truck and the other required investments.
The argument is that shellfish that go right from the harvester to the seller – not to one handler, and then into a truck, to another handler, to a cooler, to another handler and so on – are safe. They also argue it is likely the product would be better and, although some wholesalers pay a high price for shellfish, harvesters would invariably see their income rise.
Some shellfishermen won’t go through the streamlined certification process to sell direct, but many will.
Business people are asking that MSI take up the topic because although some say it’s a wise move others say it would hurt wholesalers, which would harm the industry as a whole.
Sanderson said the group is hearing from other businesses about topics that need to be discussed.
“We’re hearing demand from the industry for standardized training for new aquaculture grant holders,” Sanderson explained, adding that poor husbandry and handling by one grant holder can shut down an entire area.
“There is no criteria to get into aquaculture. Nothing is required and it is very scary – you wouldn’t go to a doctor who has never been to medical school,” said Andrew Cummings, who began commercial shellfishing in the 1990s and employs five people, not including himself, on his grant in Wellfleet.
Cummings isn’t in favor of allowing hobbyists to gain a greater toe-hold in the aquaculture industry. He also pointed out that the narrative of increasing demand is not one he is experiencing.
“What I would like to see out of MSI is a more comprehensive plan to manage what we have,” he said. “Throwing a lot more people into this industry is not going to be a good thing in the long run.”
Other towns, while supportive of aquaculture, have also been protective of the wild fishery over the years. There is concern that too much attention is being paid to aquaculture.
Nathan Sears, the natural resources director in Orleans, said that while the town has private grants in Cape Cod and Pleasant Bays, there is a moratorium in Nauset Estuary because it is so productive for quahogs.
“We should be focused on the wild fisheries,” said Sears. “It’s the public trust doctrine. I believe in that philosophy.”
Amidst discussions about ways to improve long-standing practices, town officials are now advocating entering a new realm. They want to use oysters as part of their wastewater management plans to remove nitrogen, and diminish the need for expensive sewers.
The role of shellfish in cleanup efforts across the Cape, as well as the need to have a diversity of shellfish as markets change, are issues on the minds of MSI organizers.
“Our hope is that the MSI process will get all these different user groups and perspectives together around the table,” Sanderson said. “By coming together, they can leverage political and public support for overarching issues that unite us, like improving water quality.”
To sign up to receive MSI updates via email or to participate, go to www.MassShellfishInitiative.org
Doreen Leggett is the community journalist for the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance. Her work appears monthly. She can be contacted at email@example.com.