State Task Force Gets An Earful From Local Shellfishers

By: Russ Allen

A shellfisherman harvests in Chatham's Mill Pond. TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM – The Massachusetts Shellfish Initiative (MSI) Task Force held a public meeting to solicit preliminary stakeholder and public feedback on its strategic plan. It was one of four public meetings being held in the Commonwealth as part of an overall process of studying, analyzing, and strategizing for the future development and regulation of shellfishing in Massachusetts.

The task force, rather than shellfish, seemed to be on the minds of most of those in attendance.

The MSI is an initiative developed in partnership with the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs and shellfish stakeholders from across the State. The MSI is intended to bring state and local shellfish resource managers, commercial and recreational harvesters, aquaculturists, researchers, and the general public together to develop a strategic plan aimed at optimizing the economic, environmental, and social benefits of the Commonwealth’s shellfish resources.  MSI is not a regulatory body and cannot change regulation or policies. Partial funding for the MSI has been provided by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

The Chatham meeting was organized and hosted by Bob Davis, a member of the MSI scoping committee and the Chatham Shellfish Advisory Committee, and presided over by Rob O’Leary, the chair of the scoping committee. That committee is “charged with gathering public feedback on the task force-developed theme area as well as solicit desired goals of stakeholders and the general public.” Presenting much of the background information on the MSI, its task force, goals, scoping and assessment committees was Chris Schillaci from the MSI staff. Also seated at the panel table were Dan McKiernan, deputy director of the division of marine fisheries; Jeff Kennedy, North Shore Regional Shellfish Supervisor, division of marine fisheries; and Sean McNally, a doctoral student at UMass Boston. Several additional members of the MSI Scoping Committee were present in the audience.

While the purpose of the meeting was, according to Davis, to create a “non-judgmental” forum where members of the public, including those engaged in shellfishing, could speak about any matter related to that activity, most of the comments and exchanges with various MSI-related officials were focused more on the activity of the MSI, its task force, scoping and assessment committees than shellfishing. Part of the reason was that prior to the meeting the MSI assessment committee had released a 199-page draft report, the discussion of which was not the intended purpose of the public meeting.

Several speakers from the Cape Cod shellfishing community who had printed out and read the document criticized its content, length, limited information, data, and the way by which the assessment committee had functioned overall. Some of the comments made were highly negative toward the MSI, its task force, committees, volunteers and staff. Many also expressed a distrust of state government, especially proposed legislation that would modify the way shellfish grants may be transferred, the MSI, non-profit and non-governmental groups and others perceived to be limiting or obstructing their ability to earn a living from shellfishing, diminishing local control, or allowing the development of large shellfishing companies. Some of the comments seemed to convey a distrust of anyone not a shellfisher.

However, speakers also raised concerns shared by other shellfishers about environmental conditions such as climate change, excessive rainfalls and flooding, and wind farms which can negatively impact shellfishing grants. Inadequate infrastructure supplied and maintained by local towns was also cited, as well as restrictions on the sale of shellfish at local farmers markets. Some felt that the MSI was underfunded and understaffed and therefor limited or delayed in accomplishing its goals. One speaker said that the MSI needed to have “more transparency, more accountability, and more input from those most effected by its recommendations.”

There was also a call for the public comment period to be extended and additional meetings held, especially in relationship to the task force’s draft report. The suggestion was made that the final report be simplified and shortened, and that a summary be made available for those averse to reading such a lengthy document.

Chatham has one of the largest wild commercial shellfishing industries in the state, with the value of last year's harvest reaching nearly $2 million.

Despite the sometimes adversarial tone of the comments and exchanges, both sides seemed to have the same desire: to see shellfishing continue as an ongoing commercial and recreational activity in Massachusetts and on Cape Cod, appropriately regulated by state, county and local government.

Written comments can be submitted until Oct. 4 to roleary@maritime.edu.