Cautious Interest Expressed In Nantucket Sound Aquaculture Plan

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Commercial fishing and shellfishing , Shellfishing

Oysters. PATRICIA ALEXENDRE PHOTO

CHATHAM — Though it would require a regulatory sea change to accomplish, a proposal to use parts of Nantucket Sound off South Chatham as a shellfish grow-out area has sparked some tentative interest.

Stephen Wright, who co-owns Chatham Shellfish Company with John Richards, made a presentation to the waterways advisory committee last week, saying they are seeking to establish an experimental grow-out area in a location already permitted for fish weirs. The company has been growing oysters in Oyster Pond and the Oyster River since 1976 and is the town’s only aquaculture operation. The town’s shellfish regulations prohibit all other aquaculture in Chatham waters.

Wright said there are problems related to aquaculture close to shore.

“We have concerns about water quality in the inshore estuaries,” he said. “We have encountered oil spills, a lot warmer water temperatures in the summer, we have a long duration of [shellfish harvesting] closure in Oyster Pond, and the continued effect of human development and nitrogen-loaded effluent in the system.” New federal regulations may also prohibit aquaculture near mooring fields and marinas, he added.

Under the proposal, Chatham Shellfish Company would continue growing seed oysters in its current facility, but when oysters reach about two inches in size, crews would relocate them to the offshore site where they would grow to market size in cleaner, cooler water. The area under consideration is located roughly off Forest Beach in between 20 and 23 feet of water, a place where the town and state have previously permitted fish traps, although traps are not currently being used there.

The young oysters, or potentially other species of shellfish, would be kept in submerged cages moored to the bottom or in stacks of trays suspended by buoys four to six feet below the surface. A study of GIS data indicates that the site is not currently home to beneficial eelgrass or shellfish species other than quahogs. It is also outside the navigation area known as Chatham Roads. The corners of the area would also be marked by buoys designed to warn boaters away.

If the experiment proves successful, Wright said he would seek to expand the grow-out area to 10 acres in size.

“We could possibly create 20 jobs, both water- and land-based,” Wright said. Similar operations are in place on Martha’s Vineyard, in Westport and in Narragansett and Buzzards Bays.

“Take into account that this is experimental,” Wright said. “There’s a lot of risk and unknowns involved.”

“You know that the quahoggers drag there?” waterways committee member David Davis asked.

Wright said he is aware of this, and also knows some conch fishermen use the area. “Conch are a predator of oysters, so we would encourage conching around the area, and even possibly through it,” he said. The proposal wouldn’t go forward until the state Division of Marine Fisheries commissioned a survey of the area by divers looking for the presence of wild shellfish and eelgrass, he added.

“This is not an easy task to get this beyond the local committees,” waterways committee Chairman Dick Hosmer said.

Chatham Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said the proposal would certainly require state and federal approvals, “but at the local level, there’s currently a prohibition.” Staff are currently researching whether some sort of exemption could be used to allow the project, and if such a mechanism is found, “more than likely we would have to open it up” for other companies seeking to conduct similar operations, Duncanson said. That raises the question of how the town would select applicants for such a program. “We’d have to come up with some way of doing that,” he said.

Davis said that while he doesn’t oppose this proposal specifically, he wouldn’t favor a proliferation of aquaculture in the area. “How many more 10-acre sites do we have?” he asked.

Committee member David Oppenheim, whose family owns an interest in the Dennis-based Aquacultural Research Corporation hatchery, said he encourages further investigation of Wright’s and Richards’ idea.

“If it works, there will be competition,” he said. “And I think competition’s good.”

On a 5-0 vote with one abstention, the committee agreed to encourage Chatham Shellfish Company to proceed with its initial steps toward implementing the project. The shellfish advisory committee and south coastal harbor plan committee have already taken similar positions.