Thousands Of Seed Shellfish Destroyed In Mill Creek

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Commercial fishing and shellfishing

Damaged shellfish nets in the foreground protected some 450,000 seed quahogs in Mill Creek. At least 100,000 were lost when, officials allege, a barge being used to build a nearby bulkhead ran aground on the flats. TOWN OF CHATHAM PHOTO

Officials Allege Barge Ran Aground In Quahog Nursery

CHATHAM – Officials are investigating damage to seed shellfish caused by a vessel grounding out in the town grow-out area in Mill Creek.

As many as 450,000 seed quahogs may have been compromised and 100,000 lost because of the damage, said Shellfish Constable Renee Gagne. While she put the value of the lost shellfish at about $7,000, the damage to the town's propagation program could be more significant. The grow-out areas are nurseries that provide stock for the town's important quahog harvest, which brings in $1 to $2 million annually, supporting dozens of commercial shellfishermen and their families.

“The loss of 100,000 quahogs is not only the loss of the initial [seed] purchase, but the time and labor and monies that reared those animals to this point as well as the loss of what would be adult brood stock,” Gagne wrote in a memo to the conservation commission.

Two propellor scars in the flats point to a barge being used to build a bulkhead at 14 Periwinkle Lane as the source of the damage. At the Oct. 4 conservation commission meeting, the barge contractor denied damaging the shellfish beds.

“Nobody saw him do it,” Gagne said, but added that the barge's dual motors and its mooring nearby make a “very compelling” case. A spokesperson for the contractor, Valco Marine, told the commission that while navigating the barge in the channel was a challenge, there were many other boaters in the area and he'd watch others run aground. It seemed improbable that two separate vessels could make the scars, Gagne responded; the area is outlined by six buoys and the nets have never been damaged in the past.

Commission members weren't buying Valco's argument, and Harbormaster Stuart Smith has been asked to conduct an investigation, measuring the span of the barge against the prop scars in the shellfish beds.

About 600,000 seed quahogs were transplanted from the town's shellfish upweller to Mill Creek on Sept. 21, according to Gagne. The area is one of several where seed grown in the upweller at Old Mill Boatyard are planted once they reach 10 to 15 millimeters so that they can grow out to approximately 25 millimeters, when they are less susceptible to predators.

Gagne, four AmeriCorps members, shellfish propagation specialist Rachel Hutchinson and several others placed the 600,000 quahogs underneath four four-millimeter poly nets tacked down with rebar and staples to keep out predators. On Oct. 19, Conservation Agent Calley Harper mentioned to Gagne that the Valco barge had been reported grounded near the shellfish flats. When she inspected the area on Oct. 20, Gagne found that three of the nets had been damaged and dead and dying quahogs had been scattered by a propellor. It was impossible to tell how many quahogs had been destroyed, and the damage to the nets allowed predators access to the seed shellfish.

“So that whole area was compromised as far as we're concerned,” she said. While as many as 450,000 quahogs may have been compromised by exposure to predators when the nets were damaged or being kicked up by a propellor, she estimated 100,000 were lost outright.

“Some of them were just pulverized, so it's not like we could count them individual,” she said. Gagne and her staff moved as many as possible underneath the undamaged net. “Hopefully some of them survive,” she said.

The $7,000 estimate includes the loss of the nets and the replacement cost of 100,000 20 to 25 millimeter quahogs. Conservation commission member Thomas Clarke said that figure was low because it did not include the cost of the labor to transplant the shellfish. The town should be compensated by the contractor for the “thoughtless act,” he said.

The commission will hear a report from Smith on Dec. 2.

Chatham is has the highest quahog landings in the state, Gagne wrote in her memo, and the shellfish propagation program helps ensure that millions of quahogs are available for harvest in the wild fishery.