Changing Rules Could Squeeze Shellfishermen

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Commercial fishing and shellfishing

Shellfishing in the Mitchell River may be prohibited during the summer under new federal rules. FILE PHOTO

Potential Closures Not Related To Water Quality

CHATHAM — A change in federal rules has the potential to shut down shellfish harvesting in some of the town’s productive waterways in the summertime. And while the implications of the change aren’t yet known, town officials say there’s a need to be prepared.

In an update to the select board last week, Shellfish Constable Renee Gagne said that seven of the town’s designated shellfishing areas have been reclassified “conditionally approved” rather than “approved” in a change that has nothing to do with water quality. The seven locations – close to the mooring fields in Mill Pond, Little Mill Pond, Battlefield Landing, Stage Harbor, the Mitchell River, the northern part of Oyster River and the southern part of Oyster Pond River – all remain open to shellfishing for now.

While the town has the authority to regulate its shellfish areas under state law, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has indirect oversight under the National Shellfish Sanitation Program.

“This oversight was established because of a huge typhoid outbreak in 1925, where the primary vector was the consumption of raw oysters,” Gagne said. Because people often eat shellfish raw, the government provides extra oversight of the industry, she noted. The town relies on water quality sampling to determine whether shellfish are safe to harvest in particular areas; places with strong tidal flushing like Stage Harbor, Ryder’s Cove and Crow’s Pond are in the “approved” classification, while spots with poor water quality like Frost Fish Creek, are named “prohibited.” In other locations, shellfishing is allowed in cooler weather when water quality is acceptable and are closed in the summer. “Those are the standards we have been abiding by for years,” she said. “We’ve had excellent water quality,” Gagne noted.

In a series of virtual meetings held during the pandemic, the FDA revised its standards to focus not only on water quality, but on potential sources of pollution, chiefly the presence of boats.

“A lot of us were blindsided by this new language that was adopted,” she said. As a result, seven of Chatham’s shellfish areas closest to mooring fields or boatyards were reclassified as conditionally approved. The town has opted to keep the areas open to the taking of shellfish, “because we believe we have the justification for that,” Gagne said. She’s hopeful that they will be able to remain open, “but we will find out soon enough if that’s the case.”

Next week, FDA agents will be in town to inspect the town’s compliance with the new rules. The town has already taken steps to compact its mooring fields and to redraw the map of shellfish areas to include the seven new locations drawn tightly around the mooring fields. It’s not clear how federal regulators will receive those changes.

“They will be coming here looking for violations. That’s what they’re going to do,” Gagne said. “And more than likely, our mooring fields will not pass the sniff test.”

Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said the town went through a similar challenge in the late 1980s or early ‘90s, and was able to make a compelling argument that local mooring fields don’t pose a significant threat to water quality. Unfortunately, he said, many of the previous players in that discussion have since retired.

“There’s a lot of new people, a lot of new interpretations of the same kind of data,” he said.

The town’s central defense is that its mooring fields are used for the parking of empty boats. In other parts of the country, like Florida and California, huge mooring areas and marinas host thousands of larger boats with people living aboard them and generating waste.

“There’s a big difference between a parking lot harbor versus a marina in Southern California with a thousand live-aboards in it,” Duncanson said. Chatham has also prohibited the discharge of waste from boats in its waterways, and Nantucket Sound is also a no-discharge zone.

Duncanson said he and Gagne will make the case to FDA inspectors when they come to town, if they are given the chance to do so. Other communities with wild shellfisheries will be watching closely, since Chatham is the first Massachusetts coastal community to undergo its periodic inspection under the new rules.

“We will be the test case,” Gagne said.

Under a worst-case scenario, Chatham would be required to close the seven shellfish areas to harvesting during the boating season, she noted.

“The bullrake fishery will be the one that’s most impacted if those areas are closed down,” select board member Shareen Davis said. Shellfishermen use the long-handled rakes to harvest shellfish in deeper waters that aren’t exposed at low tide. Davis said Chatham has one of the largest wild shellfisheries in the state.

“We have a good product in Chatham,” she said. Gagne agreed.

“We meet the minimum standards at every sample testing,” she said. “Our water quality is not a question.” The new standards focus on potential pollution sources, Gagne said.

According to town figures, the town’s commercial shellfish harvest in the first half of 2022 had a wholesale value of $636,275, with quahogs accounting for almost two-thirds of that amount. Select board Chair Jeffrey Dykens called it an “incredible little economic engine that we need to support in many ways. I would hate to see it limited in some fashion by other powers that be,” he said.