Our View: One Size Doesn't Fit All

Opinion

The National Shellfish Sanitation Program is a cooperative program between states and the federal government aimed at ensuring that shellfish are safe to eat. The program coordinates shellfish sanitation regulations between states so that they are uniform, with similar growing area classifications and dealer certification programs.

But imposing uniform regulations over many shellfish-growing states doesn't necessarily make for good policy, as we're seeing with recently implemented federal rules regarding water quality and potential pollution.

The new regulations threaten to shut down shellfishing in seven areas that are near boat mooring fields or marinas. Under the new rules, these areas are now classified as “conditionally approved” whereas previously they were considered approved for shellfishing. Chatham has several conditionally approved areas that are closed to shellfishing in the summer when water quality can degrade. According to Chatham Shellfish Constable Rene Gagne, however, the change has nothing to do with water quality – which Chatham keeps a keen eye on – but is a reaction to concern over potential pollution from boats, chiefly wastewater being dumped overboard. It's not an unfounded fear; marine heads being emptied near shellfish grounds have caused contamination and illness.

Yet this is a more realistic fear in areas where people live on moored or docked vessels. That's rare here. As Chatham Director of Health and Natural Resources Robert Duncanson said, there's a big difference between a marina where people live on their boats and boat parking lots, which is essentially what most of the Cape's mooring fields and boatyards are. The federal regulations don't seem to recognize this distinction.

Despite the new regulation, Chatham has kept its shellfish areas around mooring areas open. To try to accommodate the change, the town has tightened up mooring fields and redrawn shellfish areas. Federal inspectors will be in town next week to check compliance. Armed with water quality data, wastewater dumping restrictions and anecdotal information about the lack of people living on boats, town officials can, we hope, convince the feds that the town is following the new rules. At stake is the ability of local commercial shellfishermen to access numerous productive areas that contribute to the town's multi-million-dollar shellfish industry. Other Cape towns, which are in the same boat as Chatham, will be watching closely.