Aquinnah will pay to clean up failed oyster farming operation
Photo by Steve Myrick
This week, Aquinnah town officials said they plan to take steps to clean up scores of plastic mesh bags used to raise oysters. The bags now litter the western shoreline of Menemsha Pond.
The bags, most of them derelict, make a final footnote to an ambitious project to raise oysters that began with the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) in 2002.
For years, rafts of tribe-owned black bags and a work barge floating in Menemsha Pond generated complaints from property owners unhappy that their view of the pond was interrupted, and especially unhappy with the litter generated when pieces of foam floats and bags broke free and washed up on the shore.
The tribe ceased its commercial oyster-farming venture in 2007 and removed the work barge last year, although there are unused oyster grow bags littering the area formerly leased by the tribe. The tribe also promised to clean up the residue. The town last spring compensated pond side property owners for the loss in value by issuing property tax abatements for two fiscal years.
In June, selectmen took steps to evict Roxane "Johnny" Ackerman of Aquinnah from a lease she received in 1998 to grow oysters on Menemsha Pond. Ms. Ackerman's lease is along the shore near but not abutting the former tribe lease. The selectmen cited the unkempt bags along the shoreline. These bags may have begun their working life for the tribe, in its oyster culture program. How they became part of Ms. Ackerman's project is unclear, despite interviews with town and tribe officials.
Monday afternoon, a Times reporter walked along the shoreline at low tide. More than 120 black plastic mesh grow bags could be seen scattered along the beach or washed up into the tidal marsh near both the Ackerman lease and the former tribe lease.
Several bags were filled to bursting with dead oysters. Mooring balls and lines lay tangled along the pebbled shore. While some grow bags floated in orderly fashion in the shallow water just off the beach, hundreds more were piled up in disorderly heaps.
That much is clear. How much the cleanup will cost taxpayers, who is responsible for the bags, who the town will approach to recover the costs, what of the lease requirements, and why did it take so long to act remain questions, and the answers are as tangled as the lines and gear along the pond shore.
Town takes action
In a telephone conversation Monday, Camille Rose, chairman of the Aquinnah selectmen, said it has taken a great deal of time but the town is now in a position to clean up the plastic grow bags from Menemsha Pond. "It is on the verge of being cleaned up, and I am embarrassed that it has taken so long," Ms. Rose said.
Ms. Rose said the bags observed on the pond are the responsibility of Ms. Ackerman, because they are now on her lot and not the tribe's lot. Ms. Rose said Ms. Ackerman has custody of the bags, but she could not describe with any certainty how it is that Ms. Ackerman is now responsible for grow bags the tribe placed on the pond or the exact locations of the leased areas.
Selectman Spencer Booker, a tribe member and former president of the Wampanoag Shellfish Hatchery Corporation, the entity that operated the farm, said he is also exasperated.
"The town has been incredibly lenient with the leaseholders for many years now," Mr. Booker said. "The abutters have been incredibly patient as well. That time has come and gone." Mr. Booker noted that the town has issued tax abatements annually to property owners near the oyster farming projects, based on their inability to make use of the beach and pond.
At their June 15 meeting, the selectmen voted to revoke Ms. Ackerman's aquaculture lease as of that day. In a letter dated June 17, the board wrote, "It was determined that the condition of your operation and the equipment within the lease's designated area of Menemsha Pond has repeatedly gone unkempt, even after numerous warnings."
The board included 17 photographs showing the state of the oyster farm. "To the extent that it now presents a public health and safety issue with the abandonment of harvested oysters and equipment scattered about, the board hereby directs you to remove at once all associated equipment, dispose of abandoned oyster stock, and restore the impacted beach areas, both public and private, to its natural setting," the selectmen wrote.
Town coordinator Jeffrey Burgoyne said the final step in the eviction process is to notify Ms. Ackerman in writing of the board's intent to clean up her area. That has not yet happened.
Mr. Burgoyne said the contract to clean up the shoreline would follow state procurement laws, including the requirement to get three proposals for the work. Mr. Burgoyne said the board could not estimate the total cost of the work, but may be able to minimize the cost by using the town's workboat.
Ms. Ackerman, the town's elected member of the up-Island regional school committee, disputed charges that her oyster farm is in disarray. In a phone interview with The Times, she said no more than a couple of bags have washed ashore in recent weeks, and she said she works on the pond every day.
"After some bad storms you have to regroup," Ms. Ackerman said. "That's a pretty fast and easy process, and it's my understanding that the tribe is working to have a team put that back in order. I'm very encouraged. I wish they would do it in a more timely way. My site is maintained, and if you don't like the way I work on it, then I suggest you get together with me and talk about what would make things better."
Ms. Ackerman refused to clarify who is responsible for the debris along the shoreline. Town officials said her oyster farm is an area on the southern side of the shoreline, while the tribe's project is on the northern side of the shoreline. But she said the aquaculture operation is a joint effort. "We all work together on a very wonderful project," Ms. Ackerman said. "Somewhere along the way, the tribe decided they weren't going to support the project any longer."
Ms. Ackerman, who is the mother of tribe planner Durwood Vanderhoop, would not say whether she has been notified of the town's intention to evict her from the pond. "I have a five-year lease," Ms. Ackerman said. "I was renewed last year. I expect that to be continued and be honored."
She said town officials have always worked against the project, and she recently contacted selectmen in a letter. "I responded and said, let's have a work plan," Ms. Ackerman said. "Let's work with the shellfish committee. We want to make this work."
When asked when that letter was sent, she replied, "I don't know, goodbye."
A telephone call and email exchange with tribe officials shed little light on the tribe's current role or how it is that Ms. Ackerman is now responsible for the bags that litter the shore.
In an email to tribe administrator Tobias Vanderhoop, The Times asked who owns the bags, to what extent the tribe would contribute to the cleanup, and the tribe's relationship to Ms. Ackerman's operation.
"The Tribe is responsible for picking up our own bags," Mr. Vanderhoop wrote on behalf of tribe chairman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais. "The tribe outlined how we would respond to bags found on the beach in an agreement letter sent to the town last December. The tribe has given away and/or sold off most of our extra bags, and our bags in the field are tagged with our name and the number to call if they are found.
"The tribe retrieves our own bags if they are reported found, directly to us or to the town. As for additional contributions to the town, the tribe pays the town quite a bit of money each year, in addition to donations of equipment. For details please see the 2009 town annual report. As far as any other grower on the pond, the tribe has no oversight or opinion on how they manage their own field or lease."
Mr. Vanderhoop did not address the presence of bags on the shore of the tribe's former lease.
Lease status is unclear
When the issue of debris came to a head last spring, the tribe pledged to scale back their oyster farm to provide educational and cultural opportunities for tribe members and others. Tribe members reorganized the aquaculture project, cleaned up abandoned bags, and removed a large work barge from the pond.
The town did not renew the tribe's bottom grant. "The lease renewal hasn't happened," Mr. Booker said. "Currently I'd consider them a tenant at will." But Mr. Booker said the lease did not contain any specific language about tenancy at will, a common provision in property leases that allows a tenant to rent at the will of the landlord under the terms of the lease, on a month-to-month basis once the lease expires.
The terms of the tribe's lease cannot be examined, because the town can't find it. Mr. Burgoyne said previous efforts to locate the legal document were unsuccessful.
Mr. Burgoyne has said that the tribe's lease is a standard document, like those signed by Ms. Ackerman and Mr. Sanfilippo. Those leases do not contain any language providing for the leaseholder to continue operating a shellfishing farm, as a tenant at will, after the lease has expired. The standard lease says the town has a right to revoke the lease for any violation of the terms of the lease, and the leaseholder has 30 days to vacate the property. It also says the lease holder cannot transfer all or part of the lease.
Bid in hand
On September 1, James Sanfilippo, a shellfisherman and assistant shellfish constable who also holds a pond lease, submitted a proposal to remove the grow bags and gear from the shoreline and transport them to West Basin, where they would be trucked to town property for storage and eventual disposal.
He would charge $25 per hour, per man for the work, and charge $75 per day for the use of his workboat. The proposal does not estimate the time it will take, or the number of people necessary to do the job.
Mr. Sanfilippo said he does not believe there is very much to be salvaged from the operation. "If I find anything that looks like fishing, I'll put it on my grant and wait for someone to claim it," Mr. Sanfilippo said. "If the tribe or Roxanne feel there is any value to any of that, they should act accordingly and responsibly before I get there."
Mr. Sanfilippo raises quahogs on a leased portion of the pond located between the leases originally granted to the tribe and Ms. Ackerman. The shoreline along Mr. Sanfilippo's operation is clear of debris. No gear is visible above the water.
"We've all got to pay our own way," Mr. Sanfilippo said. "I have a shellfish grant, and its very frustrating to be surrounded by mismanagement."
The tribe began raising oysters in its new solar shellfish hatchery in 2002, under the direction of hatchery director Rob Garrison.
The oyster farming operation consisted of a work barge and rafts of floating plastic mesh bags. Juvenile oysters were placed in the bags and allowed to grow to a marketable size. The bags, tethered together and individually suspended in the water with foam floatation on the sides.
In the spring of 2004, the hatchery began shipping out shellfish marketed as "Tomahawk Oysters" that had been raised to maturity in Menemsha Pond.
But shoreside clutter and floating debris became the source of growing complaints. Following a meeting with Aquinnah residents in the summer of 2005, the tribe promised to redouble its cleanup efforts.
In September 2007, Mr. Garrison left. Later that year Mr. Booker announced the suspension of hatchery operations as part of a needed restructuring. He said at the time that the tribe had decided that after six years, going on seven, that it was time for the shellfish operation to become a self-sustaining entity and stand on its feet financially. There was an ample supply of oysters currently in the grow bags at that time, he added, enough to sustain operations for the next few years.