State officials hand over the keys to the hatchery

Friday, the Division of Marine Fisheries presented retired Lobster Hatchery director John Hughes with a lobster print. (L-R) Deputy director Dan McKiernan, environmental analyst Mike Hickey, John Hughes, and director Paul Diodati. — Photo by Nelson Sigelman

In sweltering temperatures Friday, local Island and state officials gathered for a brief ceremony that many hope marks a new era in the history of the long dormant lobster hatchery overlooking Lagoon Pond in Oak Bluffs. Perhaps owing to temperatures in the nineties, formal statements and formalities were kept brief.

Following brief introductions, Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) director Paul Diodati and Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group executive director Rick Karney signed a joint memorandum of agreement under which the state will refurbish and maintain the building and the shellfish group will utilize a portion of the space for shellfish propagation.

The occasion also provided an opportunity to recognize the work of retired hatchery director John Hughes of Tisbury, who raised juvenile lobsters in the facility from 1949 to his retirement in 1984.

Mary Griffin, Fisheries and Wildlife director, said her agencies were delighted to begin a new phase in the life of the lobster hatchery. She credited the leadership role of Rep. Tim Madden in helping to craft a cooperative agreement between DMF and the shellfish group.

Mr. Madden said that one year ago, Mr. Diodati visited the Island and saw the enthusiasm of the shellfishermen and said, “Let’s do something.” Mr. Madden called aquaculture a state priority.

Mr. Madden read a proclamation from the House of Representatives that he presented to Mr. Hughes honoring him for contributions to marine biology and decades of work in the field.

Mr. Hughes, trim and fit at 89, recalled his start. “It was back in 1948. I was hired by Francis Sargent, who later became our governor of Massachusetts, and there were only 14 people in the whole Division of Marine Fisheries,” he said.

“That went from the Rhode Island line to the New Hampshire line and five of the 14 were in the Boston office. I understand now the division has 104 personnel. I wonder if they’re reinventing the wheel,” he said to laughter.

Originally built in 1949, the hatchery was used for lobster research, and as a hatchery for bottom-crawling-stage lobsters as a means to augment the natural population of one of the state’s most important commercial marine species.

Over the years, fisheries managers concluded that the hatching and stocking of lobsters did little in terms of enhancing the natural population, and the program was stopped.

In the nineties, the lobster mission was discontinued and the lobster hatchery became the Martha’s Vineyard Marine Research Station, although the old name continued to stick.

It provided office space for biologist Mike Syslo, Mr. Hughes assistant, Greg Skomal, sport fisheries biologist assigned to the Vineyard, and occasional visiting researchers.

Over the intervening years there was much talk about new funds and purposes for the building. In 2002, there was discussion about providing a venue and programs where K-12 students could learn about the marine environment.

There was also talk about providing facilities and office space for marine studies conducted by state biologists and visiting university graduate students.

Despite a name change, and promises of a new role for the moribund building and money, the state facility continued to exist on a shoestring budget as office space with a view, its overall mission unclear. Currently, only Mr. Syslo remains in the building.

On Friday, local leaders expressed confidence in the future. Mr. Karney held up a key to the hatchery and expressed appreciation to Mr. Diodati and all those present for entrusting the facility and its new mission to the shellfish group.

Providing a tangible link to the past and present, Mr. Diodati presented Mr. Hughes with a print of an American lobster on behalf of the agency. “We really want to thank you for all that you did,” Mr. Diodati said. “And we want you to know that this facility is always going to be used for propagation. Who knows, it might even get back to lobsters some day.”