When The Times first reached Rick Karney on Nov. 18 to follow up on a rumor that he was retiring as the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group (MVSG) director, he was, appropriately, at an International Conference on Shellfish Restoration in Charleston, S.C., to present the MVSG’s pioneering work on the use of invasive phragmites for nitrogen reduction.
The phragmites project is one of a long list of innovative ventures Mr. Karney, renowned shellfish biologist and founder of MVSG, has overseen in his 41-year tenure as director — from setting up the nation’s first public solar shellfish hatchery in the early 1980s to new pilot programs that are studying the viability of kelp farming and mussel farming in Vineyard waters.
On Jan. 1, 2017, he will transition to MVSG director-emeritus.
“I really love my job, but after 40 years I don’t love it seven days a week anymore,” he said. “I want to stay involved, but I want to step back from the director role and the fundraising.”
This Monday, Mr. Karney made his formal announcement in a press release and fundraising letter.
“The Shellfish Group, from nearly day one, has been my baby,” he wrote. “Our hatchery is a well-oiled machine reliably producing tens of millions of shellfish seed annually. Our expertise in shellfish culture is internationally recognized. We continue to incorporate cutting-edge ideas and technologies in pursuit of our mission to preserve and enhance the Island’s shellfish resources and the clean water quality they require.”
Mr. Karney was also candid about his ambivalence: “On the eve of my retirement, I would not be honest to say I do not approach my transition with some trepidation. All change is fraught with some degree of anxiety. Is there life after shellfish?!”
After Mr. Karney steps down, special projects manager Emma Green-Beach and hatchery manager Amandine Hall will step in as co-directors. “I am confident [they] possess the expertise, passion, and dedication to successfully carry the Shellfish Group and its mission forward for years to come,” he wrote in his letter.
Speaking to The Times on Tuesday, amid the labyrinth of pipes and hoses at the Oak Bluffs lobster hatchery, Mr. Karney said when he first decided to shift to an emeritus role, there was brief discussion about hiring a new director from outside, but it was quickly dismissed. “I don’t think any of the staff was thrilled with that, and the thing is, a lot of what we do is very specialized, and we’ve been refining things over a number of years. And they’re such a dedicated group, you couldn’t do better than the staff we have in place right now.”
‘Going to be missed’
Mr. Karney, a world-renowned shellfish expert with “aw shucks” modesty, is almost solely responsible for the robust aquaculture industry that exists today on Martha’s Vineyard. It began in the mid-’90s as an experiment to help displaced fishermen.
“One of the things I am most proud of is the role we had in setting up the oyster farmers,” he said. “That started in 1995 with a federal grant. When I get out to see the guys in Katama Bay, and to see that industry and to know that I had some impact in getting it started and supported, I’m really proud of that. They’re in there doing it, they’re making money, and they’re still working on the water. It’s still frustrating that some of the towns don’t want to see private aquaculture.”
The Vineyard economy has substantially benefited from MVSG’s pioneering work. Data from the Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF), show that Vineyard oysters are trending upward. According to statistics compiled from wholesale dealers, in 2013, 1,512,004 Vineyard-farmed oysters were sold, in 2014, 2,315,244 oysters, in 2015, 2,665,374 oysters, and as of Nov. 27 of this year, 2,718,102 have been sold.
“He is going to be missed,” Jack Blake, co-owner of Katama-based Sweet Neck Farm, told The Times. “He was crucial in getting aquaculture off the ground on this Island.” Mr. Blake was one of the “Original 16,” the first group of people who attempted oyster farming on the Vineyard in the mid-1990s, under Mr. Karney’s tutelage. Five of them are still farming today.
“He did more than train us,” Mr. Blake said. “He’d go to hearings and talk to the selectmen about the benefits of aquaculture, he got grant money to keep things going. We each were given $15,000 to get started, to figure things out, to learn what not to do. When I invented something, he saw the possibilities and would somehow find a grant so we could build it and share it with the rest of the farmers. He was instrumental in bringing back oysters to Edgartown Great Pond. The list goes on and on. He’s been a busy man.”
“Rick has done an awesome job,” Edgartown shellfish constable Paul Bagnall told The Times. Edgartown has, by far, the most robust aquaculture community of any Island town. “The productivity of the hatchery has been phenomenal. He started in a small building in Chappy and made a big difference in Edgartown, helping displaced fishermen transition to aquaculture. He’s also been a very positive force on the environmental front for the entire Island. I can’t say enough good about him. He’s still going to be around. Emma and Amandine are fully trained, so it should be a seamless transition.”
Recently appointed Martha’s Vineyard Fishermen’s Trust executive director Shelley Edmundson went to Mr. Karney for help three years ago when she was studying whelk for her doctorate in zoology. “I went to him and said I had this crazy idea, and he couldn’t have been more supportive,” she told The Times. “He always has 101 projects going on, but he would always take time. It was so nice to have someone who knows so much take you in.”
Ms. Edmundson said Mr. Karney’s reputation as a preeminent shellfish biologist stretches far beyond Vineyard waters. “I could go to a shellfish conference in Nashville, Tenn., and when people heard I worked on the Vineyard, they’d get excited and ask about Rick. He’s a shellfish celebrity.”
Mr. Karney was also instrumental in establishing the first shellfish hatchery in Zanzibar. “I was asked by a fellow at [Wood’s Hole Oceanographic Institute] to help out,” he said. “My hatchery is pretty simple, and I think they wanted someone who could build a hatchery on a very simple scale.” Mr. Karney said the initial results were mixed, in large part due to water quality. “But they’re now building a hatchery at a university with cleaner water quality, so we did make some progress,” he said. “One fellow we trained just got his master’s degree, and now he’s working with sea cucumbers, which are quite popular there.”
‘Fouled the nest’
Mr. Karney said that shellfish production in the wild is down across the world. “All the graphs we saw [at the International Conference on Shellfish Restoration] show production plummeting,” he said. “There’s a lot of things we can do, but there’s a lot of things we don’t understand yet.”
Mr. Karney said the correlation with production and water quality is well understood, and the state of Vineyard waters deeply concerns him.
“Water quality is key to everything,” he said. “We produce millions of seed shellfish, but if we don’t have the water quality that’s going to allow the animals to thrive, it’s a losing battle. These waters can still be very productive. Now we’ve fouled the nest. Our job is to undo what we’ve done. It’s not going to be cheap and it’s not going to be fast, but you have a vision and you move forward.”
Mr. Karney remains hopeful that the nitrogen battle can be won with science and common sense. As an example, he said the MVSG studies on phragmites have shown promise. The studies will also examine potential uses for the harvested plant — including conversion into biofuel.
“We’re excited about the idea of making fuel pellets and biochar out of it,” he said.
Mr. Karney is guardedly optimistic the MVSG can help hold the line.
“The shellfish are holding their own,” he said. “I would say if we hadn’t been doing what we’ve been doing for the past 40 years, we would be in a much tougher state. When you see private aquaculture doing well here, you see these waters can still be productive.”
In recent years, the MVSG has widened its research net to include algae, kelp, and mussel farming. “We’re working with two kinds of mussels,” he said. “Mussels are one of the most protein-rich food sources there is. If mussel farming takes off, it could feed a lot of hungry people around the world.”
Mr. Karney ended his Nov. 28 letter with a plea for public support that would enable the MVSG to keep up the fight. Although each Island town contributes to the MVSG, the total still leaves a substantial shortfall:
“Presently, we are weathering the storm of a $50,000 cut in state funding. With your support we can continue to play our important role in the community.”
Tax-deductible donations to the MVSG can be made at the MVSG website, mvshellfishgroup.org.