Former manager blames tribe leaders for failure
David Vanderhoop, the last manager of the unsuccessful oyster project of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, Aquinnah defended his role in the ill-fated aquaculture operation in a conversation with The Times Monday. He said he is being unfairly blamed for the failure of the project.
"I think there are people that blame me for the downfall of it," Mr. Vanderhoop said. "I was the last one in charge of it, so of course they're going to point the finger at me. I don't think that's fair. I came in with a deficit, and I left with a deficit. Who else are they going to blame?"
Mr. Vanderhoop said the project failed in part because the Wampanoag Aquinnah Shellfish Hatchery (WASH) directors could not agree on important decisions at a critical point in the life of oyster aquaculture project.
"They were dysfunctional," Mr. Vanderhoop said. "They couldn't make a decision on what to do about anything. They were very good at staying on the fence. I think it goes beyond just this one business. I think it's a problem with the tribe, as a functioning entity."
Mr. Vanderhoop said his college education focused on aquaculture and fisheries management, so he was thrilled to begin work on the project in 2001, as a field manager. "It was right up my alley," he said. "My ancestors all made a living on that pond. Menemsha Pond sustained the Wampanoag people. I felt really good about the job, using my education."
At first the project was extremely successful, Mr. Vanderhoop said. After start-up funding from grants and other tribe resources that totaled "in the millions," the project reached a point where sales ranged from 3,200 to 10,000 oysters per week during the summer months, at an average wholesale price of 75 cents per oyster. But, after the summer of 2005, according to Mr. Vanderhoop, tribe leaders lost faith in the project because it was not making a profit.
"The tribe didn't have the reins pulled tight enough, so they knew exactly what was being spent, and what was being brought in," Mr. Vanderhoop said. Tribal leaders formed WASH, and demanded that the project operate as a business, but did not provide any operating funds, or budget guidance, according to Mr. Vanderhoop.
"They totally let that go," said Mr. Vanderhoop. "Some of the board members didn't know anything about the fishing industry. Some of them hadn't even been out on the water, or out on the pond, or checked out the oyster site, didn't know what was required to actually run the business."
Rob Garrison, the aquaculture expert who led the project for the first four years, was dismissed, and Mr. Vanderhoop was promoted to manage the project. He said the upheaval came at a critical point for the business. In the first summer he was in charge, Mr. Vanderhoop said the corporation decided to sell seed oysters to raise operating capital, in a gamble that risked future operations to keep the business afloat in 2007.