Oak Bluffs shellfishermen air gripes, reap rewards
Oak Bluffs commercial shellfishermen turned out in force at the April 27 selectmen's meeting and unloaded a litany of complaints. Several accused the town of dragging its feet on a project to dredge Sengekontacket Pond. Others said the town does not do enough to support the shellfish industry. And the prospect of a cooperative agreement with Tisbury raised fears of regionalization on the part of some fishermen.
The fishermen said that when it comes to town resources they are on the short end.
"We get no funding from the town, we haven't for years," commercial fisherman Bill Alwardt said. "The shellfish department is the lowest on the totem pole."
But an examination of the public record and the town budget reveals that commercial fishermen benefited from a resource supported mostly by recreational users.
In the last fiscal year, town taxpayers spent $177,314 on shellfish programs and issued more than 593 year-round and short-term recreational shellfish permits, generating more than $10,150 for town coffers, of which 75 percent went back into the shelfish program. By contrast, the town sold 11 commercial licenses, generating $3,300.
A long delayed plan to dredge Sengekontacket Pond was one sore spot at the meeting. Voters have agreed to borrow $500,000 for the project, but increasing costs may put the final price tag much higher. Various estimates of the total cost range from $700,000 to $1 million to complete the project as planned.
The project was originally scheduled to begin last winter but ran into permit delays that became further complicated when the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) expressed concerns about possible historic artifacts that could be displaced by dredging. As a result, the project missed the seasonal permitting window and was put on hold.
"I would have thought you would have gone out to bid by now," Mr. Alwardt, said. "This should have been looked into long ago. This board should have been more involved in the process. The whole process has been a mess from the beginning to find out where the permits are, where we stand with grants. You're talking $200,000 more to get this job totally done. I don't want to look at half a job. The selectmen in this town have been dragging their feet."
Rumors of regionalization raised the ire of many in the group. Fishermen who attended a recent Oak Bluffs Shellfish Association meeting said they were unanimous in their opposition to any regional cooperation with Tisbury. Earlier this year, town administrator Michael Dutton asked shellfish constable David Grunden to informally gather some information about regionalization, but Mr. Grunden said he has not begun that process and doesn't expect to for months.
"Nobody has started it," Mr. Grunden said. "I haven't put pen to paper to figure anything out. I'm not seeing much done until the middle of the summer."
Despite repeated assurances from selectmen that there has been no negotiation or discussion about regionalization by selectmen, the fishermen persisted.
"The town of Oak Bluffs has always had its own shellfish department and that's what we want to keep," commercial permit holder Steve Amaral said. "We don't want to merge with anybody."
The fishermen seized on Mr. Grunden's recent private consulting work with Tisbury to bolster their claim. Mr. Grunden has been assisting his recently laid off department staffer Danielle Ewart, Tisbury's newly hired shellfish constable.
Mr. Grunden said he works 5 to 10 hours a week in Tisbury on his own time. He said he still works 55 to 60 hours a week as the Oak Bluffs constable. Before losing staff, he said he normally worked about 45 hours per week in Oak Bluffs.
"Since Danielle left," Mr. Grunden said "I've been on seven days a week, trying to keep up. Having suffered a 40 percent cut in staff hours, there are things that will have to be deleted. Right now, I'm eliminating some of the more labor-intensive things. One of the labor-intensive things is growing steamer clams, which I hate to cut out, but I'm not seeing much option."
No assurances given by selectmen, or by Mr. Grunden, appeared to alleviate the concern of the fishermen.
"There has to be more effort put into propagating shellfish. Let Vineyard Haven take care of themselves and Oak Bluff take care of themselves," Mr. Alwardt said.
Oak Bluffs taxpayers spend a considerable amount of money to enhance shellfish resources. Nearly all of it is spent directly or indirectly to propagate shellfish, or to enforce regulations such as quota limits and seasonal restrictions.
At town meeting in 2009, voters appropriated $251,286, a figure later reduced to $177,314 because of a mid-year budget crisis.
At last month's town meeting on April 13, voters appropriated $146,899 for the shellfish department to operate in the fiscal year that begins July 1. That included a $30,000 assessment for the Martha's Vineyard Shellfish Group, which provides seed shellfish.
There are other expenditures that benefit the shellfish program. For example, the $500,000 dredging project is intended to improve circulation in Sengekontacket pond, to keep the water cleaner and prevent closures due to high bacteria counts.
Other soft costs are difficult to quantify, but town employees spend time writing grants, navigating the complex regulatory permit process, attending meetings with regulatory agencies, and negotiating contracts. Other town departments, especially the highway department, provide labor and equipment to assist the shellfish department.
According to shellfish department figures, in 2009, the town sold 210 residential recreational permits at $35 each, generating $7,350 in revenue. The town issued an additional 332 senior recreational permits at no cost. Various non-resident and shorter term recreational licenses brought in an additional $2,800.
The town issued 11 commercial permits at a cost of $300 each for a total of $3,300. The total revenue for all licenses sold was $13,450.
In order to place a comparative value on the shellfish harvest, The Times broke down the monthly catch figures to align with the 2009 fiscal year. From July 1, 2008, to June 30, 2009, the department spent $177,314 on shellfish resources.
In the 2009 fiscal year 11 commercial fishermen claimed the bulk of the bay scallop harvest, the most lucrative crop. Commercial fishermen took 98 bushels of scallops from Sengekontacket Pond, 586 bushels from Lagoon Pond, and 113 bushels from outside the ponds, for a total harvest of 797 bushels. Recreational scallopers took a total of 341 bushels during the same period.
The average yield from a bushel is between seven and eight pounds. Last season, the price fluctuated between $8 and $13 per pound.
Recreational fishermen and visitors took a total of 759 bushels of clams of various sizes, from steamers to quahogs, from the two ponds and the harbor during the 2009 fiscal year. Commercial fishermen harvested 796 bushels of clams during the same year-long period.
Though allowances must be made for seasonal price and yield fluctuations, Mr. Grunden estimated the wholesale price of all shellfish taken from Oak Bluffs waters at about $200,000 to $250,000.
The state Division of Marine Fisheries uses an economic multiplier of 4.5 to estimate the value of the industry to a community. "They take into account how many times the money changes hands, from the fisherman, to the wholesaler, to the consumer, and so on," Mr. Grunden said. Using the economic multiplying effect, he estimates shellfishing to be worth more than $1 million annually to Oak Bluffs.