Sengekontacket to be closed to shellfishing this summer

Reports this March that Sengekontacket Pond, a popular shellfishing spot for thousands of summer visitors and residents alike, would be open to shellfishing once again this summer, except immediately after heavy rainfalls, were premature.

The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) told shellfish constables in Oak Bluffs and Edgartown Friday that the pond must remain closed this summer to shellfishing. It may be two years before the pond can reopen, and then only conditionally.

For the past three summers, the salt pond shared by Edgartown and Oak Bluffs was classified as a “conditionally approved area.” Because of sustained high levels of fecal coliform bacteria primarily attributed to waterfowl waste, the pond was closed to shellfishing.

At a selectmen’s meeting on March 22, Edgartown shellfish constable Paul Bagnal said that based on verbal assurances from DMF he expected that this summer Sengekontacket Pond would be classified as a “rainfall closure area” meaning the pond would only be closed to shellfishing after a rainfall measuring three quarters of an inch or more.

Immediately after a rainfall tests often yield results showing high bacteria levels, because pollution on surrounding roadways, lawns, and islands is washed into the water by the rain. Typically, the bacteria levels fall quickly to a safe level several days after a heavy rainfall.

In a letter to Mr. Grunden and Mr. Bagnall, dated May 25, J. Michael Hickey, DMF chief shellfish program biologist, said, “Upon closer examination of three years’ of data, it has become evident that an insufficient number of water samples have been collected during periods of dry weather to support the continuation of the ‘Open Status to shellfishing’ during the summer months for this year. In the interest of public health, Marine Fisheries will have to conduct additional work in order to comply with National Sanitation Program guidelines.”

Mr. Hickey said the shellfish program had put in place an action plan designed to immediately begin collecting the data. He said, “We will reassess the status of Sengekontacket Pond in the spring of 2011. Depending on weather patterns, it could take up to two years to collect the water quality data required to allow Marine Fisheries to establish a seasonal, rainfall-based conditionally approved classification for Sengekontacket Pond in the open status during the summer months.”

The pond will remain open to shellfishing from October 1 to May 31.

In a telephone call Wednesday, Mr. Hickey told The Times that the expectation in March was that the pond could be open under specific conditions. He said that upon further review, his department realized it had not completed enough testing during dry periods and periods of light rain.

Asked what accounted for the lack of testing over a period of years, Mr. Hickey said there was a misunderstanding as to what needed to be done, and the focus was put on heavy rain events. Upon review it became apparent the department did not have enough dry weather data.

Edgartown shellfish constable Paul Bagnal was disappointed and frustrated with the reversal. “I was just blown out of the water,” Mr. Bagnal said. “I don’t like looking like an idiot. It’s not unusual to get assurances like this by e-mail, phone, or face to face. The paperwork will kind of catch up with the game plan. Well, the game plan did a 180-degree turn.”

He said he was surprised that state officials decided the public health was still at risk. “Even though it was a cool wet summer, Sengekontacket was fairly clean, we got a bunch of clean samples in July and August, and even into September,” Mr. Bagnal said.

Oak Bluffs shellfish constable Dave Grunden said he was crestfallen at the completely unexpected news. He just finished a quahaug relay, seeding Sengekontacket Pond with clams from other, more polluted areas. By next summer, the clams would have cleansed themselves and be ready for safe harvest. The project cost $6,000. He said he made management decisions based on the state’s word that the pond would be open this summer.

“We would have certainly made different decisions,” Mr. Grunden said. “We would have probably done the relay anyhow, but we’d have put the stock in Lagoon Pond.” The quahogs now in Sengekontacket Pond would have been harvested next summer. Now it is unlikely that Sengekontacket Pond will be open this summer or next.

Duncan Ross, chairman of the Joint Oak Bluffs-Edgartown Sengekontacket Restoration Committee, was similarly dismayed at the news. He said with the pond closed this summer, dredging Sengekontacket is now a higher priority.

“That puts dredging right at the top of the list,” Mr. Ross said. “I think it’s imperative we dredge this fall.” Earlier this month, Mr. Ross said if the pond was open, it provided Oak Bluffs with more options for the dredging project, including putting it off another year to secure financing and permits to replenish local beaches with the sand dredged from the pond.