Martha’s Vineyard fishermen feed Tisbury Great Pond with shells

Ray Gale maneuvers the barge back into position to take on another load of shells. Peter Vann, left, and Jake Bassett are on the barge. — Photo by Whit Griswold

In an effort to replenish the population of wild oysters in Tisbury Great Pond, a dozen watermen gathered at Sepiessa Point in West Tisbury on Saturday, June 18, to dump shells at strategic points around the pond. A week later seven of them returned to finish the job.

The Shell Reef Restoration Project, as the endeavor is called, is a joint effort between Chilmark and West Tisbury, which share the pond. The dividing line between the two towns runs roughly down the middle of the pond, from the spot where the Tiasquam River enters Town Cove on the north to the barrier beach between Long Point and Quansoo on the south.

The goal of the restoration project is to provide a kind of nursery for baby oysters, known as spat, which like to attach themselves to something solid as they grow. The effort was started five years ago by the late Tom Osmers, the West Tisbury shellfish warden at the time.

Twenty years ago, there were enough oysters in the pond to support a limited commercial fishery, and there were easy pickings for town residents with a shellfish license who went down to scratch up their weekly allotment. Most of the shells taken from the pond were not replenished, however, which compromised their habitat.

Another threat came from far away. By the late 1990s, oysters in Tisbury Great Pond and Edgartown Great Pond had been infected by a disease called Dermo, which was first noticed in the Gulf of Mexico in the 1950s and slowly moved up the Atlantic Coast. While unharmful to humans, Dermo curtails the oyster’s ability to reproduce, and the number of harvestable oysters in the two great ponds collapsed. Since then, most local oysters have been “farmed,” principally in Katama Bay, but also in Menemsha Pond.

To rebuild a viable fishery for wild oysters, then, the idea was to provide the most promising habitat possible for those oysters that had not been made sterile by Dermo, with the ultimate hope of developing a strain that was resistant to the disease. A critical element in that habitat was building up the bottom of the pond with the kind of substrate that young oysters prefer.

In the last few autumns, Chilmark and West Tisbury have trucked in discarded ocean quahog and sea clam shells from Blount Seafood in Warren, R.I. Mounded along the access road to the landing at Sepiessa, the shells were left out through the winter to be cleansed by the weather.

There was no lack of manpower when it came time to “plant” the oysters in the pond. Chilmark shellfish propagation officer Isaiah Scheffer and Ray Gale, the newly appointed shellfish constable in West Tisbury, led a crew made up of Peter Vann, Patrick Ruel, Willie Whiting, Johnny Hoy, Jason Gale, Dennis Jason Jr., Lev Wodyka, and John Armstrong, along with Jake Bassett, the assistant warden in Chilmark.

David Merry brought a Bobcat to load the shells into fish totes that were placed on the Bobcat’s trailer. Mr. Merry then backed the trailer down to the water’s edge, where the totes were slid along a rolling ramp and onto an 8- by 18-foot flat-top barge belonging to John Packer. Originally designed to spread sand on flooded cranberry bogs, the barge was trucked from Tashmoo up to Sepiessa by Matt Merry. Lashed to the stern of the barge was an outboard-powered skiff, with Mr. Gale at the helm.

Once the deck of the barge was covered with totes, Mr. Gale reversed the rig away from the landing and headed out into the pond to predetermined drop sites. On June 18, some 300 totes full of shells were dumped on several sites around the lower, broader part of the pond. About half that many were dumped a week later, on June 25. (A tote carries about 3.3 cubic feet of material.)

The success of the reef restoration effort remains to be seen, but it will almost certainly help. Oysters not only provide protein and employment for humans, they also contribute to the overall health of the pond by mitigating some of the damage done by our introduction of nitrogen, either from fertilizers or septic systems.

Too much nitrogen spawns too much algae, which sinks to the bottom after it dies, decomposes, and turns into mayonnaise-like muck. This seals the bottom, in effect, denying access from above to oysters, scallops, and finfish, and from below to quahogs and soft-shell clams. In an extreme example of this phenomenon, called eutrophication, a pond may die for all practical purposes.

Oysters, which feed on the algae, filter some of the nitrogen out of the pond. So the more oysters there are, the better the water quality, which makes the pond more hospitable to the oysters, which leads to more oysters, and more oysters mean more jobs catching and processing them, and…the cycle continues.

“I’m doing this because you never know when there are going to be hard times,” said David Merry, who oystered full-time on the pond in the 1980s. “And if there are oysters down there, then my kid, or your kid, is going to have a way to make a living, or part of it.”

Creating jobs is at the top of the list for Mr. Scheffer, who said it gave him hope to see younger people trying to make a living fishing. “There was a time there after people in my dad’s generation started to get older when young people weren’t interested in fishing, but that seems to be changing,” he said.

Judging by the upbeat mood of those doing the heavy lifting last Saturday, it seems like the change has already come.