35 years and counting, with your help


To the Editor:

2012 will mark the 35th anniversary of the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group. Traditionally such a milestone is reason to reflect on the past and ponder the future. So, please permit me to indulge in some memories.

In 1976, when I accepted the position of shellfish biologist, I was a typical twenty-something happy to have found a job in my field that would pay the bills. Little did I know then, I was really signing up for a Blues Brothers-style “Mission from God” odyssey to save the shellfish resources on Martha’s Vineyard. Or, that the quixotic quest would so pervade my life for 35 years. As best as I understand it, the “impossible dream” was spawned in the creative consciousness of Martha’s Vineyard Commission coastal planner Michael Wild and fueled by the passions of the then-shellfish constables.

Back then, the shellfish constables were all older than me. These guys were almost all former salt-of-the-earth shellfishermen and served as my mentors, sharing with me all that they knew about the Island and its shellfish. In the process, they grounded any academic knowledge and aspirations I had to offer. At one of my first meetings with them, I asked them for suggestions about possible projects, and their answer was, “We think you ought to get a badge.”

I was confused and frustrated at this unexpected response until I later realized that they all carried badges, and this was my invitation to join their shellfish brotherhood and help carry out their mission to protect and expand the Island’s shellfish. That mission was the project.

Over the years, their passions and shellfish vision became my own, and together we accomplished much. Of our many successes, the building of the solar shellfish hatchery and the many years of producing millions of seed shellfish to replenish the ponds have been paramount. Today most of those original visionaries have passed away and I now find myself an elder carrying the torch, feeding the dream, and sharing accumulated wisdom with a new generation.

I learned a lot out on the flats with the shellfish constables. In these tough economic times, one interaction with Leonard Jason Sr., the Chilmark Shellfish Constable comes to mind. As we were harvesting seed quahogs from a nursery raft, Lenny said, “You know, we need to make sure that there are shellfish in the beds for people to harvest when times get tough.”

Like my father, Lenny had survived the Great Depression, and it was just a matter of time, before it happened again. Lenny was a master of self-sufficiency. On his little farm on North Road, he grew vegetables, raised pigs and chickens, milked the cow, skinned eels and ate shellfish. He knew real wealth derived from the land and the sea. What’s old is new. In these lean economic times, I think about Lenny a lot when I watch commercial and family fishers supplementing their income and making a nutritious meal from the shellfish bounty they harvest. It makes you wonder, just where did that synonym of “clams” for “money” come from?

Something Lenny didn’t know was that shellfish have been saving our necks from the very beginning of the human species. In a scientific paper in Nature in October 2007, Curtis Marean, a paleoanthropologist from Arizona State University’s Institute of Human Origins, put forth a theory that shellfish saved early Homo sapiens from extinction and helped make us human. His archaeological investigations in a cave at Pinnacle Point near Mossel Bay in South Africa unearthed the earliest evidence of seafood consumption by the human species 164,000 years ago.

During an ice age that lasted from about 195,000 to 130,000 years ago, much of the African continent suffered an extreme climate change to inhospitable cold, dry conditions. At that time, it is believed, the geographical range of newly-emerged Homo sapiens was limited to the African continent. Marean hypothesizes that under these harsh circumstances, almost all of the human race died off save for small bands that moved to the coast, changed their diet and began to eat seafood, mostly mussels, for the first time in history. Other research on the human genome supports evidence that the human population at that time may have been reduced to as a few as 600 individuals. Further, the Pinnacle Point excavation provides the earliest evidence of the use of ochre dye for body decoration (an indication of symbolic thought) and the development of advanced stone tools called bladelets. Marean speculates that both of these major advances in becoming human, are a direct result of a new human diet based on shellfish. A seafood diet rich in ‘brainfood” omega 3 fatty acids together with the need to understand the tides and moon phases involved in shellfish harvesting, precipitated a quantum leap in the human psyche. That’s something to ponder over your next bowl of chowder!

Our nonprofit organization, the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group, has been hit hard by the economic recession. State and federal support for our work has all but diminished, town shares have been frozen for four years, and in the wake of Oak Bluffs’ financial crisis, their support of our operation has been cut in half. Over the past couple of years to balance the budget, we have been dipping into our reserve fund at a rate of about $40,000 annually. In just a couple of years our savings will be depleted and our program in crisis. All this is at a time when we have a unique opportunity to expand shellfish production activities into the former state lobster hatchery.

Please don’t let the Vineyard shellfish dream die. The world-class shellfish of Martha’s Vineyard are a renewable natural resource that can provide employment and enjoyment while also providing natural filtration to keep our ponds clean and clear, but only if we want them to.

Richard C. Karney

Shellfish Biologist and Director

Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group