The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) hosted an informational meeting Tuesday, February 12, to discuss a long-term maintenance plan for the Menemsha Pond system that also includes Nashaquitsa and Stonewall Ponds.
In 2011 the tribe received a $181,600 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of Tribal Wildlife Grants program that awarded $7 million to 37 Native American Tribes to fund a wide range of conservation projects.
The Wampanoag Natural Resources Department prepared the grant application, which was then endorsed by selectmen in Chilmark and Aquinnah as well as the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group.
The primary goal of the grant was to establish agreements between the tribe and towns of Aquinnah and Chilmark for the protection and preservation of bay scallops, as well as the pond’s fragile habitat and cultural and aquatic resources.
Tuesday’s meeting was the first in a series between officials from the tribe and two towns. A wide range of topics was discussed that included bay scallops, eelgrass, phragmites, and oyster habitat restoration.
But the meeting took an unexpected turn when a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced possible plans to dredge the Menemsha channel to improve navigation in and out of Menemsha harbor.
Ed O’Donnell, New England Chief of Navigation of the Army Corps, said federal money from a $50 billion relief bill for areas damaged by recent Hurricane Sandy could pay for the dredge project.
Previously it was thought the relief funds could only be used to repair the jetties marking the entrance to Menemsha Harbor. But Mr. O’Donnell said the money could also be used to dredge the channel.
Mr. O’Donnell cited a 2007 survey by the Army Corps that called for the removal of 50,000 cubic yards of material and an eight-foot channel into Menemsha Pond, which might improve tidal flow.
Mr. O’Donnell did not go into a lot of specifics, but he said the project would cost “at least a few million dollars.” He also said the Army Corps is looking to fast-track the project and work could begin as early as next year.
“My hope would be to do some dredging next fall, if we can get through the permitting process… If we do get funding and move forward we need a disposal site for the sand,” he said.
Mr. O’Donnell said the Army Corps would not apply for any of the permits needed for the dredge project. They instead need a local sponsor, preferably a single entity like the tribe or one of the two towns, he said.
The announcement from Mr. O’Donnell shifted the focus of the meeting away from the long-term management plan of the pond system to the more specific question of whether or not to dredge Menemsha channel.
Charter fisherman and Aquinnah resident William “Buddy” Vanderhoop said the last dredge in 1972 resulted in a banner year for shellfishermen. “It opened up the pond and the pond just reaped the benefits,” he said. “We had the best shellfish season we had in years – the scallops just grew unbelievably… It was amazing what it did for shellfishing.
Chilmark selectmen Warren Doty said it was hard to say whether dredging will help or harm shellfishing. “You are doing it for navigational purposes, but they are thinking does it help my scallops or hurt my scallops,” he said. “I have heard from many fisherman who have said: ‘why not leave it the way it is, it’s working.’”
Chilmark shellfish constable Isaiah Scheffer warned that dredging could have adverse effects on the shellfish crop. “I think we ought to be real careful about what we do,” he said. We are talking about a scallop fishery that could potentially be non-existent because we choose to do something like that.
“Were having some of the better years we’ve had, and the best year we’ve had in 32 years. Why would we change something that’s working for us right now?”
Mr. O’Donnell said the Army Corps will not pursue the project unless the tribe and towns give their blessing. But he said this was a rare opportunity for the federal government to pay for the dredge, one that may not come again.
“If we do get Sandy funds, they are not going to be around once you turn them down,” he said. “It doesn’t mean you can never have the federal government dredging your channel again, but getting funds to dredge is significantly difficult.”
Bret Stearns, tribal natural resource department director, agreed there were a number of variables to consider when weighing the merits of the dredge. But he said it was unique opportunity that deserves careful consideration. “I think both sides of the pond, including the tribe, can agree there are navigational issues there,” he said. “In Chilmark there are some issues about getting boats that have legal moorings through the channel at certain times.
“Those are things we can discuss ourselves and get in better order. Since [the dredge] just came up today, I wasn’t prepared to explore people’s feelings on this topic.”
Mr. Stearns said more work is needed here before a dredge can be approved. He said dredging is a perfect example of what could be addressed in a long-term cooperative management plan for the pond system.
“We need to look at more of the habitat side too and the ecosystem issues,” he said. “My team will work with towns to figure out what tools we have available…. I feel like we should be moving forward to at least come up with options.
“I want to use these forums to discuss these things.”
In a follow-up email to The Times, Mr. Stearns emphasized that the meetings were planned in advance of the storm and resulting damage. “The planning effort is what brought everyone into the room to discuss these issues, and it is the cooperation between agencies that created the venue for one meeting to host the Army Corps Navigation division,” he said. “This is one issue of many that we will hopefully tackle together.”
Mr. Stearns said last week’s meeting was an example of the tribe and towns working together. “I have great hopes that the momentum from this meeting leads us to openly discuss and resolve the important issues that affect each organization and individual in our community,” he said. “We covered only a small portion of the issues at hand with great success. We are now turning dialogue into action items, and I couldn’t be happier.”