Tisbury selectmen throw shellfish regulations back

File photo by Susan Safford

Tisbury selectmen Tuesday declined to approve two significant changes to town shellfish regulations recommended by shellfish constable Danielle Ewart and the town’s Shellfish Advisory Committee (SAC). Instead, they kicked them back for revision.

Selectmen held a public hearing Tuesday night to discuss five proposed rules changes. These included minor adjustments to language. The most heated discussion of the night focused on prohibitions against storing shellfish in the water following harvest and multiple uses of one boat to harvest scallops.

Following discussion and unanimous approval by the SAC, at the selectmen meeting on May 6 Ms. Ewart recommended to selectmen that the town add a new general regulation to prohibit wet storage of shellfish, which involves hanging containers of clams in water, usually off a dock. A state regulation prohibits the practice for commercially caught shellfish without a special permit.

Ms. Ewart said she was concerned about the risk of illness for people who eat shellfish, and the risk of diseases being spread among shellfish. Also, she said people are not required to tag their containers, so there is no information about who they belong to, when or where the shellfish were harvested, and how long they’ve been stored.

The selectmen agreed to seek comment from the board of health and scheduled the public hearing to discuss the wet storage regulation, along with other proposed changes to existing regulations.

After opening Tuesday night’s hearing, selectman chairman Jonathan Snyder called on Ms. Ewart to comment first.

With Oak Bluffs shellfish constable Dave Grunden sitting beside her to lend his support, Ms. Ewart read a letter she said summed up her opinions on wet storage written by Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group director and shellfish biologist Rick Karney in which he outlined the case against wet storage.

Mr. Karney said that in many cases, shellfish are crowded and some die, which leads to bacteria that gets into the healthy ones. Also, wet storage of shellfish that were caught elsewhere may lead to the spread of disease from one body of water to another. In the summer months as water temperatures increase, Mr. Karney said, the chance of people getting ill from consuming shellfish is greater.

SAC chairman James Tilton said the wet storage issue was brought to the committee’s attention in April, after shellfish assistant Ellery Whitworth found two milk crates filled with dead quahogs hanging from a dock owned by Michael Strada. He dumped them and called the state, which told him only commercially caught clams are prohibited from wet storage by state regulation.

After learning of the incident, Mr. Tilton said the SAC voted unanimously to recommend that wet storage be prohibited. Mr. Grunden said when the incident first arose, he took it to the Oak Bluffs Shellfish Committee. At the committee’s recommendation, the Oak Bluffs selectmen voted April 22 to add a regulation to prohibit wet storage in Lagoon Pond. Unlike the Tisbury selectmen, they were not required to hold a public hearing, Mr. Grunden said.

Mr. Grunden agreed that two of the concerns related to wet storage are shellfish disease and the possibility of importing diseases from one body of water to another.

Public prefers wet storage

Clams stored for a time in saltwater instead of the refrigerator taste better, several people argued. Tisbury health agent Tom Pachico disagreed with the proposed rule change. “I’ve wet stored clams before some of the people in this room were born — I’ve never been sick,” he said. Mr. Pachico said he did some research and could not find a single case of local residents getting sick from wet-stored clams.

Gene DeCosta said that Tisbury imports tons of contaminated clams and oysters into its ponds for later harvest, without a health issue. “I think it’s another rule and regulation we don’t need,” he said.

Michael Strada said he agreed with Mr. Pachico and Mr. DeCosta, and that everything he found in researching wet storage online was related to commercial harvests, not recreational. “I’ve stored quahogs out there on my dock for 20 years and never got sick,” he said. “I would ask the selectmen to look at this carefully and not put a regulation in place without a strong basis of fact.”

Marilyn Wortman asked the selectmen to think the regulation through carefully. “I’m very much against not allowing wet storage,” she said. “I think it’s ridiculous. I wonder if it isn’t driven by commercial fishermen who sit on the shellfish committee and aren’t allowed to wet store.”

Board of Health chairman Michael Loberg said his board looked at data regarding the impacts of wet storage on the health of Islanders and the ponds over several decades, and did not find a significant problem.

“I do think maybe we need to consider a new mechanism, where wet storage baskets are identified,” he suggested. “Maybe when you get a permit, you would indicate where you would be doing wet storage.”

Teachable moment

When it came time to discuss the proposed changes, selectmen Snyder, Tristan Israel, and Melinda Loberg offered their shellfish representatives limited support.

Ms. Loberg, newly elected to the board, said she was glad the issue came up because it gave her an opportunity to educate herself about the town’s shellfish regulations.

“We have the opportunity to use this as a teachable moment,” she said, suggesting that the town could address some of the wet storage issues by providing information about suggested shellfish storage techniques to people when they purchase their shellfish permits.

Mr. Israel said he agreed with the idea of creating some kind of pamphlet, and to take interim steps before adding another regulation. “I think there should be a time limit to wet storage and a requirement for owners to identify baskets,” he said, adding that he would not be in favor of the regulation as proposed by Ms. Ewart.

“Since the knowledge base is in the shellfish community and the board of health, we could ask them to collaborate on a set of regulations,” Ms. Loberg added.

Mr. Snyder said he was concerned about the risk to the health of Lagoon Pond and Lake Tashmoo with shellfish transfers and wet storage, yet he did not want to encumber the town with another regulation. “I’m inclined to agree to limit the length of storage and the quantity, and to identify the owner,” he said, “and educate the public on the risks of wet storage.”

The selectmen voted to approve Mr. Israel’s motion to ask the SAC to go through another public process to come up with some suggestions for the length of storage, storage container identification, and restrictions on transferring catches between bodies of water.

Selectmen approved a change in the commercial regulations that removed a limit of three licensed residents allowed in a boat.

A proposal to limit shellfish harvests to three family limits per boat per day also raised protest from shellfishermen in the audience. Scallop fishermen often make multiple trips during the day to take full advantage of their drags and haulers.

“I can take three people with permits out on my boat but can’t let my son use the boat later? That’s ridiculous,” Mr. Pachico said.

Ms. Ewart suggested that if he wanted to take someone else out, or let them use the boat, he should notify her. Mr. Israel suggested that should be made a regulation.

“I suggest you come back to us on this one,” Mr. Snyder told Ms. Ewart. The selectmen voted to take no action.

Selectmen did stand by Ms. Ewart’s recommendation to add the words “seed and/or broodstock” to a regulation regarding closing an area to shellfish harvesting. Lynn Fraker said there was a lot of controversy about the definition of what constitutes seed and broodstock, and that she and other commercial fisherman wanted to discuss it further with Ms. Ewart and the SAC before a change was made in the regulations.

“We looked at this issue last spring,” Mr. Israel said. “Danielle made a decision on how she wants to manage the pond, and we will support her as our shellfish constable.”

He and Mr. Snyder voted yes on the change. Ms. Loberg abstained.