Tisbury shellfish regulations spark heated debate

A basket of scallops from the lagoon are brought ashore. — Photo by Sam Moore

Tisbury selectmen held a public hearing at Tuesday’s meeting to discuss a moratorium proposed by Tisbury shellfish constable Danielle Ewart on the use of shellfish drags with teeth. Ultimately, Ms. Ewart has said she hopes to change a town regulation that currently allows scallopers to use drags with teeth, which can cut through and damage eelgrass, she said.

Scallop drags consist of a heavy steel A-frame and pressure plate, and a large trailing chain-mesh bag made of metal rings attached to twine netting that floats on the surface. The “teeth” are steel, fixed and finger-like, and attach to the pressure plate on the drags.

Ms. Ewart said she recently allowed a recreational scalloper, Albion Alley, a longtime Vineyard fisherman, to continue to fish with his drags with teeth because Tisbury does not currently have any regulations banning it. Aquinnah, Chilmark, Edgartown, and Oak Bluffs all ban the use of drags with teeth, she said.

The preservation of eelgrass, which grows on the seafloor in shallow coastal waters, is a major concern on the Island. The structure of an eelgrass bed — a dense, often extensive patch — provides shelter for a wide range of sea life, including bay scallops and seeds. Eelgrass is already beleaguered in Massachusetts water; excess nitrogen in coastal waters has encouraged higher densities of algae, which compete with eelgrass for light. Anything that drags along the bottom of the seabed can damage these already vulnerable eelgrass beds.

“As shellfish constable, my main concerns are the ponds and the health of the pond ecosystem and what we can do to preserve it … and enhance what we have,” Ms. Ewart said.

Harbormaster Jay Wilbur, shellfish advisory committee chairman James Tilton, and Tisbury Waterways board member Pamela Street supported Ms. Ewart’s motion for a moratorium and regulation change.

Mr. Alley, however, was in the audience, and had a lot to say. He said he’s been fishing in Vineyard waters with his father since 1969. “My father invented these drags in 1970; 44 years I’ve been fishing with them,” he said. He said the “fingers” help sift through the dead grass and debris, and allows him an additional 20 feet before the drag is full. “It allows me maybe 10 extra scallops, I come home a little earlier, and I don’t spend quite as much money on gas,” he said.

He contended that there are other reasons the eelgrass is damaged, such as quahogging methods, which require digging below the surface. “Anything that protrudes the surface deeper than a half-inch to whatever depth, I agree, that should be outlawed,” he said. “But I don’t touch the bottom.”

He questioned why he’s been using the same drags for 44 years, but this is the first year that it’s become an issue. Ms. Ewart said this season was the first time she happened to see Mr. Alley’s drags. “Usually when I’m checking, I’m looking at his scallops and not his drags,” she said. She said she assumes that everyone uses regular drags without the teeth.

Board of selectmen chairman Tristan Israel said he supported a ban on drags with teeth, but questioned if an immediate moratorium was necessary.

“The guy has his equipment, he’s been doing it for years without an issue, and I just think while there’s the potential for some problems, it’s just a few more months,” he said. “Then let’s have a comprehensive look at the whole thing and ban anything we feel after that is going to be detrimental to the eelgrass.”

Selectmen Melinda Loberg advocated suspending the use of drags with teeth “until we can come up with a better study on how to look at the whole dragging situation.” Selectmen Larry Gomez said he needed more information on scalloping and drags before he could formulate an opinion.

Ultimately, the board voted to take no action on the requested moratorium, with the stipulation that Mr. Alley be the only person permitted to use a drag with teeth for the remainder of the scalloping season, and have the Tisbury shellfish committee come up with a regulation banning the use of teeth starting with the 2016 season.