State pitches shellfish initiative

At hearing in Tisbury, unpopular aquaculture legislation exposed.

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Former state senator Robert O'Leary speaks at a shellfish hearing Monday night in Vineyard Haven. — Rich Saltzberg

Former state Senator Robert O’Leary and Chris Schillaci, a scientist from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, hosted a hearing on the Massachusetts Shellfish Initiative Monday night in Vineyard Haven. Planned and realized by the Massachusetts Aquaculture Association (MAA), Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, and the Nature Conservancy, the initiative is a state-advised think tank and advocacy group for shellfish harvesters and for the resource of bivalve shellfish in general. O’Leary and Schillaci came to the Vineyard to solicit opinions on all aspects of local shellfishing to help craft a strategic plan for shellfish and shellfishing, which they described as an underserved industry and understudied resource. The hearing, which was poorly advertised on the Vineyard at best, drew only seven attendees, most of them shellfish constables. 

Schillaci, a specialist in aquaculture and vibrio bacteria, told those gathered whatever was learned at the hearing would be logged and relayed to the shellfish initiative’s task force for use in further developing a strategic plan.

Before any other shellfish topics could be explored, Schillaci and O’Leary addressed a subject hanging over the hearing — a bill put forth by state Rep. Josh Cutler on behalf of the MAA. The bill, House 746, seeks to allow aquaculture licenses to be sold, gifted, or bequeathed, and would effectively end local control over aquaculture leases. The bill drew heated commentary at at least one previous initiative hearing, held in Chatham. Schillaci first stressed the Division of Marine Fisheries doesn’t have a position on the bill.

“We had a very informal [Massachusetts Shellfish Officers Association] meeting with MAA to discuss that legislation,” Schillaci said. “MAA sees it … as an opportunity to increase transferability so that growers that have worked for a number of years on their farm can transfer it to someone else … We hear a lot of concerns about what that might do — how that might impact the ability of municipalities to control who has a license in their town. As far as I know, that legislation has been referred to committee, and that’s where it stands.” 

“As Chris said, first of all, the Division of Marine Fisheries does not take a position on a particular piece of legislation,” O’Leary said. “That bill parallels this effort a little bit in the sense that it was filed whilst [the Massachusetts Shellfish Initiative] was underway, but it’s not connected in any direct way. And it has come up at virtually every one of our meetings. So I know there’s a lot of concern about it. And I think we need to acknowledge that concern is out there.” O’Leary went on to say he thought the hearing process provided MSI with valuable feedback on how the shellfishing community feels about the legislation. He also said “thousands of bills get filed in the State House — thousands — but it’s rare for one of them to become law. And a bill like this would take a lot of support from a lot of different elements. Right now this is pretty early on. So I think people need to acknowledge that. Filing a bill doesn’t doesn’t create a law. It begins a debate.”

Edgartown shellfish constable Paul Bagnall said he moderated the shellfish officers’ association meeting where the bill was discussed, and that few constables, “if any,” expressed support for the bill. He said the bill was currently at the House Natural Resources Committee, and it was his belief MAA will ask to have it withdrawn. 

“I think it has a problem — it’s starting to bump up against home rule,” O’Leary said. “That’s a tough place to be, legislatively …”

Tisbury shellfish constable Danielle Ewart, Oak Bluffs shellfish constable Charles Fisher, Chilmark shellfish constable Isaiah Scheffer, and Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group co-director Amandine Hall did not comment on the bill at the hearing, or make any comments whatsoever about shellfish.

Ewart later told The Times she hopes the bill doesn’t move forward. “We don’t want to give up that home rule,” she said. She also said the bill “very well could” make aquaculture leases a commodity.

“I don’t think it’s really going to go anywhere,” Hall later said. She said the bill “has a lot of implications that were not foreseen when it was first conceived.”

Hall made it clear she did not believe the bill was put forth with ulterior motives, but with “good intentions.”

Cutler did not return a message left with his aide. Falmouth Rep. David Vieira, whose name appears on the bill as a supporter, did not return a message seeking comment. 

MAA trustee Dave Ryan of Cotuit told The Times he believes an MAA statement on the bill is imminent, but in brief, he said, the bill was meant “to ensure the long-term vitality of the industry.”

Martino weighs in on relays, the E.U., and oyster drills

Dan Martino of Cottage City Oysters in Oak Bluffs expressed criticism for shellfish relays that take place between parts of Bristol County and Vineyard salt ponds. The relays take clams contaminated with bacteria from the vicinity of the Taunton River and Mount Hope Bay and relocate them to Vineyard waters, where they filter out pathogens and can be later harvested as healthy shellfish. Oak Bluffs and other towns pay the commonwealth $18 per bushel plus a $1 enforcement fee to receive relayed clams in their local waters for later harvest. Tens of thousands of clams are relayed each year. Martino said he would like to see a discount or no fee at all. 

“It costs us a lot of money to take crappy product from somewhere and bring it to our pristine ponds and make it pure so people can eat it,” Martino said. “I’ve heard from a lot of people [asking], Why are you even doing that? Why are you even bringing a contaminated quahog into our pristine waters?”

Schillaci said the state does the relays both to save on “enforcement and oversight” of restricted clam beds and to boost propagation of clams elsewhere. He pointed out that while the Vineyard also seeds clams (quahogs), those take time to grow, and the relay provides adult quahogs. 

“We all know it takes a long time to grow a quahog, and a lot of energy, and this provides a nice boost … to other propagation efforts,” Schillaci said. He added each municipality chooses whether to purchase the relocated shellfish; it’s not an obligatory program. 

Martino pushed for the Massachusetts to prepare for a re-establishment of shellfish trade between the U.S. and the European Union, and argued Massachusetts should be branded a shellfish region to E.U. buyers. 

“When E.U. trade opens up, we should have a marketing plan in place to bombard the E.U. with Massachusetts shellfish is the best, and we should claim that market share as much as possible,” Martino said. “Because once we have it, we’ll have it forever.”

“We don’t have trade certificates yet,” Schillaci said. “So NOAA issues trade certificates. There’s a lot of discussion around this, around reciprocity, and how it’s actually going to be implemented.” The USDA has made grant money available for trade missions to the E.U., Schillaci said. He promised to send information to Martino on the subject. Schillaci said overall, the state’s growing shellfish industry could use an overall branding boost, as it lags behind such well-known industries as cranberries. 

Martino said shellfish dealers and growers could better market their product if they didn’t have to pay such high booth prices at the Boston Seafood Expo. Martino said he thought local shellfish growers should be comped booths. He said booth costs constituted a third of the Cottage City Oyster’s budget. 

In response, Schillaci said the state was at work on a seafood marketing grant. 

Martino also said his oysters were under predation by a mollusk called an oyster drill, and said he could use “a lot of oyster drill traps.” Martino framed the oyster drill problem he faced as causing 20 percent of the mortality of his oyster crops. 

“I can’t say that right now there’s a comprehensive disease and predator management plan across the commonwealth for shellfish,” Schillaci said. He went on to say the shellfish initiative may prove useful in identifying such a need for shellfish-growing and -harvesting communities. 

Martino later told The Times the oyster drill is “like a little conch” and has a “little chainsaw mouth” it uses to drill through oyster shells to eat the oyster inside. He said it’s a native animal, not an invasive species, and one large adult will kill an oyster a day, and that they also lay their eggs on the oyster shells. 

“If you’ve ever seen the movie ‘Aliens,’ they look like the alien eggs,” he said. “We’re hand-picking them out,” he said. 

At the close of the hearing Monday, O’Leary said, “Attention sometimes means more money. This is arguable an industry where there’s a lot of potential growth, and there’s value,” so he hoped the hearings and the initiative overall would enhance shellfishing knowledge and opportunity. “We hope something good is going to come out of this,” he said.

“I think the shellfishing community does not always get a lot of attention or funding,” Hall later said. She said in her opinion, more attention “can only do it good.”