At Tuesday’s meeting, the Oak Bluffs select board heard from members of the shellfish committee and local shellfisherman regarding the town’s scallop limit for the upcoming year.
This past season, for both Sengekontacket Pond and Lagoon Pond, commercial and recreational/family fishing limits were set at three and one bushels, respectively.
The select board recently voted to decrease the scallop limit beginning Jan. 1 to two bushels for commercial fishing, and one half-bushel for recreational and family use.
According to the select board, pond conditions, low scallop population, and the need for more sustainable resource management triggered the change.
The debate centered around an increasingly frequent question in the midst of climate-change-related impacts to the environment: What takes precedence? Should the town look at overall ecological sustainability efforts, or the ability for local fishermen to make a living?
Oak Bluffs commercial fisherman Kyle Peters expressed concern about the decrease, noting that it would be detrimental to his income, and, in effect, his livelihood, as he can make $200 per bushel. “I don’t know anyone else in the town of Oak Bluffs that would like to lose $200 a day, every day, five days a week,” he told the board.
Peters said he dives in Sengekontacket five months out of the year, and hasn’t noticed any diminishing scallop population. “When you say there’s no scallops out there, it’s hard to believe,” he said.
Select board chair Ryan Ruley asked Peters how he believes the issue can be remedied, regarding the recommendation to change the bushel limit.
“Let it go as it is,” Peters said, recommending annulling the change, and noting that he is one of a small handful of local shellfishermen in the area, and come February, he’d be lucky to get one full bushel anyway.
Local shellfisherman Ken deBettencourt also addressed the board to relay his concerns. “I was born and raised on this Island,” he said, “ and I’ve been active in the shellfish [community] since the early ’60s.” Back then, deBettencourt said, commercial shellfishermen were allowed four bushels, and family permit holders were allowed one. “Everyone was happy with that,” he said.
Regarding the half-bushel limit slated for 2023, he said, “It’s hard to get out there, put your equipment on, your boots and everything, [for half a bushel].”
Similarly, he said, he often gives some of his scallops away, but “by the time I give them away, I’m not going to have anything,” he said, “nothing for the freezer, anything.”
DeBettencourt seconded Peters’ request — keep the limit “as is.”
He noted that for recreational permit holders, “most people will only go out for two or three weeks anyway,” leaving more for others.
DeBettencourt proceeded to present to the board a decades-old shellfishing map created after there was a decrease in the population, which triggered the limit change from four to three bushels.
“It’s hard times now,” he said to the board; “food is getting expensive, so it’s good having some shellfish in the freezer if you can.” He said the adult scallops will die off due to the cold winter months, anyway.
Shellfish committee chair Mark Landers clarified that the changes in the limit will not go into effect until Jan. 1, to which Melissa Carr responded that the new change would be effective until Dec. 31, 2023, which will negatively impact next year’s peak scalloping season.
Board member Brian Packish noted the limits within the fishery itself, outside of municipal regulations. “If there isn’t a bushel there available for me,” he said, “it’s just not there — it doesn’t matter if the limit is 100 bushels or one bushel.”
“I don’t want this to be a contentious thing,” he said, adding that he feels he should have put more consideration into approving the limit change previously. “I’d like to see it go back to three and one,” he said. Packish advocated for a revisiting of the issue with the new constable, in whom the town has faith, in addition to plans to reinvigorate the shellfish committee with increased resources and a clear charge for the department. As shellfish “is one of the most important departments in the whole town,” he said.
The select board sympathized with the concerns brought before them, and ultimately opted to allow newly appointed shellfish constable Donovan McElligatt to take a fresh look at the state of the town’s ponds through comprehensive review and surveys, to help determine the best way to move forward.
“We’re going to be a progressive group,” said Ruley, “that’s not sticking to one vote permanently. We’re going to listen to the expertise” of McElligatt regarding the pond, “and make decisions correctly looking at all the information we have. I think that’s fair.”