Oak Bluffs scalloping limit decision delayed

Select board approves sending amended Housing Bank legislation to state legislators. 

Oak Bluffs Shellfish Constable presenting his findings about bay scallops. — Eunki Seonwoo

Oak Bluffs scallopers will need to wait a bit longer before knowing how much shellfish they can gather next year. 

During an October Oak Bluffs select board meeting, there was contention about a decision to decrease the scallop fishing limit from three bushels for commercial shellfishermen and one for recreational shellfishermen to two bushels for commercial shellfishermen and a half-bushel for recreational shellfishermen. The board heard scallop recommendations from Oak Bluffs Shellfish Constable Donovan McElligatt during the Tuesday evening hybrid meeting, which will influence the board’s decision. 

“The big topic on everybody’s minds is bay scallops, with the regulation changes, the dates, things along those lines,” McElligatt said. 

McElligatt continued by saying, “It has been a banner season, at least in [Sengekontacket Pond].” So far, a total of 54 commercial bushels and around 104 recreational bushels of scallops have been pulled up. 

“These are also much bigger scallops than usual. They have real fat meats, so people are getting around eight, nine, 10 pounds shucked out of a bushel,” McElligatt said, adding that the number of recreational scallopers has been increasing as the word spreads, sometimes with 40 people in the tides looking for shellfish. Similar to the meaty scallops this year, “the seeds have been unusually large,” so the shellfish department has been making sure people do not take them. 

Whether it be while swimming or boating, McElligatt said he has been talking with both recreational and commercial people about where and how many seeds were being observed. Many of the scallops have been found near Big Bridge. 

“The word from the old-timers, who have been doing this for about 40 years, is that they can’t remember a season that has been this good,” McElligatt said. “What I’ve been able to narrow down is that people estimate that the last time it’s been this good was somewhere between eight and 10 years ago.”

Considering the strong scallop population in the pond, McElligatt recommended not reducing the limits when the new year arrives. However, a caveat he added was raising the air temperature threshold that halts shellfishing to 35°F. The current Oak Bluffs shellfishing regulations do not allow shellfishing when the temperature is at 28°F or lower. According to McElligatt, bay scallops do best “until the water temperature gets down to 10°C,” or around 40°F. At this point, the shellfish stop growing. Once the temperature reaches around 35°F or lower, exposure to cold air can cause “very significant mortality,” particularly for the seeds. At these temperatures, handling seeds can lead to “freezing, dying, and reducing the following year’s stock.” 

“This is more of a conservation method that I think kind of strikes a happy medium, personally, between letting people fish while there is fish, and maintaining that population so that we can kind of stay on this momentum and have this fish next year as well,” McElligatt said. “We’ve had a good season. I think we should take advantage of it, but not be blinded by it.”

When asked by board members for further details about the temperature restrictions, McElligatt said each town sets its own limitation. Additionally, he came to the 35°F threshold based on research papers about the aquaculture rearing of bay scallops. Other Island towns have a temperature threshold of around 28°F. When asked by Oak Bluffs town administrator Deborah Potter whether having a higher limit than other towns could cause problems, McElligatt said he did not believe so, since this was a conservation method. 

The board decided to take the information McElligatt presented under advisement, and will possibly vote during the Tuesday, Dec. 13, meeting. Board member Brian Packish also wanted McElligatt to put his recommendations in writing. 

Later in the meeting, Oak Bluffs commercial fisherman Kyle Peters said he thought the 35°F temperature threshold was “a little high,” adding that dragging in Lagoon Pond also brings up seeds. He expressed that the 28°F or 30°F temperatures were more appropriate. 

“Never in my life have I seen it that warm,” Peters said. He also made a point that some scalloping methods other than dragging, such as diving, do not have risks to seeds. 

In other business, the board received updates about the Southern Tier affordable housing project. Potter said the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) acknowledged they were aware of the consideration to change the project’s name to Takanash Knoll, which saw some pushback from the board during an October meeting, and will follow up with the town after further discussion. Takanash is an Island name and a reference to indigenous farmer and landowner John Takanash, who lived during the 1600s. Potter said she thinks the board has not heard from the tribe yet because the tribal elections, which recently ended, were underway. 

Meanwhile, the board received an update about Southern Tier from Affirmative Investments senior vice president of real estate Craig Nicholson, whose firm is working with Island Housing Trust (IHT) on the project. Nicholson shared various details about the project, including sustainability and conservation efforts (e.g. preserving imperial moth habitat), unit types, and rental rates. The next steps will be holding community meetings and submitting applications to the Oak Bluffs zoning board of appeals. If all steps go as planned, the construction is set to begin in the fall of 2023 and end in the spring of 2025. 

In a separate affordable housing matter, the board unanimously approved sending the Housing Bank legislation in its entirety to the state legislature. Originally voted in by the towns, this version will have three amendments. The first amendment restructures the town advisory boards’ membership from two housing committee members to one, with the other spot being filled by a board of assessors member. The second amendment made a clarification to the language. The third amendment clarified that “grants or gifts of money or other assets” will need to follow any rules and guidelines in the Housing Bank legislation, and be subject to any restrictions placed by the donor or grant giver.

The board unanimously approved Matt Rossi as the Oak Bluffs building commissioner. Rossi was an Oak Bluffs alternate building inspector before the appointment. 

The board unanimously approved holding a public hearing about the fiscal year 2023 Community Development Block Grant on Tuesday, Dec. 27. 

Packish also made a clarification that the Sunset Lake Christmas tree lighting issue was based on a procurement, not a budget shortfall, problem. He said this is being worked on.