Tisbury implements new aquaculture regs

The approved amendments will be up for review pending a mapping study of Lagoon Pond.

Tisbury Oyster Company owner Noah Mayrand advocating for amended aquaculture regulations. —Eunki Seonwoo

The Tisbury Select Board unanimously approved changes to the town’s aquaculture regulations that will allow oyster farming closer to the water’s surface.

The new regulations come as farmers have complained that poor water quality — more specifically, a lack of oxygen — on the bottom of the Lagoon has limited their ability to produce a sustainable harvest. 

On Wednesday, Feb. 7, Tom Robinson, chair of the Tisbury natural resources advisory committee, said during a public hearing that the crux of the issue was whether to allow aquaculturists the use of gear near the water’s surface. 

“They felt that the water quality closer to the bottom was not giving them the product they needed,” he said. 

There are some questions remaining on how the oyster farmers will deter birds from roosting on their fishing gear, an issue that can lead to contamination. But Robinson said he was confident that the select board could rule on each aquaculture application on a case-by-case basis. 

The select board was also asked to hold off on issuing permits under the new regulations until the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) completes a mapping study of the Lagoon. The study will help to determine where the body of water could accommodate boat anchoring while also being sensitive to native eelgrass, an ecologically important marine plant. 

Tisbury town administrator John Grande suggested referring the license moratorium to the town’s advisory committee, but the select board did not take up the matter when passing the new regulations. 

At Wednesday’s hearing, members of the Lagoon Pond Association stated they were in favor of aquaculture farming as long as it was done properly and followed regulations. Some raised concerns that the Lagoon is also used for a variety of recreational activities.

“I think you want to be careful how you hodgepodge and put different parts of the puzzle into the pond without looking at the whole picture,” Lagoon Pond Association board member Doug Reece said. 

The association also asked for the town to pause issuing new licenses until the MVC’s mapping was completed; this would give a better idea on where appropriate oyster-raising sites are. 

“It is incredibly crowded right now,” Lagoon Pond Association president Sherry Countryman said, adding that waiting until the mapping was complete would avoid conflicts among the various pond stakeholders. 

Shellfishermen at Wednesday’s hearing supported the board’s decision. Noah Mayrand, who owns Tisbury Oyster Co. and sits on the advisory committee, said he favored the new regulations.

“It’s imperative to my business to succeed,” he said, adding that half of his oysters died in July: “If these rules don’t pass, I will not be able to support the oysters I have in my farm currently, with the way the regulations are laid out.”

Mayrand said the amendments will give new aquaculture farmers the tools to thrive and farm creatively, based on their individual operational needs. He described the old regulations as “restrictive,” and “destructive” to aquaculture ventures. 

Advisory committee member John Packer underscored that aquaculturists need the changes as soon as possible, and said there’s plenty of space to share in Lagoon Pond. He also added that the oysters grown by the farms would filter out some nitrogen from the pond. “Aquaculture is the future,” he said. “You want a green planet? Grow your food as close to your house as you can.” 

Husselton Head Oysters owner Jeffrey Canha, who also experienced very high mortality rates among his oyster seeds, said the regulations help to protect the town.

Some residents advised against the new regulations. James Tilton, who chaired the Tisbury shellfish committee when the aquaculture regulations were initially passed, said the original regulations were specifically designed for a reason, with input from experts. He also said the shellfish committee had recommended no aquaculture activity in Lagoon Pond or Lake Tashmoo because of the various uses, and their small size. Additionally, Tilton said, the town’s natural resources committee discouraged approving Canha’s permit application for an aquaculture farm because of his lack of experience at the time. 

“And this isn’t oyster habitat,” he said. “They just won’t do well there … you can put them at the top, bottom, whatever — they just won’t do well there. It’s scallop habitat, and quahog habitat.”

Tilton said growing oysters near the water surface would attract birds and also bring bacterial problems, like vibrio. He urged the board to protect the interest of all users of the pond. 

Grande said in his closing remarks that the amendments brought needed clarity for aquaculture processes and enforcement. He said he wanted the town to have all of the tools available to meet compliance, although they will need some flexibility. 

After further discussion, the board voted in favor of passing the regulations, which will be reviewed after the mapping results become available. 

Canha told The Times he was thankful to the town for “cleaning up” the regulations, and Mayrand said he was “extremely relieved” the amendments were approved.