From the Eel Grass, Use Your Voice

by Ali Berlow

From the Eel Grass, Use Your Voice

Christine Sargologos

One of the first things I did after settling into Martha’s Vineyard around 20 years ago was to go to town hall and apply for my very own residential family shellfish license. It was printed on waterproof paper and I kept it tucked in the pocket of my waders. It was revelatory to me that I could galumph into the brackish ponds of Edgartown with a rake, a basket and a clam gauge and start digging fresh quahogs.

With an eye on the tides and some practice, I got a feel for the vibrations that run up from the tangs of the rake, through the wooden handle and to my hands, gauging the approximate size and heft of a pocket of quahogs. And the views from the middle of those ponds waters made me feel as if I was a mermaid-hunter-gatherer. I fell in love with these in-between ponds and shores that our burgeoning family had decided to call home.

These fertile ponds where clams, oysters, bay scallops and mussels grow are delicate environments, vulnerable and subject to nitrogen, pesticides and fertilizers, as well as building development, boating, climate change, storms and run off. Their productivity is interwoven with the history of the Vineyard and inextricably linked to the livelihoods of farmers of shellfish, the commercial aquaculturists and the wild harvesters.

For the recreational shellfishermen like me, they provide occasional and delicious sustenance well earned, and more importantly, perhaps, a joy and reverence for this place, this environment, and this economy.

It wasn’t so long ago that the first aquaculturists started farming in Katama Bay. Now there are 17 working oyster farms in the waters around the Vineyard. Twelve of them are in Edgartown.

Shellfish aquaculture – from seed to wholesaler – is a rapidly growing industry not just on Martha’s Vineyard but also in the Commonwealth. The Massachusetts Shellfish Initiative (MSI) was recently established as a response to the important impact of shellfish on local food systems, the local economy and on the environment.

The MSI is a nascent collaboration between the Massachusetts Aquaculture Association, the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance and The Nature Conservancy. Together with doctoral students from the University of Massachusetts-Boston, the MSI has been holding open meetings in coastal towns to hear from farmers about what matters to them. Topics have included regulations, permitting, management and water quality. The groups are also working to educate the public about the importance of shellfish to the state by encouraging stakeholders to fill out a survey designed to get maximum input from a grassroots level.

“If you shellfish either recreationally or commercially or are a shellfish aquaculturist, or if you eat shellfish, it’s to your benefit to make your voice heard.” said Rick Karney, director emeritus of the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group, the non-profit responsible for spawning the millions of shellfish seed for local ponds.

Dr. Jennifer Bender, Research Fellow at UMass Boston, Executive Director of the Marine Studies Consortium and Lead Professor of the MSI wrote in an email: “This grassroots initiative provides a real opportunity for all stakeholders to have a voice in advocating for healthy and robust commercial shellfish ecosystems in Massachusetts.”

The survey is an opportunity for real input from the people who have local knowledge about water, shellfish, regulations, and most importantly, experience and perspective. Going forward, the MSI hopes to influence state policy by modeling after states like Maryland, Connecticut and Washington who have taken the same path. It’s also an opportunity to listen, share and educate the next generation of farmers. And people (like me) who dig for chowder clams once in awhile in these beautiful waters.

For shellfish farmers, the MSI survey provides a chance to make your voice heard.

I’m not a commercial farmer of any sort. But as I eat shellfish, I want to be able to support the farmers, the waters, and the culture that shellfish offers to Martha’s Vineyard and to the state.

The survey is open to everyone. Shellfishermen, fishmongers and conservationists are especially encouraged to participate. Go to http://www.massshellfishinitiative.org/