With shellfish, let’s shuck fact from fiction
By John Pappalardo
When the Fishermen's Alliance helped pull together a solid group of funders – public, private, and non-profit -- to save the Cape’s one and only shellfish hatchery in Dennis, some people wondered why we would bother.
After all, shellfishing nearshore is a whole different reality from finfishing offshore. Why would a commercial fishing organization get involved? Was there some kind of ulterior motive? Is the Fishermen's Alliance trying to push for more aquaculture, drive out wild harvesters, change the historic local use of flats and shallows that for generations have helped families subsist?
The conspiracy theories are imaginary, hidden agendas don’t exist. The truth is that the hatchery in Dennis was in transition, and in a precarious position; without it, hundreds if not thousands of jobs on the waterfront, year-round jobs, jobs that support young working families, would have been jeopardized. Whether you’re working a grant, scratching in the wild or on areas seeded by the town, selling shellfish retail or wholesale, serving them on the halfshell in a fancy restaurant or around the kitchen table, the industry needs one thing most of all; healthy baby seed that grows into plump animals for harvest. That’s what the hatchery provides, and that’s what has been saved.
We’re proud of our part in that. And to anyone who thinks there is something devious about our plans or motives, I have a suggestion: Judge us by our actions. We are not buying shellfish grants, or trying to interfere with wild harvesters. We are not trying to pave the way for some kind of corporate takeover of our waterfront. We are trying to keep one more historic local fishery alive.
The more we worked on that goal, the more obvious it became that our shellfish community needs to talk a lot more, share a lot more, find a lot more common ground, advocate for ourselves a lot better, and distrust a lot less.
Out of that came the idea for creating what is now being called the Massachusetts Shellfish Initiative.
Borrowing great language from my colleague here at the Alliance and our point person on the project, Melissa Sanderson, here’s what MSI really is:
- A forum to bring diverse opinions together to identify solutions to emerging issues. This is an opportunity for the community -- aquaculture lease holders, wild harvesters, state regulators, town officials, wholesalers, restoration advocates-- to get together and search for common ground.
- A process to pull together good ideas, check them out with a wide range of people, and pass those ideas along to state and town officials and anyone else who wants to listen. Those ideas will be documented in a strategic plan.
- A project of Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, The Nature Conservancy, and Massachusetts Aquaculture Association. We approached the Mass. Division of Marine Fisheries and the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs with the idea; they committed staff and resources to partner on the project.
- Led by a 19-member Taskforce; the list of members is online: massshellfishinitiative.org/msi-task-force.
Here’s what MSI is not:
- A government entity.
- A group with the authority to create or change regulations.
- A secret attempt to undermine home-rule, “privatize” the flats, or change how folks make a living.
- An initiative with predetermined outcomes. We are at the very beginning of the process. No one has missed an opportunity to participate.
MSI was created to face emerging issues that the state and towns are not ready to handle. We are not better prepared for another harmful algae bloom closure or shellfish disease outbreak; the state has even fewer resources to react to the next crisis. This is especially concerning when you consider that farmed oysters are the third most valuable seafood in the state, worth $27 million a year to harvesters alone.
How do towns use shellfish to improve water quality without jeopardizing shellfish businesses? How do state officials protect public health while not overburdening shellfish harvesters? How do we make sure the flats stay productive and healthy, avoiding closures? How does shellfish get a fair share of public funding?
All these issues have been around for years with no way to address or even discuss them. We want that to change. The more people involved the better. The deeper the engagement, the more likely we’ll reach some solid consensus, and progress.
Three founding non-profits were awarded a $100,000 grant from National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to support two years of activities, towards a total project budget of $230,000 (the remaining $130,000 is the value of donated time from the Alliance, The Nature Conservancy, Massachusetts Aquaculture Association, and UMass Boston). The grant has allowed us to hire a consultant to organize meetings, and document results.
Trying to keep the Taskforce at a manageable size, four towns were selected to represent the state’s four coastal geographies (Cape, South Shore, South Coast, and North Shore). Chatham is very pro wild harvest, Duxbury is very pro aquaculture, New Bedford has dramatic plans to expand shellfish opportunities, and Gloucester represents the North Shore. Omitting Wellfleet, with its historic industry and many diggers and growers with important knowledge, was a mistake. The founding groups will urge the Task Force to add a representative from that town.
We also think that having a trusted, well-respected arbiter to lead meetings and ensure good process makes great sense. Former Cape and Islands Senator Rob O’Leary, also a professor at Mass Maritime Academy, has graciously agreed to fill that role. His combination of experience, integrity, and neutrality make him uniquely well suited to the role.
Cape Cod’s shellfish economy and culture is diverse, full of entrepreneurs who are friends and neighbors. The last thing anyone would want is to see that vital industry consolidated, or undermined. On the contrary, the challenges shellfishermen face – marketing, health regulations, access to bottom, environmental and safety concerns -- are the real threats to this great swath of effort and enterprise.
We know that, and that’s why we’re engaged. I encourage everyone to join in the process; learn more at massshellfishinitiative.org/participate.
(John Pappalardo is CEO of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance)