Death by a Thousand Docks
By Doreen Leggett
Jake Angelo launched his boat from Prince’s Cove Marina, slowly going down Marstons Mills River toward Three Bays, a place where he has spent much of his 29 years.
He remembered stories as a kid: there was so much eelgrass that props would be mired in it. And so many eels in the trap you couldn’t jam another one in.
For Angelo, a commercial fisherman and shellfisherman, that’s not his experience. As he gets older he wants to ask a question of the storytellers:
“What the hell did you guys all do?” he wonders with a pained laugh.
Angelo, tall and clean cut, has a few ideas about where earlier generations went wrong. For the last few years he, and a growing group, have been trying to erase some of their mistakes.
“We are concerned about the lack of concern for water quality,” he said. “There are so many problems all at once. The environment is degrading.”
One top issue on his mind is how new docks are trumping valuable shellfish habitat.
Angelo serves on the shellfish committee, one of two young shellfishermen on the board. He has seen, and weighed in on, letters from his board chair asking that docks not be permitted by the conservation commission because a certain area carries a top rating of 10 for shellfish habitat.
He has seen those letters ignored.
“It doesn’t matter,” Angelo said in exasperation.
He mentioned a few new docks, the most recent in Osterville about a month ago. Even a member of the conservation commission, which approved 4 to 2, said it seemed the public was reaching the tipping point.
John Townes, the president of Barnstable Association for Recreational Shellfish, attended virtually. He spoke, urging denial.
Even weeks later he is stunned.
“The quote unquote conservation commission approves it,” Townes said. “I just can’t believe it. We were sick. Really, it was gut a punch.”
At the meeting, Townes brought out a report commissioned in 2004 that detailed, in upwards of 60 pages, studies showing how docks and boating damage shellfish habitat.
The applicant, and commission members who supported the request, didn’t deny the area was classified as a 10, the highest rating. They also agreed that it was a propagation area in close proximity to a town landing, which made for easy access for the 1,200 people who have permits to shellfish recreationally in town.
What they argued was there already were docks around them, and that commission bylaws allowed docks in areas that were prime shellfish habitat. Supporters also pointed out that it was a “No Wake Zone” so boats would be going slow.
Commissioner Dennis Houle explained that regulations allow productive shellfish habitat and docks to coexist, as long as the application meets additional criteria, which this one did: 30 inches between prop and bay bottom.
Commissioner Peter Sampou, certain the 126-foot dock and 36-foot boat with twin engines would harm the habitat, was “disgusted” with the vote.
“We are those people who are supposed to be protecting the aquatic resources in this town,” Sampou said.
Townes aims to make sure these approvals don’t continue. He is hoping to pass an ordinance saying if shellfish habitat is rated above an 8 by the town’s shellfish biologist, and the shellfish committee agrees, docks are prohibited.
In a recent letter, Shellfish Committee Chairman Stuart Rapp reiterated a comment his committee has made often:
“What is truly needed is a moratorium on any future piers that are proposed in any significant shellfish habitat area because of the irreparable damage done to shellfish habitat by the structures themselves and the indiscriminate dredging and siltation,” Rapp added. “The ocean bottom in the Three Bays is now so fragile and in so many areas lifeless and adding yet another pier with a twin-engine speed boat serves no benefit to the area your commission is charged to protect, but instead only serves to cause further irreparable damage to the habitat and water quality.”
Town Councilor Kris Clark was at the March 30 meeting. Shellfish are close to her heart; she used to be a shellfish technician. She said the opposition rang true:
“It’s like death by a thousand cuts. We keep losing habitat. Nobody takes out or takes down a pier. There just are more and more of them getting approved by our Conservation Commission. The shellfishery is always on the losing end.”
Commissioner Larry Morin, who voted against the application, said people are starting to feel that enough is enough.
While Angelo agrees, he said the issue goes beyond docks. It’s a mindset. He sees things like a kayak dock with twin-engine boats on it, and other worrisome trends.
Recently he was quahogging and saw an unmarked van pull up near a property with a beautiful lawn and no scrubby underbrush.
“I’m like, are they really about to go out with backpack sprayers?”
They did, so he took a video of what he thought was herbicide spraying, chemicals destined for the water.
“I don’t want to make assumptions, but I guess I am,” he said with a chuckle.
Angelo gave the video to the authorities, but was told the quality wasn’t good enough.
Tyler Hagenstein is another young shellfisherman and agrees that it is a matter of bigger priorities rather than specifics -- although he wouldn’t be against banning fertilizer near water bodies.
He says more and bigger recreational boats bring horsepower that is shredding the bottom.
“You are blasting the bottom and that ruins it,” he said, adding that there are now 600-horsepower Mercury outboards.
For Hagenstein, who makes a living from the wild fishery and has a grant, Channel Rock Oysters, the lack of concern is frustrating. He sees it as an allegory of the Cape turning away from its heritage to more of a recreational playground. He would like to diversify and get a lobster boat, but all the moorings and slips are filled by people who only come to town for a few summer weeks.
He would like the conservation commission to protect the ecosystem, which people seem to forget is public.
“Conservation is supposed to be watching out for this and protecting habitat, but they are not,” he said. “It is sad to see.”
Angelo is starting to feel the same about some of the waters where he grew up. Putting along the Marstons Mills River, he pointed out productive areas where he can shellfish. But there are also spots where the bottom is covered by sponges he hasn’t seen before. One type, the yellow borer, will eat right through shells. Other vegetation has increased as well and there is muck where sand used to be.
“In the summer the whole area is smelly. It’s like being near a sewage treatment plant,” Angelo said.
“You can definitely tell the difference over the years,” agreed Allyson Schmidt, a childhood friend who had come along.
She said when she and Angelo were kids they would go bridge jumping and mats of vegetation could be avoided. Not anymore.
Schmidt, like Angelo, has scuba dived for years, so feels they may notice changes more than others. Some are impossible to miss; they used to swim across Shubel’s Pond. Now the water will kill your dog, she says.
Her connection to the Cape prompted her to go to school for the environment; she has a masters and is going back for another.
She thinks two things need to happen.
First the town, with university or non-profit help, has to do a thorough assessment of water quality.
Second, residents need education about threats to water quality.
“I never had to worry about anything like this,” she said.
Schmidt will be heading back to school in Florida soon. Angelo will text when there is an important meeting on Zoom or news to share.
Angelo, after graduating from Barnstable High School and then Massachusetts Maritime Academy, bounced between Cape Cod and Florida for a short time.
He had worked at Oyster Harbors Marina as a dock hand from 2007 to 2013 - in high school and through college as a summer job - and thought he might want to be a private yacht captain.
He discovered the industry to be very political and inconsistent, so started working on a shellfish farm on the Cape in 2015 and got his commercial shellfish license that same year.
“Within a year I was fishing full time for myself,” he said.
Now, he splits his time between commercial fishing, mostly shellfish, and advocacy.
“At some point we have to think about how to reverse this,” Angelo said.