By Doreen Leggett
Ed Janiunas came to the Cape via Wall Street and after volunteering in the Yarmouth Shellfish Department, he began thinking of a new career path – working with millions of oysters instead of millions of dollars’ in bonds.
So he got a three-acre grant in an area of Lewis Bay that Yarmouth recently opened up to aquaculture and began his new life as a grant holder. The occupation holds all the joys of commuting to work in a kayak, and all the unforeseen headaches of Jetskis using his buoys as a slalom course, or losing thousands of dollars in an ice storm.
“I love it. It’s fun,” said Janiunas. “But if anyone had said, ‘You’re going to be an oysterman on the Cape,’ I would have said, ‘You’re smoking something.’”
Janiunas isn’t a typical grantholder, but neither is he the first bond trader to turn shellfish farmer.
And as more and more people look to aquaculture as a part- and full-time job, meeting a growing market demand, a problem looms:
No blueprint for the future.
The last time the state looked at the future of shellfishing was 1995 and that was a plan developed by people behind desks, not by those working the waters.
Among major questions raised now: With more than 200 people on waiting lists for aquaculture grants on Cape Cod, how does Massachusetts grow shellfish aquaculture while maintaining wild and recreational harvests?
“This lack of planning threatens shellfish’s future as a sustainable and financially stable fishery,” said Melissa Sanderson, chief operating officer at Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance.
As has been known to happen, a potential solution emerged when a group of concerned folks went out for a beer. Led by Sanderson, a grant application was submitted and now the fledgling
Massachusetts Shellfish Initiative (MSI) has in hand $233,000, a $100,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the rest in matching funds.
One of the first steps was to survey user groups, from those who steam out of Rock Harbor to dredge for quahogs to those who work on grants in Wellfleet, from those who scratch for wild clams in Chatham to those who eat and serve shellfish.
Those results have been studied and now MSI, a partnership between the Fishermen’s Alliance, the Massachusetts Aquaculture Association, and The Nature Conservancy, in collaboration with UMass Boston and the state Division of Marine Fisheries, is setting up a task force with subcommittees to develop a state-wide strategic plan for shellfish.
The industry is hugely important on the peninsula. Take Wellfleet, which from 1880 to 1910 produced more shellfish than any other New England town, shipping bivalves all over the country. Today 15 percent of the population is still involved in harvesting shellfish, and that doesn’t include restaurants, fish buyers or markets.
“In 2016, Wellfleet was ninth in the state for value of seafood landings at $6.2 million, most of which are oysters and quahogs, impressive for such a small town,” said Wellfleet Shellfish Constable Nancy Civetta.
Chatham’s story is different because it doesn’t give out grants, fostering a wild fishery. If oysters, which are almost exclusively farmed, are taken out of the equation and numbers run on quahogs, bay scallops, blue mussel, razor clam and soft-shell clams, Chatham is the top-valued port in the state with $2.38 million in landings.
“Different towns have different goals,” said Chatham Shellfish Constable Renee Gagne.
Gagne said in Chatham almost every spot has a history of being naturally productive, and so “the thought of taking public lands and putting it in the hands of one private grower (isn’t supported). Most people here buy a (shellfish) permit for an insurance policy. This is our blue collar industry. When everything else fails, everyone relies on the quahog.”
In addition to those who use Chatham’s public fishery for income, close to 3,000 people buy a recreational permit.
The importance of the wild fishery has prompted the town to invest heavily in growing baby shellfish and placing them in local waters.
The town plants an impressive 2.5 to 3 million quahogs, 200,000 oysters, and when available 250,000 bay scallops a year.
One thing Gagne wants from the MSI initiative is more funding for propagation. They do get some state monies, enough for starting 500,000 quahogs, but that is much diminished from the past.
Other towns, while supportive of aquaculture, have also been protective of the wild fishery over the years.
Nathan Sears, the natural resources director in Orleans, said that while the town has private grants in Cape Cod and Pleasant Bays, there is a moratorium in Nauset Estuary because it is so productive for quahogs.
“We should be focused on the wild fisheries,” said Sears. “It’s the public trust doctrine. I believe in that philosophy.”
Other towns are looking to increase production.
“We’re hearing from the industry, a demand for standardized training for new aquaculture grant holders,” Sanderson explained, adding that poor husbandry and handling by one grant holder can shut down an entire area.
“There is no criteria to get into aquaculture. Nothing is required and it is very scary — you wouldn’t go to a doctor who has never been to medical school,” said Andrew Cummings, who began commercial shellfishing in the 1990s and employs five people, not including himself, on his grant in Wellfleet.
Cummings isn’t in favor of allowing hobbyists to gain a greater toe-hold in the aquaculture industry. He also pointed out that the narrative of increasing demand is not one he is experiencing.
“If you would ask me to summarize the state of the industry, it’s not so rosy,” he said.
Those who are selling shellfish are working harder and getting paid less. “Middle men are happy,” he said.
“What I would like to see out of MSI is a more comprehensive plan to manage what we have,” he said. “Throwing a lot more people into this industry is not going to be a good thing in the long run.”
Civetta, the shellfish constable in Wellfleet, said every town has its own regulations. That flexibility and uniqueness needs to be protected, she said.
Just as a small example, Wellfleet’s aquaculture areas are in open water with 10-foot tides every day, as opposed to a protected salt pond, so gear is more vulnerable to weather. Because of that, and the fact it is a multi-use harbor, floating gear is prohibited. So Janiunas in Yarmouth, for example, couldn’t operate his business there.
Individual towns also sign off on grants. Selectmen vote whether to renew leases on what is town property, and Cummings is appreciative of that structure.
He wants selectmen and other town officials to be able to deny applicants who don’t do it right.
“There is a lot of subpar product,” he said. “There is plenty of great product. If it tilts too much people won’t know the difference.”
But there is generally not a high turnover rate. In Wellfleet, only five grants have turned over since 2012. There is no more bottom available, although 154 grants are set up with four names allowed, so there can be a succession plan.
Orleans, like Wellfleet, has a limited number of grants, but that town may soon begin a new grant program with a twist.
Town officials want to use oysters as part of their wastewater management plan to remove nitrogen, and diminish the need for expensive sewers.
The role of shellfish in cleanup efforts across the Cape, as well as the need to have a diversity of shellfish as markets change, are issues on the minds of MSI organizers.
Their survey so far has garnered a variety of opinions. Some think artificial oyster reefs are too easily permitted and that there are few safeguards in place to protect growers from diseases born from overcrowding.
Others are enthusiastic about oyster reefs. The Nature Conservancy wants to restore 5,000 acres of reefs by 2050.
Sanderson, and others, expect differing opinions and want people to talk about them.
“Our hope is that the MSI process will bring all these different user groups and perspectives together around the table,” she said. “By coming together, they can leverage political and public support for overarching issues that unite us, like improving water quality.”