By John Pappalardo
This issue of “Small Boats, Big Ideas” shifts our focus for just a moment. We turn from finfish — groundfish, flatfish, roundfish — toward that other kind of fish that chooses to build its bones on the outside, as armor: Shellfish.
The food and livelihoods shellfish provide have always played a crucial role. But their pursuit has never been the stuff of romance and legend the way offshore fishing stokes our imaginations. Put it this way, Melville didn’t build a great American novel about the search for a white oyster. Hemingway’s old man didn’t spent three existential days fighting to land a quahog.
It’s scratch versus catch, harvest versus hunt, and in the generally macho hierarchy of fishing, hunters who roam toward the horizon and chase prey fathoms deep have always been considered the “real” fishermen.
Yet from the very outset, animals with shells have made it possible to live by the sea. They offer a kind of ballast. When times get tough offshore, when highliners are not as high as they’d like to be, when weather stops the hunt, when animals that roam the seas evade our best efforts to find them, there is always the rake, a low tide, and fertile flats. These modest animals have been our fallback, staple, and much more of an economic powerhouse than most people appreciate. The cool writer Mark Kurlansky, who did great work highlighting the role of codfish in our world, also makes a convincing case that it would be much more appropriate and true to nickname New York City “The Big Oyster” rather than “The Big Apple.”
At this point in our fishing history, aquaculture – staking out rectangles of bottom, assigning rights to plant and farm to individual fishermen – is assuming increasing importance. These near-shore farmers co-exist, sometimes uneasily, with property owners who don’t always like seeing work on flats they think of as their front yards, and also with those who still try to make a living (or part of a living) filling and selling buckets of wild catch scratched off areas that are in the public domain, reserved for no one but anyone who can get a permit.
One great thing about our version of aquaculture, unlike shrimp farms in Thailand, or salmon pens in the Pacific Northwest, is that we add nothing to the environment when we practice our husbandry. There is no food other than what the tides provide, no antibiotic to stop disease spread by overcrowding, no growth hormones to speed the process. We seed, we plant, we cull, we protect and nurture, and that’s it. Like all farmers, there are times when we succeed, and times when Nature denies a harvest. We carry on.
Another great thing about our aquaculture is that the animals we grow, mostly oysters and quahogs, offer subtle but profound benefits to our environment. They may be a kind of magic bullet simply by doing what they have always done; taking in nitrogen and using that nutrient to grow. We have overloaded our waterways with nitrogen runoff, mainly from our septic systems. If these little bivalves can quietly work alongside wastewater treatment systems, and substitute for even a fraction of the capacity we need, they will save us huge tax money and help return our shorelines to health.
All this played into the thinking when the Fishermen’s Alliance invested in the Aquaculture Research Corporation, ARC, the only shellfish hatchery in our region, the crucial piece for maintaining an industry that by conservative estimate creates several thousand local jobs, many year-round. Without ARC’s seed, hundreds of individual growers and dozens of town propagation projects would falter. The hatchery has now been rebuilt and is gearing up to produce more seed than ever.
That effort does not replace our focus on finfish. It is a companion to that, very much in keeping with our reading of history, very much in line with our understanding of what it takes to keep a fishing community healthy.
(John Pappalardo is the CEO of The Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance)