Apr 24, 2019 | Fish Tales

Domenic Santoro has created an innovative business plan around musseling.

By Doreen Leggett

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Domenic Santoro, like many in Chatham, dug for clams off Monomoy from the moment he was old enough and has bounced around from fishery to fishery since.

“I feel like I have to reinvent myself every five years,” he says.

He’s been fluke fishing, dredging for quahogs, surf clamming. But there has been a constant; early in his career he started musseling, with a boat and a small dredge that he and his brother Frank put together.

“I like musseling,” says Santoro. “The consistency is hard to beat and it’s close to home.”

Unfortunately, big sets have not been consistent; they’ve happened a handful of times in the last few decades and Santoro has learned to build a business plan around them.

He has a boat that will ply inshore waters around Pleasant Bay and Stage Harbor and another that heads into Cape Cod Bay. Santoro has done reconnaissance and research, finding secondary mussel beds when storms wipe others out, exploring the idea of a mussel farm, starting Chatham Light Seafood, to help market his product.

“I’m kind of all in,” he says.

The Chatham native mitigates the vagaries of Mother Nature, but was recently caught off guard by fishery managers. After investing a few hundred thousand dollars in his business, doing exploratory trips to find a historic set of mussels on Nantucket Shoals, and reaching out to regulators to make sure he had the correct permits, Santoro got some bad news.

He couldn’t fish in that area. Earlier there had been talk of a potential closure near the shoals, which are east of Nantucket, to protect habitat, but not the spot where he had done his due diligence.

“I had just bought this boat. I was absolutely shocked,” says Santoro from the wheelhouse of his boat on a cold April day.

He and four crew had just left Sesuit Harbor in Dennis at 6 a.m., frost covering the dock.

“It’s cold,” grinned Chris Muir, the newest crewman, jumping up and down to generate some body heat.

They were going out to a spot that boasted primarily bigger mussels, great tasting but not as marketable as small farm-raised mussels from Prince Edward Island (PEI) in Canada. Santoro had a buyer, though for a smaller amount by mussel standards – 10,000 pounds – and off Cape so not ideal.

That is why back in 2017 he had planned to be on Nantucket Shoals, where smaller mussels were abundant:

“I have spent a year and a half trying to get back into an area I thought I was already going into. I tried to work the process myself for a year and I can’t do it. I don’t have the time or the knowledge.”

So he turned to George Maynard, research coordinator at the Fishermen’s Alliance.

The two of them are partnering with the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies to apply for an exempted fishing permit, one of nearly 20 EFPs the non-profit Fishermen’s Alliance has secured in the last 25 years to help fishermen and improve fisheries science.

The permits range from allowing fishermen to work in closed areas if they have cameras on their boats to allowing them to harvest tuna while also fishing for groundfish.

Although the permits themselves are often short lived, the results of the studies they enable can impact fisheries management for years. For example, an EFP on cod mortality more than a decade ago demonstrated that hook and line fishermen could successfully release undersized cod alive, allowing them to save costly cod quota every year since.

“These permits are valuable not only to the industry, but also to our understanding of fish and the ecosystem,” says Maynard. “A lot of the questions fisheries managers have wouldn’t be answered if this research wasn’t done, and it keeps fishermen fishing.”

In the 1950, ‘60s, then again in the 1990s, Santoro says oldtimers remember areas on Nantucket Shoals having bumper mussel crops. The shellfish were so prolific the Cape supplied much of the demand across the country. But they were supplanted by cultivated mussels from PEI.

“PEI has 96 percent of the U.S. market. That’s ridiculous,” says Santoro, although he understands why:

“A (buyer) can call at 4 a.m. and get mussels by 4 in the afternoon. They don’t have appreciation for a wild product.”

Santoro started musseling in Cape Cod Bay in 2013 and in 2016 there was a set in Chatham, so he had another captain run a boat there and was keeping close to 10 people employed.

“That is one of the things I am most proud of,” he says, adding that he pays for safety training for all his crew and has happily watched several move on to work larger boats.

He likes where he is, a square mile patch about an hour from shore.

“There is no place I’d rather be,” Santoro says.

Like his fishing grounds in Cape Cod Bay, the area of his EFP on Nantucket Shoals will be small.

“We expect the areas of bottom impacted by this research and the associated fishing to be less than half of one percent of the habitat management area,” Maynard says.

The research will provide insights into how a mussel dredge interacts with the sea floor, where mussels are and at what density, and other habitat features.

“Mussels are habitat engineers,” Maynard says. “Because they can attach to each other and different sediments, they can create reef habitats even where there is a lot of disturbance and instability.”

Their overall significance off the coast of Cape Cod isn’t well understood because the location, size, and health of mussel beds is not well studied in our area.

“The work with Captain Santoro will help fill in some of those gaps,” Maynard says.

While the EFP wends itself through the process, Santoro is working Cape Cod Bay.

On the ride out, the crew puts tags with Santoro’s name and a time stamp on dozens of red mesh bags. Then they stretch like pitchers warming up.

“It’s a labor intensive operation,” Santoro says.

Santoro lowers the dredge overboard, tows a bit, and then winches it back up and empties the mussels onto the metal deck. At that point Damion Drummond hustles over and unhooks the dredge. On Santoro’s “Yup,” he shakes the remaining mussels out. And then the dredge is hooked up to wait for the next tow.

“Sometimes it’s just sand and sand dollars,” he says. But not today.

Two crewmembers shovel mussels into a bin, or declumper, which separates them (hence the name), and removes silt. The mussels then travel down a gleaming silver shoot. A crewman will throw empty shells overboard; keepers are placed in red mesh.

As the hours go by the piles of red bags on either side of the wheelhouse get larger and larger. The crew switches off on tasks, shoveling and bagging, with Drummond always handling the dredge.

“They make it look easy,” says Santoro.

There are days he can run the boat with three crew, setting gear and shoveling mussels himself, but on this day he only hops in once in awhile.

“I’d rather be back there,” he said as he lowers the dredge again.

When they get to the dock that afternoon he still has a half-day of work ahead. As a wholesaler he has to load and run his truck to his buyer. To make things easier he has retrofitted a forklift so it works well at the dock.

Later he has to fix the exhaust on his other boat and do bookwork; uncertainty has forced him to hire fewer people.

Still, he is confident that things will work out, and if they don’t he has a plan.

“I’ll reinvent myself,” he says.


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