The lament of a Bourne shellfisherman

Oct 30, 2019 | Fish Tales

Rob Curtis stands at Barlow’s Landing with the waters of Buzzard’s Bay behind him.. Staff photo by Doreen Leggett

By Doreen Leggett

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Rob Curtis is proud to be a shellfisherman and can’t imagine doing anything else, but when he and some fellow Bourne comrades see commercial guys from Falmouth selling an abundant catch, they cringe.

“We are almost embarrassed to go into the fish market when there are other guys there,” Curtis said.

Curtis said the wild fishery in Bourne pales in comparison to other Cape towns. In Bourne they can make as little as $23 for a day of work and $150 is a good day.

“Our shellfisheries are in terrible shape. This is not due to overfishing, pollution or any other boogieman one wishes to blame. It is due to bad management by the town,” Curtis said.

Curtis knows an attorney in Falmouth who stopped practicing so he could devote himself to shellfishing. He told Curtis he could make $700 a day, and didn’t have to deal with legal malarkey.

Curtis lives in Sandwich, which has reciprocal shellfishing rights with Bourne. Years ago Bourne was known for great shellfishing. He thinks it was even the best town in the Commonwealth for quahogs at one time.

He came to Bourne as a young teenager and began shellfishing and finfishing right away. Curtis was born in England, in a town called Waterford just outside of London. He left there when he was about 10, and moved to Canada for a few years before settling in Pocasset with his mom and brother.

He remembers going to the docks in the English fishing town of Hull. He had uncles in the business.

“It was such a damn magical place to me,” he said. The manila lines had oil on them and that smell has stayed with him more than 40 years.

Another moment that cemented his love for fishing was on Winnipeg Lake in Canada where he spent time with a fishing family who went gillnetting for walleye. He became fascinated by the small business. And then on the Cape he went fishing with friends and caught a nice striped bass. Curtis remembers telling his friends he was going to take it home to his mom who would be happy to cook it. But his friend disagreed. He told Curtis he could sell it and took him to a dealer.

Something he loved that much he could get paid for? “I thought that was the coolest thing,” he said.

He has been the stern man on a lobster boat, mostly out of Sandwich, but he has also been out for five-day trips offshore. He has been tub trawling for dogfish out of Plymouth; those dogfish tore you apart, he said with a grimace as he remembers the spines. But now, in his 50s, he is shellfishing:

“Being a poor, young immigrant from Europe, shellfishing really caught my attention. The idea of being able to go fishing and care for one’s family was very appealing to me. It also seemed a very, very American way of doing things.

“I am doing this for better or for worse, mostly been worse.”

While telling his story, he ran into an oldtimer, Jerry Grant, when Curtis ran into buy a buddy a cup a coffee in Mo Beach – or Monument Beach. As he ducked out of Cumberland Farms, Curtis was saying he used to skip school and go fishing, and Grant recalled that 30 years ago, 20 kids would skip school this time of year. They would all be shucking bay scallops.

And it wasn’t just students. Firemen, teachers and police officers were commercial fishermen as well. Grant estimated that there were about 100 commercial permits in town. Now there are about 12.

“The resource is not there,” Grant said.

But, Curtis said, Bourne could have a healthier shellfishery for quahogs and other clams if more attention was paid to propagation.

“The town doesn’t owe me a living, but you have a responsibility to the bottom. You do that and I’ll take care of my living,” he said.

Curtis said the feeling among some of his brethren is the town fathers don’t see them as a priority and are doing less and less. Shellfishermen don’t know how much money is being spent on seed and propagation, but they believe it’s very little.

“If things were right we wouldn’t need the propagation, but you have to commit to it and do it yearly,” Curtis said.

Curtis ticked off other issues he sees: the shellfish committee was disbanded years ago; the town has a smaller commercial limit than most (three bushels); they can’t go on Saturdays; instead of a sunset stop-time like other towns they have to quit at 6 p.m., which makes a big difference in the summer.

His feelings are backed up by Mark Gmyrek, who used to be a town shellfish constable. Gmyrek is quick to say that he isn’t a disgruntled employee, but he is looking at the bigger picture.

“What I am is someone who is very concerned about shellfishing in this town. It doesn’t seem to be going in a very good direction,” Gmyrek said. “Either it’s being neglected or it’s being phased out.”

Even before his job was eliminated about two years ago, Gmyrek had concerns. He was growing about 500,000 quahog seeds, plus oysters, and putting them out. It was a huge job, he said. But since it was just him, the amount of propagation being done was about a quarter, or less, of other towns like Barnstable or Falmouth. Chatham, for example, puts out 2.5 to 3 million quahogs, 200,000 oysters, and when available, 250,000 bay scallops each year.

Now Gmyrek doesn’t think anywhere near that amount of seed is being put out.

Gmyrek also planted shellfish in 30 different areas of town and painted the shells a different color every year to see what worked and what didn’t.

“You can’t plant the seed willy-nilly and expect it to grow,” he said.

With a new director of natural resources and a new town administrator coming on, Gmyrek and Curtis hope big changes are ahead.

Curtis looked out at the waters of Buzzard’s Bay. About five shellfishermen were pulling their boats or moving their trucks and talking about the day.

“Twenty five years ago you couldn’t even get in this parking lot,” one commented.

“It seems like they have no interest us anymore,” another said, adding, “The biggest thing is if they would let us help ourselves.”

“If you are one foot outside the family shellfish area you couldn’t buy a shellfish with a $100 bill,” Curtis contributed.

Curtis and others offered to donate money to make better use of the town’s upwellers. But Curtis said they were informed they couldn’t do that, which left him scratching his head. He knows that other communities have private groups that fundraise – he is a member of Barnstable Association for Recreational Shellfishing – so he can’t understand why Bourne is different.

Christopher Southworth, acting director of the Natural Resources Department, was hired last year and as the former shellfish constable in Dennis he is sympathetic to the concerns of Curtis and other harvesters.

When he first came aboard he met with the group multiple times and has begun to institute many of the things they asked for.

“We have been doing more propagation,” he said.

Southworth explained they have begun to plant shellfish in deeper waters, where commercial harvesters would have more access than recreational permit holders. They reached out to commercial guys and asked what areas provided the best bottom.

“We are still in the process of planting quahogs,” he said, adding that they have planted 180,000 quahogs in three areas.

They have also planted 200,000 soft shell clams and 100,000 bay scallops.

“We are trying to do some different things,” he said.

Southworth understands it looks like more attention is paid to recreational permit holders, whose numbers are about 1500.

Some of that is because of decisions outside of the town’s control. Bourne, and other communities, get stock from the Taunton River, which is closed because of pollution concerns. Those shellfish are put only in the recreational areas and can be harvested only after a few years in the cleaner waters of Buzzard’s Bay.

But they aren’t available to the commercial shellfishermen because the transplants were funded by a settlement after the Bouchard oil spill. Commercial shellfishermen received separate money through that settlement, Southworth said.

“We have to work together to get it back to what it was. There is a lot to do,” he said. “Their concerns are my concerns. It takes time. It is not an instantaneous thing.”

Curtis suggested they need a written management plan. Then there would be a road map and people would know what was happening.

In an e-mail to Curtis, Glenn Cannon, the assistant town administrator, laid out a list of almost 20 things the town was doing on the shellfishing front. He said there was a shellfish management plan for the town and that it would be updated this winter to include information regarding shellfish harvesting and impacts to shellfish habitats in town waterways. (Curtis asked to see the plan and he said the copy he received was 20 years old.)

Cannon also said that in 2016 the town hired a full-time shellfish technician to expand and improve the shellfish program. Bourne upwellers are now being used at full capacity. On top of that, he said, the town constructed 60 floating grow-out bags for additional space for the propagation program; those bags are for oysters, a recreational fishery.

Curtis envies commercial shellfishermen on the Lower Cape who he feels are still valued in the community.

“They have a strong sense of who they are and they never surrendered that,” he said of Wellfleet and Chatham.

Seeing as he has witnessed how good it can be, Curtis is sensitive knowing harvesters from other towns do so much better.

“It hurts you,” he said simply. “If you put me in a town that had good shellfish I am one of those guys who would make 500 bucks a day.”


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