Commission zeroes in on damaged clam cause

Fri, 01/24/2020 - 9:45am

The Shellfish Commission welcomed two new members at its meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 14., Tom Walsh and Sadie Flateman, and got them up to speed on various issues ranging from invasive crabs to proper procedures to be followed during meetings.

But first off there was an update on the cause of damage to clamshells that commercial fisherman Jon Grant brought to the commission’s attention at their last meeting. Grant had been digging in one of his “secret spots” and discovered that many of the clams found there had shells that appeared eaten away by something and were crumbly, although the meat inside was perfectly fine.

“No one really digs where those chalky clams were,” said Grant. He suggested harvesting the clams in that area and moving them to where people more commonly dig for clams.

“Let me jump back,” said George Davis, who was chairing the meeting in the absence of Wendell Corey. He had heard back from both Diandra Verbeyst of The Nature Conservancy, and Dale Leavitt, Associate Professor of Biology at Roger Williams University. “Shells are rotting because it’s more acidic,” he said, explaining that because the soil is not being dug, or turned over, the acid accumulates in the sediment.

“No current is going through there,” said Grant. “It’s a waste of all those clams.”

Shellfish Commission member Ray Boucher said that digging up the clams and moving them could replace buying clams, which the commission does each year to re-seed the Great Salt Pond for recreational shell-fishing.

Harbormaster Steve Land said that the Harbors Department has a bull rake that could be used to move them, but a larger boat than the Shellfish Commission usually uses would be needed. “It’s a workout,” said Land of the process. “I think it’s a good idea. The soil is becoming unaerated.”

“I know a guy who might come out and do it,” said Grant. “It would be less money than buying clams.” In order for that to happen, though, Grant said the Commission would have to make a “special exception” as there is only one commercial shellfish license granted to a nonresident, and that license is held by another party.

The exchange took place during the public input portion of the meeting, and later, when the issue came up as an agenda item, Davis added that the “more acidic [the water is] the more shell rot comes in. Water is a little corrosive.”

Shellfish farmer Catherine Puckett, who also finds the chalky clams under her lease area where the substrate is mucky, said: “Dr. Leavitt said aerating those areas would be beneficial.”

In other matters, the commission discussed the progress being made in changing its annual shellfishing brochure, signage addressing how to properly dispose of “fish racks,” and a green crab monitoring program that Davis would like to start in April.

Lastly, Davis called for setting a date for a special meeting to discuss Sun Farm Oyster’s application to move its lease in Trim’s Pond. That meeting was scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 21. Sun Farm Oysters is owned by resident Chris Warfel. At the beginning of the meeting, Davis had made it very clear that the subject could not be discussed during the meeting, and that they essentially had a “gag order” from “counsel” prohibiting them from doing so as the matter was not on the agenda. On Jan. 10, the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council sent out its notice for “preliminary determination” on the matter, opening a 30-day window for the town, state, and federal agencies, along with the general public to weigh in on the application.

According to the CRMC’s website, after an aqua-culturist makes an application to the CRMC, the 30-day period is used to identify any issues that may come up during the formal review process. Based on the comments, CRMC Aquaculture Coordinator Dave Beutel makes recommendations to the applicant on any revisions that may be needed to the application. If a “substantive objection” is received, the application may go to a public hearing.

At the Jan. 14 meeting, new member Flateman was advised that, as an employee of Sun Farm Oysters, she should recuse herself from the discussion.

Then came a discussion of just what recusing oneself meant. Some thought that is was acceptable to leave the table and sit in the audience, and some thought it meant one should leave the room. It was noted that it was up to an individual to recuse oneself, and if they did not, an ethics complaint could be made, and that could result in a substantial fine from the state Ethics Commission.

Millie McGinnes, serving as clerk for the meeting in the absence of Kate McConville, who was off-island studying for her captain’s license, said it was proper to leave the room. “If you’re in the room, you have influence on your board.”

After a question and answer session with Warfel on Jan. 21, it was decided that a site walk at the Sun Farm Oysters location in Trim’s Pond would take place on Wednesday, Jan. 22. The decision on Warfel’s application to move his lease was postponed until the next meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 28.