Damaged clamshells in the GSP raise questions

Thu, 12/19/2019 - 5:30pm
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The Shellfish Commission has a new mystery to solve.

It all started with a simple question from Jon Grant, who asked about the results of water testing last summer in the Great Salt Pond. Grant posed the question during the public input section of the commission’s meeting on Dec. 10.

Grant had some items for show and tell. He pulled four quahog shells from his pocket and placed them on the table. One shell appeared normal, but the other three were bleached white, chalky, and eaten away. But by what?

Grant explained that while out clamming he filled a five-gallon bucket with clams from one of his “secret spots” and most exhibited the chalky quality. He said he expected the shells to be empty, but they weren’t – they were live clams with good meat inside.

The area Grant was digging in was sandy and gravely. He said he had talked with a “neighbor who digs in mud,” and who did not find any similarly affected clams.

Speaking from the audience, shell fish farmer Katherine Puckett said she also gets “shells like that,” although the area where she farms also has a muddy bottom. “The shells just crumble apart.”

Commission member Ray Boucher asked if pH testing was being conducted.

Grant thought the Committee for the Great Salt Pond may have done some testing, but the specific testing he initially asked about had taken place on “shell day.”

George Davis, who was chairing the meeting in the absence of Joe Fallon, said the Environmental Protection Agency was going to do the analysis of the tests conducted on shell day, but he didn’t yet know the results.

Although the seasonal shellfish wardens have left for the year, Grant suggested they might know the extent of the problem. He added that the clams transplanted into the pond each year by the commission were “probably not a problem.”

Boucher suggested doing a “random sampling, scientifically, of the whole pond.”

“I really only noticed it in one area,” said Grant.

“I’ve been noticing it in the past two years,” said Puckett.

“Is it more in certain areas?” asked Grant. “Maybe ask Diandra [Verbeyst] who does sampling” for The Nature Conservancy. “That’s not good to see.”

“There’s got to be a source…it’s coming from somewhere,” said Boucher.

“We’re thinking this is related to alkalinity,” said Davis, “but it may be something else.”

Grant said he had given some of the shells to Verbeyst, who took them to the University of Rhode Island.

“Someone could have dumped something,” said Boucher. “It would behoove us to do some soil sampling.”

Davis said he would talk to Verbeyst and Chris Littlefield, who also works with The Nature Conservancy, and is an aqua-culturist, before the commission’s next meeting.

Three people have so far expressed interest in serving on the Shellfish Commission. Letters of interest were sent to the Town Council from Tom Walsh, Katherine Puckett, and Sadie Flateman and forwarded to the commission. The letters were accepted into the record and a motion was passed to notify the Town Council of the commission’s “support.”

It was the fourth item of correspondence that raised some concern: an email from the R.I. Coastal Resources Management Council regarding a requested change to the lease of Sun Farm Oysters, which is owned by Chris Warfel. Davis said it was a request “to give up a portion of the lease – with a mucky bottom, and in exchange taking an area that is actively clammed. Bottom line – there’s no action to take” at this time.

“We’re just being alerted?” asked commission member Mary Lawless.

“Yes,” said Davis, explaining that the CRMC would hold a meeting to make a “preliminary determination” on the matter. “We’ll work up what we need to do on the pros and cons.”

“This is an issue that will take a great deal of our attention,” said member Wendell Corey. He said more information was needed. “Once the information is gathered, we need to sit down” and discuss it. He also called for the commission to take a more active role in communicating their feelings to the Town Council, which will have an opportunity to weigh in on the matter, although ultimately changes to aquaculture leases is in the CRMC’s jurisdiction. “Last time there was an issue, we were ignored by the Town Council,” said Corey.

Although the Shellfish Commission is supportive of aquaculture, Corey said they also need to “protect recreational shell-fishing.” “Chris [Warfel] has some very bad bottom there,” he said, “and is trying to get around it by” by using floating gear.

This was an apt segue for Davis to report on his attendance at the “Aquaculture Workshop for Municipal Leaders” held on Nov. 19 on the mainland. “CRMC made it quite clear their focus is not aesthetics,” when is comes to shellfish farms. As for the rights of abutters, Davis said: “Folks on land have no rights,” but they can go to the CRMC’s special determination meetings. This, members of the commission noted, was because the state controls the waters, and the area of the shore below the mean high-tide mark.

“Another issue, everywhere,” said Davis, concerned enforcement, and lost gear from the farms. “The problem is ubiquitous,” he said and even the head of the Ocean State Aquaculture Association was in favor of “tagging every bag” used in aquaculture operations for identification.

Davis also noted that Charlestown has a joint taskforce with the CRMC to discuss issues with aquaculture, suggesting that perhaps Block Island should do the same.