Seats open on Shellfish Commission

Thu, 11/21/2019 - 4:15pm

After many years serving on the Shellfish Commission, Chair Joe Fallon announced that he would not be seeking reappointment to the commission when his term expires at the end of the year.

Harbormaster Steve Land’s reaction was succinct: “Bummer.”

Fallon made his announcement at the commission’s meeting on Nov. 12.

Fallon did, however, say that he would be willing to continue in a volunteer capacity for such things as the reseeding of the Great Salt Pond with clams.

Fallon isn’t the only one leaving the commission. Commissioner Hunter Barto also sent correspondence indicating that she would not be seeking reappointment, and commissioner Paige Gaffett resigned two months ago. Both cited other commitments as preventing them from being able to serve.

Since there was already one vacancy, that leaves four open spots on the Shellfish Commission, and if anyone wishes to join, they should send a letter of interest to the Town Council.

Potential volunteers should know that they are apt to be recruited as soldiers in the war against the invasive green crabs. After many months of studying the green crabs — an opening campaign that could be dubbed “know thy enemy” — the commission is plotting its next moves.

Commissioner Wendell Corey said: “I think we should pursue, much more aggressively,” promoting the taking of the crabs from the waters of the Great Salt Pond. He called for engaging the many children who like to catch crabs at the docks in the endeavor, encouraging them to not just throw the crabs back into the water, but to take them home and cook them. “They may be ugly, but they’re good to eat,” he said.

Commissioner George Davis has taken the lead in researching the life cycle and habits of the crabs, enlisting the help of staff at Green Crab R&D and scientist Dr. Marissa McMahan of Manomet, a not-for-profit organization in Massachusetts. He invited McMahan to speak last summer at the Block Island Maritime Institute’s Tuesday Night Lecture Series. Thanh Thái, co-author of “The Green Crab Cookbook,” put out by Green Crab R&D, conducted a soft-shell crab tasting after the lecture.

A major strategy in combatting the invasive crabs, which eat the larvae of other shellfish, especially the soft-shell clams, is to develop a market for them among restaurants and home cooks. Davis, and aquaculture farmer Catherine Puckett, have enlisted various Block Island restaurants to include the shellfish on their menus. Currently, Davis reported, Old Island Pub is “occasionally” offering up a green crab bisque as a special.

Since they are relatively small, green crabs are best to eat in their soft-shell stage. Davis said the male crabs on Block Island seem to molt in May and June. The males are easier to identify in the pre-molt stage than the females, which molt later, he said.

Davis said he had participated in a green crab monitoring project with McMahan on the mainland and proposed that a similar monitoring project be conducted on Block Island. The information could not only assist the Shellfish Commission, but further the research of McMahon. Monitoring would be conducted weekly.

Both Davis and Puckett have been trapping the invasive crabs, which they have been offering up to restaurants. Davis said he currently has traps at the BIMI dock and he is getting about 150 per week.

The Harbors Department also traps crabs during the summer months when staff is available to help, but Land said the traps usually fill up very quickly with spider crabs, not green crabs – to the tune of three- to four-hundred per trap. As to whether the spider crabs can also be eaten, Land said the answer was “no.” Spiders are “total trash crabs,” he said.

Trapping takes time, energy and bait. “The bait is a real nightmare,” said Puckett.

Puckett, who runs 11 traps, said that in July and August “spider crabs took over our traps.”

Despite the challenges Land said: “I’m not afraid of failing.”

“We can come up with a plan,” said Davis. “I’m into it.” He said that the green crabs couldn’t be totally eradicated, but they could formulate a “structure” for a trapping program.

Commissioner Ray Boucher suggested recruiting volunteers, adding that he would “kick in a day” per week.

In other matters, the commissioners approved the list of those applying to renew their commercial shell-fishing licenses. “This is where I shut up,” said Fallon, who holds a commercial license, recusing himself from the discussion.

Although there are 10 resident commercial licenses, and one non-resident license, only seven residents wish to obtain licenses for the coming year. As to the lack of interest in clamming commercially, Land said: “The problem is not the amount of clams, but the price you get for them.”

The list will be forwarded to the Town Council for approval.