Shellfish Commission confronts reality

Thu, 10/14/2021 - 4:30pm

The idea for getting an upweller to grow shellfish “seed” was the brainchild of the late Hermann “Bo” Gempp. Gempp was a longtime member of the Shellfish Commission and thought that the Great Salt Pond needed to become more sustainable. Instead of relying on purchasing harvestable-sized shellfish and distributing them into the pond each year for recreational shell-fishing, perhaps the commission could grow out some of their own stock.
It turns out the upweller is a lot to maintain. Once the seed is in the upweller, the troughs need to get cleaned once per week, and the bags the seeds are in need to be shaken twice per week. Harbormaster Kate McConville, in her second year on the job, told the members of the Shellfish Commission at their meeting Tuesday that maintaining the upweller this past summer had taken too much time away from her staff’s primary focus of being shellfish wardens. “I don’t want to give it up, but you need to take on a more active role,” she said.
A couple of the commission members said they had volunteered to help, but it either fell off their radar or there was a lack of follow-up. Jon Berry said: “It sounds like we need ... to take ownership of the maintenance.”
It was suggested that at the beginning of the season there be a training session for volunteers and a sign-up sheet for people to commit to specific dates and times. Berry said someone needs to “own” the schedule to make it work instead of relying on the busy Harbors Department staff to coordinate volunteers.
All in all though, the oysters grown this summer in the upweller did quite well. They grew to an eventual inch to an inch-and-a-half and have been moved out to a secret location. There was very low mortality, said McConville.

But what to plant next year? That gave way to a wide-ranging discussion of what seems to be doing well in the Great Salt Pond, and what needs augmentation.
Should it be scallops? Member Tom Walsh thought there was no reason to do those as they have a relatively short life anyway. Scallop season is also quite short and does not start this year until Nov. 6, plus it usually requires more “gear” so not many people will actually go scalloping.
Soft-shell clams might be futile as past transplants haven’t worked due to heavy predation by crabs and other factors. Seed is available, and they are relatively easy to grow, but “then they need to be relocated and that’s when it all falls apart,” said McConville.
“It’s like pissing in the wind,” said Davis. The taking of soft-shell clams in the GSP is prohibited, although it is suspected that there is plenty of poaching. They are out there, but just how robust the population is is an unknown.

Oysters require a substrate to attach to, and since three of the oyster farmers are already working on restoration projects in Cormorant Cove that are funded by grants, there’s no reason to do it.
Quahogs could be an obvious choice but the commissioners think those are quite plentiful already. The only problem is that they are in water that is too deep for most recreational clammers. Another item on the agenda was to discuss transplanting some to shallower water.

The idea of transplanting quahogs has come up before and Davis has been researching the efforts taken by the R.I. Department of Environmental Management to facilitate quahog transplants in Narragansett Bay. Fishermen there are paid about $10 per bag of clams relocated, and they are most likely, commercial fishermen using a dredge.

Although the idea of getting a commercial shell-fisherman from the mainland who could drag for clams was suggested, it was deemed most likely cost-prohibitive, and problematic in other ways. “You can’t drag through the mooring fields,” said Walsh.
Davis thought local volunteers could be relied upon, utilizing a bullrake and skiffs. But, others thought they might be too old for bullraking.
Member Mary Lawless was up for trying, though. “We can see how fast we break our backs.”
By the end of the meeting most on the commission felt that maybe they were being a bit too ambitious in taking on large projects and it would be better, for now, to take on smaller ones for “scientific purposes.”