Shellfish Commission takes stock of the summer

Thu, 08/22/2019 - 4:45pm

All winter long, the various boards and commissions on Block Island plan for the busy summer season and then, usually in August, evaluate the results — what worked well, what went wrong, what can be improved upon for the next year. On August 13, the Shellfish Commission, along with Harbormaster Steve Land, did just that.

Land had nothing but praise for the three seasonal shellfish wardens, all of whom have just completed their first year on the job. As the three, Maya Veldman-Wilson, Jake Kusy, and Koby Rider go off, or back, to college, Land wanted the public to know that they did a “spectacular” job. “They’re all charming,” he said, later adding that they “represent the community so well.”

Land often emphasizes that a key to the job of enforcing the rules and regulations around shell-fishing (and fin-fishing) is more about education than applying punitive measures. Such is the case for throwing fish racks back in the water. “When I catch people doing it and explain why, they go ‘oh.’ Once you understand the why…”

“Most people don’t realize they can’t do it,” said Shellfish Commission member George Davis.

The ‘why’ is because fish racks thrown into the water are polluting and attract and provide food for crabs, especially the invasive and predatory green and spider crabs.

It’s a frustrating problem for the Shellfish Commission, especially as they have undertaken a campaign to eliminate or greatly reduce the population of green crabs. That campaign is in its first year, but already people are catching on and helping out.

The Block Island Maritime Institute hosted a lecture and tasting on green crabs with guests from Green Crab R&D in July and Davis reported that Finn’s restaurant is now serving up specials made from green crabs. “It’s amazing. They’re out there and they’re selling,” he said.

Even the Block Island Fishing Academy has gotten on board. Facebook posts show the kids catching the crabs at the docks when the fish aren’t biting. Land reported that “crabbing at the docks has been thick.”

Shellfish Commission Clerk and Harbors Department Assistant Kate McConville said the green crab brochures being handed out at the Harbormaster’s shack at the Boat Basin were quite popular.

To keep up the momentum, commission member Ray Boucher ordered T-shirts, green in color, with the words “Eat the invaders” and a white silhouette of a crab emblazoned on the front.

There are also plans afoot to hold a Great Salt Pond Day benefit next year to promote awareness of the pond. They hope this will become a “coalition” event with involvement by other organizations and businesses, and members of the commission will be reaching out to them. A similar event was organized a few years ago by the Committee for the Great Salt Pond.

Land suggested including a clean-up of the shore and waters, something that periodically needs to be done to keep the shores and water debris free.

The matter of debris was a problem when it came time to consider a request from Sun Farm Oysters owner Chris Warfel to modify his “assent” for his shellfish farm lease in Harbor Pond. The Shellfish Commission is one of several boards being asked to provide an advisory on the subject to the Town Council, although the Coastal Resources Management Council will have the final say.

A memo to the Commission from Town Manager Ed Roberge states that Warfel’s proposal “outlines a plan to adjust the current location of current approved boundary in the Great Salt Pond and the installation of permafloats for better winter condition protection.”

Warfel, in his request to the CRMC, states that the one of the reasons for the changes are to “help keep the farm out of the view shed of the closest neighbor.” He further states that: “Conventional PVC pipe Taylor floats are susceptible to failure from ice and at the many glue joints needed to construct the float. The PVC floats sink or capsize and are not conducive to good site management under these conditions.”

Commission member Wendel Corey, who made the motion for a negative advisory, said that Warfel was “not supposed to put in anything that floats” and that “he’s not in compliance now.”

Land, who described himself as “pro-aquaculture,” said that unretrieved gear from the oyster farm is littering the pond. “Other aqua-culturists are doing an awesome job. Nature happens. Everyone makes mistakes.”

“It’s a shame, because it gives other aqua-culturists a bad rap,” said member Hunter Barto of the debris.

The general consensus was that Warfel “shouldn’t be given more” until he comes into compliance with his current assent, and the commission unanimously voted to send a negative advisory to the Town Council.

Warfel, when told of the vote, expressed surprise that it had taken place, while also saying the Commission must have misinterpreted the photo he had submitted when asking to move the floats.

“I didn’t realize the town was going to do this. I had a prior commitment,” he said. “After many year of working with the Shellfish Commission to make aquaculture more successful — it is big benefit to the town — I seem to be continuously singled out,” Warfel said. “And for them to say that I am out of compliance and not anyone else puts us back many, many years.”

The state understands that these markers move over time. Weather moves them around. If that is the standard, then everyone out there is out of compliance. I can’t believe that’s the reason,” he said.

As for the photo he had submitted, he said, “The important thing was that float was a prototype and is not in use.”