WELLFLEET — A discussion of whether licenses for eight shellfishing grants should be revoked took up most of a four-hour select board meeting on May 24.
The board proceeded with caution, perhaps because of chair Ryan Curley’s remark, made early in the meeting: “An unspoken responsibility of the select board is to not screw up this industry.”
At issue was enforcement of two regulations — one requiring shellfishermen to meet minimum levels of productivity on their grants, a second requiring grant holders to be “domiciled” in town in order to be licensed to grow here.
Curley argued that licensees whose grants are underproductive should be given a reprieve.
His reason, he said, was to support small players in the town’s big business. Aquaculture, he said, supports more families in Wellfleet than in any other shellfishing community in the Commonwealth because there are many small grants rather than just one or two commercial growers.
“It’s extremely upsetting to many people that we are enforcing minimum productivity at the same time regulations are being promulgated that will allow any company into Wellfleet,” Curley said. “I really question the motivations behind these actions.”
Shellfish Constable Nancy Civetta said Wellfleet shellfishermen have known enforcement of the productivity rules was coming for a long time and that her motivation was to do the job she was hired to do five years ago: “propagation, enforcement, and communication,” she said. “I took these as my marching orders.”
In the end, the seven local shellfishermen who had not met productivity minimums on their grants were permitted to keep their licenses on condition they increase productivity by Oct. 21, 2022.
A.R.C. Is Out
The board was not as flexible on the domicile requirement, however, with three of the four select board members in attendance voting to make the Aquaculture Research Corp. forfeit the grant license it has held for 40 years. A.R.C., based in Dennis, is Cape Cod’s only shellfish hatchery, supplying seed in the region but also growing market-size quahogs and oysters in Barnstable and quahogs, oysters, and surf clams in Wellfleet.
The three-acre grant held by A.R.C. is critical to its business right now, hatchery president Rick Sawyer pleaded. (The company also grows on 1.73 acres of bottom on other license holders’ grants, according to documents presented at the meeting.)
“We need this grant because we need $500,000 to survive from Jan. 1 to now,” Sawyer said. “Over the next month and a half, we will make about 70 percent of our annual sales.” Most is wholesale business in Canada, Singapore, and Europe, he added.
Sawyer argued that, because the shellfish A.R.C. grows here is not sold on the Cape, except for sales to one restaurant, the company does not compete with its seed customers or local growers.
The domicile regulation, enacted in 1987, requires license holders to have lived in Wellfleet for at least a year to be eligible for commercial shellfishing permits and licenses. A.R.C has had its grant here since 1982; when the regulation was adopted, the grant was renewed for 10 years.
That’s because the word “new” in the regulation allowed the hatchery to be “grandfathered in,” said Sawyer. When the grant was renewed again 10 years later, he said, the word “new” was dropped from the regulation.
“Nobody could come up with the reason for that,” Sawyer said. “It could have been a clerical error.”
But select board member Helen Miranda Wilson said the change was not an error. It was intended, she said, to keep outside entities from moving in on the market.
Select board member Michael DeVasto, who is a shellfisherman, did not attend the meeting in person, though he called in via Zoom. He expressed concern about lack of clarity in the regulation: “That seems like it could be a legal problem for the town,” he said.
Damian Parkington, an alternate on the shellfish advisory board, said that the town and A.R.C. have allowed things to continue in a “gray area.” He argued for clarifying the language and enforcing the rules.
Opinion in the room was split, and the heat rose as some shellfishermen defended the company, arguing for the importance of its contributions as a seed producer and asking why the domicile rule should be enforced now.
“I don’t think it’s fair of the town to allow it, then go and make another regulation, but ignore it for how many years?” said William “Chopper” Young.
Rebecca Taylor, chair of the shellfish advisory board, said that if A.R.C goes under, “many shellfishermen are in jeopardy, as they’re the only hatchery on the Cape.”
But shellfisherman Alfred Pickard told the select board the quality of oysters isn’t determined by where the seed comes from but by where they are grown. He gets a lot of his seed from New Jersey, he said.
Other shellfishermen argued that not enforcing the domicile rule would put the town on a “slippery slope” if other outside entities decide they want to come in.
Berta Bruinooge, whose late husband, Jake, established his shellfishing grant in 1977, acknowledged the town’s longstanding relationship with A.R.C. but concluded it’s time for a change.
“Our shellfish grants should be for the actual citizens of Wellfleet who would like to make a living doing this and not for corporations,” Bruinooge said. “I don’t see the need for it.
“I think doing this establishes some sort of precedent,” she added, “and I don’t see why we should do that.”
“They’re not Walmart,” someone yelled from the back of the room at the Adult Community Center, defending A.R.C.
“They will be,” someone else yelled back.
When Sawyer asked the board to take a middle road, allowing A.R.C. to keep its license for five years, which he said would help keep the company on track with its 10-year rebuild, members considered continuing the discussion to a later date. But Pickard questioned why there should be a delay in the decision. Curley then put it to a vote.
Only Wilson voted against the A.R.C. forfeit, asking for more time and saying the arguments made that evening deserved “full and fair consideration.”
Shellfishermen Vow to Improve
The hearings on local license holders were also emotional at times. During the discussion on productivity rules, daughters said they would work on their fathers’ grants, shellfishermen made speeches in support of their competitors, and some held receipts in the air, claiming they had been productive but had just not completed their paperwork.
Some scolded the shellfish constable for acting like a “probation officer” and not being sympathetic to their difficulties, the pandemic among them.
Curley argued that the constable had told shellfishermen that, in recognition of pandemic hardships, she would go easy on the regulations. Civetta responded that she had taken into account any complications reported to her, and that in assessing productivity she had looked back at seven years of data rather than the recommended five.
“There’s a history of people having licensed areas that they’re named to and not using,” said Wilson. “They haven’t been brought to light.”
The shellfishermen were in jeopardy of losing their grants by not meeting the minimum productivity requirement of $1,000 an acre, “a fairly low bar that equates to selling 2,000 oysters or 3,000 quahogs a year,” Civetta said.
The Div. of Marine Fisheries reported that in 2020 the town’s shellfish farms sold more than 5.6 million oysters with a value of $2.8 million. They also sold more than 3 million farmed quahogs with a value of more than $822,000, Civetta reported.
In the past, Civetta said, “formal grant inspections were rarely done and were not documented.” She added, “It’s not easy for any of us in the department to go through this exercise, because these are all people we work closely with and we care about. Our job is to enforce the regulations. That’s what the town and the state has entrusted us to do.”
The local shellfishermen who came before the board were James and Allison Gray for their half acre on Old Wharf Point; David Paine and Kristi Johns for their 2.5 acres on Field Point; Keith Rose and Lisa Dexter for two acres on Egg Island; and William “Chopper” Young for three acres on Indian Neck.