The Wellfleet Shellfishermen's Farmers Market will be back in the Fall. In the meantime, please patronize our market sponsor Cape Tip Seafood in Truro or Orleans or Holbrook Oyster in Eastham for Wellfleet's finest shellfish.

Wellfleet Shellfishermen Grill MSI panel members

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WELLFLEET — A raw and unfiltered crowd of locals packed the Council on Aging Monday night for a presentation on the Mass. Shellfish Initiative (MSI). Shellfishermen voiced distrust and fear that the “elusive” initiative could dismantle the local grassroots industry, and their livelihoods, if Wellfleet is not properly represented.

“I’m concerned about Wellfleet’s historical standing in the shellfish business,” said Richard Blakeley. “I don’t want to see that lost. I think we should stay the way we are. I’d be fine with that.”

The mission of the MSI is to use public input to create guidelines, goals and strategic plans for expanding the shellfish industry statewide, said Melissa Sanderson, chief operating officer of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance and a member of the MSI steering committee. She was joined by fellow members Steve Kirk of the Nature Conservancy; Chris Schillaci of the state’s Dept. of Marine Fisheries (DMF); and Scott Soares, a consultant for the Mass. Aquaculture Association (MAA). Chris Sherman, the president of Island Creek Oysters in Duxbury, and UMass Boston intern Sean McNally are also on the steering committee, according to the MSI website, but were not at Monday’s presentation.

Local shellfishermen were clearly skeptical of the intent of the MSI and those spearheading the initiative. Hot topics in the two-and-a-half-hour meeting included the potential for grant privatization through the MAA’s proposed regulatory amendments to the Shellfish Recodification and Reorganization law, and concerns about the use of oysters in nitrogen mitigation projects, which could affect market prices.

But the central question in the room was why Wellfleet was not invited to sit at the MSI table from the beginning. Neither the steering committee nor the 19-member MSI task force includes a single person from Wellfleet.

“Why did you not think of Wellfleet?” asked Selectman Helen Miranda Wilson. “What was the thought process? Why did you think of Duxbury before Wellfleet? Did you think we were all so bad that you couldn’t ask us for advice? With the amount of shellfish we put out and how long we’ve been doing it, why not come to us? Why not use us as a model? We know a lot, and we’ve known it longer than the DMF.”

“I don’t think I have a good answer,” said Kirk. “I think it was an oversight with no mal-intent. This is why we are here now and why this group is going to recommend to the task force that interests from Wellfleet join [us].”

In 2018, Wellfleet produced the second highest oyster harvest in the state, and the third highest for quahogs, said Shellfish Constable Nancy Civetta.

″[Wellfleet] was first in the state for the value of its shellfish landings with more than $6.8 million earned by hardworking local shellfishermen,” she stated by email. “About 15 percent of the town’s population of 3,100 is involved in shellfish harvesting. We are the town’s biggest year-round industry and an important contributor to the state’s seafood economy — and we plan to keep it that way.”

The four municipalities currently represented on the MSI task force are Chatham, Duxbury, Gloucester and New Bedford. Each was chosen, said Sanderson, to represent geographical areas with interests in both aquaculture and wild harvest. She said it was unrealistic to have a representative from each community.

“Wellfleet is a unique place, especially when it comes to shellfish,” said Soares. “The MSI is not intended in any way to discount what you’ve done successfully here in Wellfleet. But there are 57 other coastal communities in this state, and every one of those communities including the 351 across the state are all competing for various resources. It adds to your voice and the issues you are already putting forward, and helps strengthen the situation for shellfish up and down the coast, not just in Wellfleet.”

Wilson asked if the private sector will receive special treatment for providing funding for the MSI, including recent donations from the Walton family, which owns the Walmart chain. Sanderson confirmed that the Walton family has contributed. She later clarified that the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance applied for and received a $100,000 two-year grant to develop MSI. This grant is from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, contributors to that foundation include dozens of donors including the Walton family as well as the federal government. This is the only grant being used to fund MSI, Sanderson said. So the Walton family is not making any direct contribution.

“Is it true that the state or the feds receive private money from sectors like Walmart” Wilson asked. “And if so, how do they benefit from that besides having a tax write-off? Do they get a seat at the table? Do they get to tell you what questions to ask?”

“Absolutely not,” said Schillaci, “and I absolutely despise the question. We are ethical, and that’s why I take offense, just a bit.”

Several people voiced concern about the possible privatization of the transfer of shellfishing grants through an MAA-sponsored bill filed by state Rep. John S. Cutler of Plymouth on Jan. 15.

Bruinooge’s comments were loudly applauded.

“I stepped into a man’s boots, and a man is going to step into my boots, and I’m just terrified that there is even talk about privatizing aquaculture leases,” said Blakeley. “If that happens, our identity is gone, and we will never get it back.”

Sanderson said the MSI is neither an entity nor a regulatory body and cannot make legislative changes. 

“Once a strategic plan is done, the MSI goes away,” said Sanderson. “Things aren’t broken, but there are emerging issues. At the end of the day, if you don’t like what comes out of MSI you can ignore it.”

“Can we really?” said someone in the audience.

Others wanted to know more about the MSI’s position on nitrogen mitigation projects — which are looking at ways to use shellfish to detoxify water as an alternative to costly sewer systeems.

“There’s a fear that if every town has these restoration projectds, there’s so many oysters out there, and DEP requires that a certain amount be harvested, we don’t want to go the way the cranberries went,” said Bobby Wallace. “How do you keep the price up? That’s what everyone in this room is afraid of.”

“Why aren’t we being more proactive about reducing nitrogen at its source?” asked Seitler.

“That’s a damn good question,” said Schillaci. “Using natural solutions on the shoreline and having shellfish incorporated — I think there’s value in that. But I do agree that trying to clean up nitrogen after the fact is the wrong solution.”

Schillaci said this was the first of many discussions between the MSI, Wellfleet and other local shellfishing communities.

“Let’s talk about what resources we need,” he said. “This is clearly a life you are all very invested in and that’s why we are here. We see real value in having all agencies at the table. We want to hear from you and this is a good forum to do that, and it’s one of many.”

MSI representatives will address the Truro Shellfish Committee at 4 p.m. Friday at the town hall.

“We know bad policy and we’re not blind to the different group interests,” said Schillaci. “There’s a lot of concern about MSI, particularly in Wellfleet and on the Cape. It’s not lost on us. I hope we can turn this energy into something positive.”