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Task Force Seeks Funding, Data to Support Shellfish Industry

Sarah Reynolds

Oyster growers, regulators, and environmentalists are banding together to call for more money and data to support the future of the state’s shellfishery.

The 21-member task force known as the Massachusetts Shellfish Initiative has spent the last three years developing a plan to maximize the economic, environmental, and social benefits of shellfish resources, as the $45 million shellfish industry increasingly faces economic and environmental pressures.

To protect the industry, the group is calling for a formally established Shellfish Advisory Panel to offer advice on legislative priorities; nature-based solutions to address wastewater management to limit negative impacts to shellfishermen; and increased educational and economic opportunities for members of the industry.

Wellfleet commercial shellfish grower Michael DeVasto — a member of the group and chair of the town’s Selectboard— said he’s particularly eager to see how more education and opportunities for people in his industry will lead to a wider variety of shellfish in the region.

“In a lot of ways, Massachusetts is a monoculture,” he said, “It’s primarily oyster production and one thing that does is it leaves us economically as a region susceptible to disease. So diversification in what’s grown is important ecologically, but also to the economic stability of the industry because with climate change and the density of our oyster population there are some risks to being a monoculture.”

Ocean acidification, microplastics, and shellfish harvest closures, are also concerns that the environmentalists, growers, and regulators on the task force are trying to overcome.

“And if there’s some guidance, like, ‘potentially you can grow these Blood Arks, and these are the type of conditions you need, and maybe there’s a grant available to buy seed,’ then maybe you can take advantage of that or you might not have taken the risk,” DeVasto added.

The group is also recommending better labelling requirements for shellfish.

“A lot of fish and shellfish are mislabeled,” he said. “So basically this could require that there be a tag or label shown at the point of sale that shows exactly where it came from. … Rather than going to a restaurant and ordering a Wellfleet oyster, and potentially it being from Chatham or Duxbury or something like that, you could be ensured that it’s from Wellfleet.”

Other recommendations include:

  • Working with stakeholders, regulatory agencies and organizations to develop clear guidance, consistency on, and simplification of state aquaculture licensing and permitting requirements.

  • Strengthening regulation and enforcement in labeling shellfish sales that may allow the use of emerging technology at point of retail sale and use of emerging tagging technology at point of harvest to improve traceability.
  • Prioritizing data collection for insufficient datasets, including: recreational harvest number and shellfish population/stock assessments.

The MSI Strategic Plan is the first time a comprehensive view has been taken of shellfish management in the commonwealth, the group said.

“This shellfish strategic plan was a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” said Dan McKiernan, director of the Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF), “to take stock in what we have while identifying emerging issues and solutions for future generations.”

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.