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What I Learned Today: Shellfish, Fisheries, Oil, and More

wellfleet, ma

What I did on the Day Two of my vacation: visited an oyster farm in Wellfleet, MA. For serious. These sustainable – “call it green, sustainable, whatever you want” said one oyster farmer today – shellfish fisheries are an interesting canary in the coal mine in several respects. As we’ll see.

And while I’m aware of the concerns with respect to other farmed marine life – see, for example, the concerns regarding farmed salmon here – the oyster beds seem to be remarkably low impact, both in terms of usage and their effect on the ecosystems they inhabit.

Anyway, after listening to an interview of oyster aquaculturists and charter fishermen today, here are five things I learned.

  1. Climate Change:
    Climate change – or at least perceived (see some of my inconclusive Many Eyes weather plottings inspired by Jon Udell here) climate change – is a real issue for oyster farmers. While those working the oyster beds used to fear the onset of winter ice in the bays, they’ve since come to fear the lack of it. Apparently, the sea ice cleans out the would-be predators of shellfish – principally crabs – keeping those populations under control. While the lack of ice is beneficial to the farmers – it’s easier on their equipment – it is far harder on their animals, the oysters. The last time Wellfleet had the necessary sea ice? Better than 5 years ago.
  2. Cost of Oil:
    The cost of fuel, the most obvious oil based derivative, is casting a serious pall on most, if not all, marine businesses. Charter captains are for the first time second guessing their regular movements; when considering whether to head to a spot 20 miles distant, they are thinking first of fuel, second of fish. It’s always a gamble, as they put it. It’s so on their minds, in fact, that they’re trying to cap their RPMs while cruising. Below 4500, they’re efficient. Above, they’re not, but faster.

    Fuel is far from the only manifestation of the elevated cost of oil, however. All oil based products are affected. The petroleum derivative oyster netting which once cost $2.50 per are near 4X that now at north of $8.

    The implications of oil costs for coastal communities are profound. Markets, for example, are shifting. Oysters are increasingly locally sourced rather than forwarded to markets in Boston, from which point they’d be sent to Chicago, San Francisco or even Europe. Part of that shift is in the transportation costs, of course, but it’s also a function of increased Cape demand. Changes, and big ones, are coming to coastal communities from oil.

    Even if they’re not always apparent yet.

  3. Invasive Species:
    Again, as with other geographies, the Cape is struggling with the implications of so-called invasive species. With introduced predatory species like green and spider crabs, oyster drills, and a species of whelk, the delicate balance of the Cape’s ecosystem has been jeopardized. Shellfish farmers and shellfish alike battle the numerous invasive species daily, with the fate of thousands of shellfish and their economic value (which has ranged from $.40 to $1.00 per oyster, recently) in the balance. One of the farmers recalled losing 100,000 oysters in a single evening, due to a decision not to place them under protective nets.

    Unfortunately, as I’ve discovered in conversations with those coping with invasive species in other regions – principally the zebra mussel in western states and the great lakes region – there is little to be done. The usual approach – introducing yet another species to prey on the newly introduced animal – tends to cause as many problems as it solves. For an example, see the hilarious documentary on the cane grub of Australia here.

    Ultimately, ecosystems much adapt, but the collateral damage in between can be severe.

  4. Laws Governing Water Usage:
    One interesting tidbit that I had not been aware of: the laws governing the usage of tidal flats dates back to the 1640’s. The rights of oyster farms thus are governed by laws written literally hundreds of years ago. Also notable is the fact that aquaculture is governed by an entirely different set of regulations relative to fishing, fowling, or navigation, because it is considered farming rather than fishing.
  5. State of Fisheries:
    Near and dear to my heart was discussion of the sport fisheries of the Cape area, and while they have held up better than Maine’s, which has essentially collapsed this summer, the catches are significantly down. Worse, the same year class is being continually reduced, with little to no obvious replenishment.

    This was attributed, not as I expected to the commercial fishing of striped bass and related species down in the Chesapeake region, as I expected, but rather to the overfishing of its primary prey species, including the menhaden.

    The decimation of these feeding stocks – which are permissable and relatively unregulated because it’s not a human food source – has had a predictable impact on its predators. While they struggle to adapt by compensating with the addition of new items to their diet – crabs, primarily – the overall stocks are down.

    Which is then felt here, by anglers all throughout the Northeast.

The above data suggests, to me, certain conclusions:

  1. Climate change will continue to have massive impacts in unanticipated ways
  2. Economics are the most compelling agent for change
  3. Fisheries, which are themselves highly complex ecosystems, will continue to decline unless primary food and sport species – and their prey, and their preys prey, etc – are aggressively managed and protected
  4. Oil costs will reshape marine industries and the towns that support them

Whether all of the above is good or bad depends, of course, on your perspective. Personally, I’m not against the changes precipitated by the rising cost of oil, but the transition is likely to be excruciating for marine communities.

None of us are guaranteed a living, as my Mom always said, but efforts need to be made to assist those subsisting off coastal harvests if families are not to go hungry.

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  • http://www.churbuck.com/wordpress David Churbuck

    Brilliant post and analysis of the situation on Cape Cod and elsewhere in coastal towns. Wellfleet is especially exposed to the vagaries you describe because so much of the economy is dependent on aquaculture — the town is by far the most advanced in the country in terms of shellfish management (I’d place Point Reyes and Tomales Bay in California second).

    The oil issue is big — a lot of sportsfishermen are at the dock and staying there. Canyon trips for big game — no way no how unless you are really in Rodney Dangerfield mode.

    Invasive species. Huge issue, but bigger is nitrogen loading from human septic. If Cape Cod doesn’t go to state of the art sewering it will be game over for water quality within the decade.

    Excellent post. Brightened my day in a windowless room in Beijing.

  • http://gfmorris.net/ Geof F. Morris

    The capacity for humans to study their world and see the great changes that it’s witnessed and yet expect the world to remain constant during their lifetimes never fails to amaze me—and I find it true for myself, so this is not really casting stones from a glass house.

    I guess my big concern in environmental stuff isn’t so much climate change [because again, the lesson of geology is that climate change happens] but pollution. What we do in this world to foul our water supply grieves me.

    I have had the thought, though, that rising fossil fuel prices will end up retarding the very engines of globalism that seem to be fueling some of the worst changes. As you note, seafood is becoming more localized as it gets more expensive to transport. Sure, that hurts those whose livelihood is wrapped up in satisfying far-flung tastes, but local forces have always done a very good job in supporting economies. I have high hopes, but yeah … anytime the rate of change is this rapid, people get hosed, which is sad.

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