Oysters At Falmouth Fish Market

Oysters await buyers at Falmouth Fish Market. Demand for oysters at restaurants has fallen off sharply in Massachusetts since the onset of the pandemic, putting Mashpee and Cape shellfish farmers in a bind.

The number of quahogs and oysters in Falmouth waters will drop precipitously in upcoming years as a result of the pandemic and a lack of manpower needed to manage the shellfish.

The normal 2020 shellfish growing efforts by the Falmouth Marine and Environmental Services department was canceled as the town took social distancing precautions. R. Charles Martinsen III, deputy director of Falmouth’s MES department, estimates there will be a loss of 750,000 to 1 million oysters and a couple million fewer quahogs in years to come.

“We will start to see the loss on recreational oysters in the fall of 2021,” Mr. Martinsen said, based on the animals’ growth cycle. Future recreational oyster propagation will continue as planned in the 2021 growing year.

“Quahogs take an extra year to grow, so that loss is expected for 2022 in both the commercial and recreational shellfishing area. The harvestable oysters were grown last year, and harvestable quahogs were propagated two to three years ago,” he said.

The legal minimum size for oysters is 3 inches in length. The legal minimum harvest size for quahogs is a 1-inch thickness at the hinge.

Falmouth’s shellfish propagation program relies heavily on volunteers, Mr. Martinsen said, and this May the program was temporarily suspended as the United States grappled with the spread of the coronavirus. He said the propagation program uses 4,500 volunteer man-hours.

“Ninety percent or more of our program is run on volunteers from groups like the sheriff’s department, the Falmouth Marine Environment Volunteer Corporation, AmeriCorps and others,” he said.

Historically, the program has been primarily used for shellfish enhancement, and now it is also used for nitrogen remediation in Falmouth’s estuaries. Based on feedback from commercial diggers, the town has been scaling back oyster propagation in commercial areas and is increasing quahog propagation. Growing oysters for recreational areas will continue, Mr. Martinsen said.

The process of growing shellfish involves many steps, and the final destination depends on the needs of the town and of commercial shellfishermen.

The town purchases the seed for $12 to $13 per 1,000 miniscule shellfish in winter, and when it arrives in late spring, the tiny animals are placed in upwellers that serve as a nursery, he explained. The seed is then moved to suitable estuaries or shellfish farms in the summer to continue growing. They are again moved to harvest areas by fall.

“Where the shellfish are relayed to can change from year to year based on feedback from the fisheries, with bottom suitability and public access being driving factors in the specific relay sites,” Christina M. Lovely, MES fisheries propagation technician said.

West Falmouth Harbor and Green Pond have very good access for recreational permit holders, and West Falmouth Harbor has the benefit of a public beach parking lot, she said, so these areas have been prioritized for both oyster and quahog seeding.

There has been an effort this fall to mitigate the upcoming shortages. This November, MES staff plans on seeding 200,000 larger, more expensive field-stock quahogs purchased this year, in part to make up for the upcoming shortages. The Falmouth Shellfish Advisory Committee, with the support of commercial fishermen, requested that the larger quahogs be purchased and seeded in a select few shared resource areas such as Great, Green and Bournes ponds to see if there would be an increase in commercial harvest from those areas in future years, Ms. Lovely said. West Falmouth Harbor Family Area will also be seeded.

Robert Sargent, a full-time commercial digger in Falmouth and the vice-chairman of the shellfish advisory committee said some of his counterparts may have to get other jobs to supplement their income during the shortage.

“We’ll get through it, we’ll harvest what we can and make do. We’ll stay afloat with the natural harvest, but it won’t provide us any cushion. With 25 guys out there harvesting, that stock will get chewed up quickly.”

He praised Mr. Martinsen for his efforts in sustaining the shellfishing industry in Falmouth and using the bivalves for nitrogen removal, which in turn helps create better conditions for growing them. He is one of a handful of commercial diggers who helps the MES staff with the seeding and relaying.

“I’m trying to get a group of us together to help grow them, since it only will help our livelihood.”

The commercial licenses are capped at 50, but Mr. Sargent estimates about half that number are actually harvesting. The limit is three bushels per day, but more realistic is bringing in about two bushels – typically a mix of littlenecks and larger, older quahogs used for chowders and stuffed quahogs.

“It’s not easy to do. To get two bushels consistently, you have to have knowledge of Falmouth waters and good equipment."

More recently, he and other commercial shellfisherman were hit during the pandemic when restaurants closed and demand for their quahogs plummeted.

“It’s getting better now, but I am bracing for a second round of the coronavirus,” he said.

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