More than 4,000 immature oysters have been stolen from the town’s growing beds in Mill Creek, wiping out years of work and possibly causing the cancellation of this year’s oyster harvest.
The oysters were taken sometime within the last two weeks.
“I am deeply disappointed that an individual—or individuals—could be so selfish. They’re just spoiling it for everyone else,” said Natural Resources Director David J. DeConto, who began the town’s oyster program from tiny seeds about eight years ago.
He added that during the summertime, the water in the creek has not been certified as clean by state standards. The shellfish, if eaten, could cause illness or even death in someone with a compromised immune system.
“If someone wanted to return the oysters, the town would accept them—no questions asked,” Mr. DeConto said.
The theft was discovered late last week by Joshua K. Wrigley, assistant natural resources director, who regularly checks the town’s floating containers, or ‘growing cages’, near the boardwalk. The baby oysters were not yet large enough to be legally taken by fishermen.
The natural resources department is continuing to take inventory of the remaining oysters to see how many are left, Mr. DeConto said.
Although he declined to estimate the percentage of the loss, the director did say that “a good portion” of the stock was gone and that recreational oyster harvesting this winter could be cancelled.
It takes about three years for a baby oyster to reach maturity (3 inches or more), when it can be legally harvested. Warm summer ocean water is often rife with fecal coliform bacteria from stormwater runoff and human and animal wastes. Oyster and other shellfish cleanse themselves as winter’s cold bathes the bay and the creek.
Until then, Sandwich’s oysters should not be eaten.
“They could make you very, very sick,” Mr. DeConto has said. “If you have a compromised immune system, they could even kill you.”
The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries tests the water’s bacterial count often. In good years, when the state gives the all-clear, Sandwich generally opens its beds for a one- or two-day harvest.
Sandwich’s oysters are not the first to be crime victims. Barnstable, Dennis, Wellfleet and Mashpee have also experienced thefts of oysters and equipment in the past few years.
The Massachusetts Environmental Police have theorized that stolen oysters are sold to vendors or other farmers who have grants. Retail value ranges from $1.50 to $3.50 apiece for full-grown oysters, according to published reports.
Although Mr. DeConto said he could not give an exact estimate of what the pilfered oysters were worth, he thought “thousands of dollars,” would be accurate.
Mr. DeConto said this week he had reported the theft to the Sandwich Police Department and the state environmental police. The natural resources department is looking into using cameras, lights and other monitoring equipment, he added.
“It really hurts,” Mr. DeConto said of the oyster garden’s loss. “It’s such a waste.”