A Brief History of the Martha’s Vineyard Shell Fish Group

Commercial scalloper Mike Maseda arrived at Tisbury's Lagoon landing with his daily commercial limit, three bushels. Courtesy of Alison Shaw

The Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group (MVSG) has been an integral part of the Lagoon Pond for many years. In 1976, the Island towns formed the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group (MVSG) to hire a shellfish biologist to provide technical assistance with the management of the Island’s shellfish resources. In 1980 the Group incorporated as a 501(c)(3) non-profit. For over 35 years the Group’s program of community resource management has worked to preserve and expand the Island’s traditional shellfisheries.

. In 1978 a pilot hatchery was constructed and shellfish seed production began. The successes in the pilot hatchery led to a $100,000 grant from Coastal Zone Management for the construction of a larger facility, the nation’s first public solar shellfish hatchery in 1980. Over the years, a successful, efficient methodology for seed production has been developed. The hatchery now produces nearly 20 million seed shellfish annually. It has received national and international acclaim and has served as a model for other public shellfish enhancement efforts.

In 1994, the hatchery office was built with an experimental, nitrogen-removing septic system up the embankment from the solar hatchery on property MVSG leases from the town of Tisbury. In 1995 MVSG initiated a lease for a summer house on Chappaquiddick Point from the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank and with federal funding as part of a shellfish aquaculture program converted the house into the shellfish nursery that still operates seasonally.

On the other side of the Lagoon in Oak Bluffs was the Massachusetts State Lobster Hatchery. Begun in the 1930’s by Martha’s Vineyard native John Hughes, the historic Lobster Hatchery evolved into a world-renowned facility for its cutting edge research and developments in lobster biology and culture. It was a place loved by many who visited it as children, often several times a summer. A combination of warming seawater temperatures that made the facility less than ideal for its original purpose and state budget cuts led to the curtailment of culture activities about 15 years ago. Much to the disappointment of both lobster researchers and curious tourists, this iconic Vineyard institution was forced to turn off the seawater pumps and close its doors to the public. Although the building still served as office space for Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) personnel, the majority of the building that housed the lobster culture activities then sat vacant and unused.

In 2010, efforts were made by state and local officials to resurrect aquaculture operations at the Lobster Hatchery in Oak Bluffs. Because the ambient seawater temperatures are now too warm for the facility to grow lobsters, a new aquaculture mission in the rapidly expanding field of bivalve shellfish (clams, scallops, oysters) aquaculture was proposed. After touring the M V Shellfish Group’s successful operation of a much smaller bivalve shellfish hatchery facility on the opposite side of the Lagoon, the DMF approached the MVSG about a cooperative venture that would serve both parties. The DMF wanted to bring back the Lobster Hatchery as a center for aquaculture research and production and could benefit from the 30+ years of shellfish culture expertise at the MVSG. In turn the MVSG was in need of more space to conduct shellfish culture activities. The DMF proposed that they would spend a large sum of money to upgrade the facility to meet the needs of the MVSG if they would agree to come up with the staff to expand our operations into the renovated Lobster Hatchery.

In times of lean town budgets —MVSG has not increased its request from its member towns in 4 years — concerns were expressed about the ability to fund a staff at this new satellite operation. The MVSG Board realizing the great promise of the Lobster Hatchery to the future of aquaculture development on Martha’s Vineyard agreed that this was an opportunity too good to pass up. Their belief was that the Martha’s Vineyard community would rally and find funding for reopening and operating the Lobster Hatchery, a much-beloved Island institution. To this end, the MVSG asked the Permanent Endowment for assistance in taking advantage of this emerging opportunity.

More specifically, in order to be operational at the Lobster Hatchery, MVSG needs some additional equipment and most importantly some personnel to staff the shellfish culture activities there. The existing staff would direct the operation, but additional staff would be required on-site. Commitments of volunteers from the Lagoon Pond Association were made to satisfy this requirement.  As a result, the Permanent Fund donated $TBD. In addition to a promise of volunteers, the non-profit Lagoon Pond Association then pledged $5,000.  This collaboration between two non-profit organizations lead to closer bonding and the MVSG continued with the challenge of improving Lagoon Pond’s water quality and increasing its yields of harvestable shellfish.

The community benefited from the reopening/preservation of the historic Lobster Hatchery, and increased space for the production of seed shellfish by the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group. That fitted in with the mission of the MVSG to preserve and enhance the local recreational and commercial shellfisheries. Additionally, both the reopening of the Lobster Hatchery and more seed shellfish promised additional educational and economic opportunities for the residents and visitors of Martha’s Vineyard.

In recent years the MVSG has continued to branch out into new projects which in some cases are removed from their traditional tasks of seed breeding of shell fish. Here are a few of the projects taken on.

2011 – Pilot Shell Recycling Project – When shellfish are harvested shells are removed from the pond. Shell provides critical habitat for oysters and is increasingly important as a natural buffer to reduce the negative effects of acidified seawater on marine organisms, including shellfish. With funding from the Edey Foundation, MVSG conducted a pilot project to recover shell discarded by restaurants for eventual replacement in Island ponds.

2012 – With funding from the Martha’s Vineyard Vision Fellowship, Jessie Holtham continued and expanded the shell recovery and recycling project she initiated in 2011.

2012 – Expanded Quahog Nursery Culture – Under a grant from the Friends of Sengekontacket, MVSG is assisting the Edgartown and Oak Bluffs Shellfish Departments in increasing the duration of time that seed quahogs are protected in nursery culture to both increase survival and improve water quality in Sengekontacket Pond.

2012 – Pilot Seaweed Culture Project – Under a grant from the Edey Foundation, MVSG began a pilot study of the potential to culture edible seaweeds on the Island. Like shellfish, cultured sea vegetables have potential to improve water quality through their uptake of nitrogen and to provide a healthful local food product.