They always say, “It takes a village to raise a child.” The same could be said for raising oysters.
Actually, oysters may be easier to raise in many ways, but that’s a different story. This is a story about what can happen when a group of dedicated volunteers come together, shoulder to shoulder, while wearing waders.
Mattapoisett Town Administrator Michael Gagne had been aware of shellfish farming programs for several years. He would also discover a program that assisted communities with the restoration of oyster beds. The program was offered through the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension, a department of Barnstable County.
Serendipitously, a marine research scientist intern walked into Mattapoisett Town Hall in 2013 eager to land a job as a shellfish constable. Never one to miss an opportunity when one presents itself, Gagne hired Kevin McGowan, a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina. McGowan’s studies had prepared him for the research needed to study various locations in the community that might support oyster farming. Along with the assistance of Shellfish Warden Kathy Massey, McGowan determined that Pine Island Pond would be best suited for young shellfish to mature.
“It’s really a complicated process,” Gagne said, “and very, very labor intensive.”
That first year was successful, but when McGowan accepted a full-time position in another community, Mattapoisett was unable to sustain the program.
But wait! Sound the heralding trumpets because one man and his team swooped in to save the program from closure. Enter Bill Mansfield and his crew of volunteers.
When The Wanderercaught up with Mansfield, the first thing he said was, “To start with, this program isn’t about me – I didn’t start it.”
But Mansfield was part of the volunteer team that worked with McGowan, so he had a working knowledge of the process of oyster farming.
Mansfield, with his home located a short way from the edge of Pine Island Pond, eventually noticed that nothing was happening with the shellfish beds.
When Mansfield asked Gagne for assistance, Gagne told him that he simply didn’t have the manpower to undertake the management and laborious procedures involved with oyster farming.
“I opened my big mouth,” Mansfield chuckled. He pulled together a group of volunteers and took up the arduous task of raising baby oysters to adulthood. As Mansfield put it, “I got a bunch of retired guys – oh, women, too,” whose volunteerism saved the program.
It’s been a steady success since then. Well, except for that one winter when the pond froze over and killed the oysters. That type of natural disaster aside, recreational shellfishing for oysters is thriving, thanks to Mansfield and the volunteers.
As previous noted, shellfish farming is no small task. There are the cages that need to be routinely scraped and cleaned of barnacles, oysters that need to be sorted and separated based on size, and there are the working conditions. It isn’t always a fine summer’s day out on the water. But Mansfield and his crew carry on, fully committed.
In mid- to late-summer, baby oysters or “spat” smaller than half of your pinky fingernail are ready to leave the hatchery. These young ones will be placed in bags that are hung inside protective cages. The next step, when the shellfish are large enough, is to dump them out of the bags into the cages themselves where they will complete the growing process.
“We have 120 cages in the pond now,” Mansfield said. In 2018 about 120,000 spat arrived in Pine Island Pond. “Nearly all survived,” he said. That colony will be ready for harvesting this fall. In the meantime, a new batch of oyster seedlings will be collected from the fishery in Dennis and placed in bags where they will grow in Pine Island Pond until the fall of 2020.
During the winter months, the cages and bags will have to be placed on the floor of the pond where they are less likely to freeze. Then, in late winter to early spring, the volunteers will raise them so they can resume floating in the ebb and flow of the tide.
As the team awaits the arrival of another 60,000 more baby oysters, the volunteers this month were busy sorting the crop from 2018. Each of the more than 100,000 shellfish must be sorted by size and either placed in a cage to continue the growing process or placed in the pond, depending on their size. When the season opens in October, the oysters will be ready to harvest.
While Mansfield and the crew do the manual labor, the town pays the expenses associated with the program. But Mansfield has also invested his own finances, having studied shellfish farming through the Cape Cod Extension Program and courses at Rogers Williams University.
Mansfield noted that, not only does the oyster program give Mattapoisett families an opportunity to harvest fresh, healthy shellfish from local waters, but the shellfish also provide a service to the ecosystem – they clean the water.
“Oysters clean about 40 gallons of sea water every day,” Mansfield said.
In another program, Massey oversees the placement of contaminated shellfish from the Taunton River into Mattapoisett waters. Here, the shellfish can clean themselves for a period of about 120 days before they are ready for harvesting.
“This is the last year for that program,” she said. The program was part of a $13 million settlement received by impacted communities of the 2003 Bouchard Oil spill. The Mattapoisett Fire Department assists Massey with that program.
“We put the shellfish in different locations on a rotating schedule,” said Selectman Jordan Collyer. “The town is actively working to further enhance shellfishing for the community.”
By Marilou Newell