Category Archives: Member Blog

Out on the Flats: Chatham Shellfish Individual Placement

By Brian Wagenaar, Year 19 LeHac House Member

“What a year you have in store for you. I hope you like water.” Those were the first words of my introductory letter written by last year’s Town of Chatham Shellfish placement, Tom Bryson. Fortunately for myself, and for the shellfish department, I do indeed like water. Other parts of Tom’s letter touched on the highly seasonal nature of shellfishing, the difficulty and intensity of the work, and the sheer joy and sense of accomplishment that can accompany working a beautiful day out on the water. Tom’s letter served to be a great primer for my new position, as all his observations, tips, and tricks have proved true thus far.

One of Chatham’s shellfishing boats sits ready for a broadcast with a culling board and auxiliary baskets chock full of oysters.

Hailing from suburban Minnesota, my knowledge regarding shellfish and the shellfishing industry prior to starting this program back in early September was little to none. However, towards the end of my college career I became interested in marine policy, and so when it came time to submit our top choices for individual placements (IPs) back in September, I earmarked the dual placement of the Town of Chatham Shellfish Department and the Town of Eastham Natural Resources (which also has a shellfish component) as one of my top picks.

I ended up being selected for that IP, and so for just about two months now I have been thrust into the distinct world of shellfishing and shellfish propagation. This has entailed learning a good deal about shellfish regulations, propagation practices, the people who make their living shellfishing or in related industries, and Cape Codders love affair with oysters (a point reinforced by attending OysterFest, an annual oyster-centric celebration held in Wellfleet). Additionally, I have also been coming to learn about how shellfishing relates to the broader context of marine and coastal policy, my potentially desired field.

An 8’’ mammoth oyster found on the flats in front of the Chatham Harbormaster’s office, where the upweller is also located on the ground floor.

Chatham’s shellfish propagation program traces back to the mid-1970’s, stemming from the widespread desire to supplement commercial fisherman’s haul and ensure a long-term sustainable shellfishery. Quahogs have been the primary focus of the propagation program since the beginning, as they have always been the town shellfishery’s bread and butter. In the early days, the town simply bought large seed and directly planted it. Towards the end of the 1970s and into the 1980s, this practice evolved to include experiments with various strategies of planting and predator exclusion. In 1983, the program received a substantial boon in the form of a voluntary increase in the cost of a commercial shellfishing permit, with the increased amount going into a revolving fund devoted entirely to shellfish propagation.

Following a change in shellfish constables in the 1990’s, a push was made to build an upweller system that would allow for shellfish to be grown from smaller seed, lowering cost and increasing production potential. The construction of the current upweller at Old Mill Boatyard (OMBY) on Stage Harbor in 1999 corresponded with the hiring of a propagation specialist (both developments made possible by the shellfish fund). These developments were a huge leap forward for the program that remains quite similar today, with the town able to handle roughly 4 million quahogs a year. A few alterations have been made in recent years, such as the addition of Bay Scallops to the propagation program for the dual benefit of both commercial and recreational fishermen. Oysters have also become a perennial piece of the town program, with the primary purpose of benefitting recreational fishermen.

The town’s propagation program has undergone major changes since its inception more than 40 years ago, and today it serves as a useful tool not just for aiding commercial and recreational fishers, but also for cleaning the water (a singular oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day), and maintaining the culture of shellfishing and fishing generally that Chatham was founded upon.

For my supervisor Rachel Hutchinson, who oversees Chatham’s impressive propagation program, the desirability of working for the town’s shellfish department lies in the variability of the work: “I love my job because it’s something new every day, plus I get to spend lots of time outside being active.”

Rachel Hutchinson, the town shellfish propagation specialist, along with children from a classroom tour, look down at the Chatham upweller, which has housed oysters, bay scallops, quahogs, and razor clams.

And it’s true. You simply never know what you might be doing from one day to the next, which makes coming into work exciting and fresh. Depending on a multitude of natural and human factors, you may be in the office writing emails or entering data, cleaning the town’s indoor upweller system, checking shellfish permits, conducting a shellfish survey, hauling in oyster bags, broadcasting (essentially strategically throwing) oysters off a boat, or possibly doing all that within the span of a single day.

Besides Rachel, the Chatham Shellfish operation is headed up by constable Renee Gagne, whose work centers on checking permits and handling the regulatory side of shellfishing. Assisting the two full-time employees are a team of seasonals who work primarily summers, roughly 15 under Renee on the permitting and enforcement side, and 3 under Rachel for propagation work. Dedicated volunteers are also critical to the department, providing extra hands and expertise, largely on the propagation end. Together, these varied employees and volunteers ensure a sustainable, enjoyable, and profitable shellfishery in Chatham.

Rachel, Shannon (a shellfish seasonal), and a team of AmeriCorps members prepare to head out to rake quahogs on a group service day.

Coming to the AmeriCorps Cape Cod program from the Midwest, I would not have guessed that I would find myself out on a boat aggressively shoveling out oysters while recreational oyster fishers spy on our shellfish crew through binoculars, phone in hand to alert their friends about the location of our latest broadcast. But sometimes life presents unexpected opportunities, and I am tremendously excited to see what further opportunities and learning experiences lie in store for me on the cape and with Chatham Shellfish in the coming months.

Edited by AmeriCorps Cape Cod Program Staff

MLK Day!

On January 15, 2018 AmeriCorps Cape Cod in cooperation with several local food pantries will be holding their annual Martin Luther King, Jr. day of service project. This year members have worked diligently to plan a Cape wide project focused on food security and hunger in the Cape Cod region. The heart of the project is a Cape wide food drive on January 15th, though bins have already been placed in several locations to ensure that we collect as many. On the day of the event we will have groups collecting donations at several local grocery stores. We will also have a group at our home base, inventorying and sorting the collected goods so they can easily be donated to local food pantries.

In addition to the food drive we will also be sending volunteers to help several local food pantries. Volunteers are crucial to the operation of food pantries. Our volunteers will be completing a number of different projects based on the needs of the pantries. These projects will be focused on helping the food pantries prepare for the spring season, a very early spring-cleaning.

Sign-in on the day of the event will take place at Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School from 8:30 to 9:30. There will be a guest speaker to begin the event, as well as light refreshments.

For more information about registration please contact Halie Miyazawa at halie.miyazawa@barnstablecounty.org or call at 508-365-6903

Stranding

By Ben Hobbs, AmeriCorps Year 19

When I received the message from my Individual Placement supervisor at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) stating that 14 dolphins were in danger of stranding in Wellfleet, my heart just about jumped straight out of my chest.  I was feeling so many different emotions that I did not know what to think. I had to drop everything and shoot straight up the Cape to Wellfleet.

AmeriCorps members from all three of our houses, Bourne to Wellfleet, joined local volunteers and IFAW staff in responding to 14 dolphins stranded in Wellfleet. Photo from IFAW.

I was one of the first responders to the scene.  We pulled around the corner of the Herring River Gut in Wellfleet, and I could not believe my eyes.  There were two dolphins already stranded, with twelve others continuously circling around, clearly confused and uncertain of how to escape this near certain death trap.  When I saw how enormous the task we had in front of us was, I reached for my phone and called for my AmeriCorps housemates to come to my aid.  To my amazement, my phone lit up with positive responses within seconds.  All of my housemates, whom I had only known for about a month, were willing to drop everything and help us in this dire situation.

Without the help of my fellow AmeriCorps members, many more dolphins may have fallen in the Gut on that day.  Before their arrival, IFAW staff and I were doing everything we could to get the fourteen dolphins onto  stretcher, out of the thick Wellfleet mud, and up onto the beach, which seemed to be an eternity away.  The dolphins were heavy, slippery, and uncooperative for the most part, making this task even more strenuous. Somehow, the adrenaline took over, and we were able to successfully extract all fourteen dolphins from the watery, muddy, sludge that was the Gut.  Sadly, two of the dolphins appeared panicked likely from stranding, despite our team providing supportive care to each of them.  They thrashed and moaned, making noises that were foreign to me.  As they uncontrollably tossed in the sand, the dolphins continuously cut themselves on the Wellfleet oysters, and other sharp objects that lie scattered on the beach. Subsequently, they both passed, possibly due to the extreme stress of the stranding, as these animals are not used to being on the beach and feeling the pressure of their own body weight, but we may only know after necropsy (animal autopsy) results are finalized.  There is always a possibility that they were already in poor health before stranding.  These gut-wrenching images and sounds are some that I will not soon forget, and I am certain my housemates feel the same way.

Many stranding response events last well into the evening, where the work continues under the lights. Photo from IFAW.

The hours that passed in the Herring River Gut seemed only like fleeting moments. Before I could catch my breath, I was in a response truck on the way to the release point at Herring Cove Beach, in Provincetown.  This, amidst the blur of the entire day, is where the most surreal moment happened.  As I sit here typing, trying to put into words what I felt, I find myself frozen.  There is simply no way for me to describe the feeling one gets when they support a dolphin in the water, letting them acclimate to the ocean water yet again.  The dolphins are, whenever possible, released back to the sea in groups.  When they appear to be comfortable again in their marine setting, they begin to audibly communicate with one another.  Once this communication began to pick-up, and the flukes of the mammals began to pivot upward and downward, it was time to let them go, and watch them swim off together into the starlit sea.  The feeling of joy, accomplishment, and relief rushed over me. We had managed to save twelve of the fourteen dolphins that day, and I consider that to be an immense success.  Were it not for everyone involved, from staff, to volunteers, the public and AmeriCorps members, I am certain we would have lost all fourteen that day.

It takes a full team effort to respond to a stranded marine mammal- our members are trained to join in stranding response by IFAW at the start of their service year. Photo from IFAW.

This happened to be my very first dolphin stranding of the year, and as a kid coming from a limited scientific background, it was a bit overwhelming. Now that I have conquered this first mass stranding, I feel as though I am ready for anything that the great Atlantic can throw at me.

“Were it not for everyone involved, from staff, to volunteers, the public and AmeriCorps members, I am certain we would have lost all fourteen that day.”

I know that I will have my AmeriCorps family by my side every step of the way, which is comforting to say the least.  Never in my wildest dreams did I picture myself saving whales, dolphins, and seals, but now that I have started it is hard to picture myself stopping.  This program has already opened doors for me that I never thought possible, and we are only a couple of months in.  I am forever grateful for this opportunity that both AmeriCorps and IFAW have given to me. I am anxious to see what the rest of this service year has in store for me, and I am eager to keep gaining more knowledge along the way.  This year is going to be one for the books!

Edited by IFAW and AmeriCorps Cape Cod Program Staff