Frigid Weather in February Means Edgartown Great Pond Oystering

By MARK ALAN LOVEWELL

On a recent Wednesday morning, after days of wind, the Edgartown Great Pond was flat calm - perfect conditions for oyster fishing. Ice that had formed over several cold nights stretched into the coves, but the pond was still open and accessible.

Six fishermen on four boats were out on the water. The temperature reached 28 degrees only minutes before they powered up their boats.

Oyster fishing brings out only the toughest shellfishermen. They dress in warm layers and wear thick rubber rain gear. Strong gales and cold temperatures weed out the less experienced; on the Great Pond there is little escape from the wind.

Donny Benefit, 47, was aboard his 20-foot fiberglass white boat. "I love being out here. It is quiet - you are all alone," he said as he pointed his boat into serene Turkeyland Cove, the eastern corner of the Great Pond.

Oystering is synonymous with cold weather (as the old timers say, never eat oysters in months without an R in them). Mr. Benefit is one of the few Island shellfishermen who still goes; there is not much of a market on the Vineyard, and 98 per cent of the oysters harvested here are shipped elsewhere. The work is a lot like fishing for bay scallops and the boats are rigged about the same.

Like the bay scallop, oysters reside on the sandy bottom and are usually attached to a rock or another oyster. A fisherman harvests them by pulling a drag along the bottom. He also may look for the oyster of his choice using a peep sight, a box with a glass bottom. As he wanders in waders he picks up the oysters with a small net attached to the end of a stick.

Oysters are thickest along a ribbon of bottom that is neither too deep nor too shallow. If a fisherman goes too deep, the drag will only pick up mud and dormant blue crabs. Too close to the shore and he will find little else besides rocks.

Mr. Benefit's 30-year-old boat has four drags. On this morning, he tossed two on each side of the boat. The lines grew taut as the 48-horsepower Evinrude outboard spat water and wake. "I'll tell you these oysters do a real job on the drag," Mr. Benefit said, adding that he has rebuilt the drag several times.

The boat was built by his father; fishing has been a part of his family for generations. He first went oystering with his father when he was a child.

When the boat had slowed with the weight of the catch, Mr. Benefit shut off the engine. The boat drifted. He hauled in each drag by hand. A gas-powered winch that hides under the culling board remained off, because it makes too much noise.

"When I am close to shore, I am sure people in those houses want to read their paper and their coffee in quiet. I am so used to going up the cove and hand hauling," Mr. Benefit said.

Coves are a warmer place to work than the open waters of the Great Pond. Bufflehead, a coastal bird, bobbed in the water. As Mr. Benefit's boat neared, they took flight and headed to a less populated area. At the southern end of the pond, Robert Hathaway and his fishing partner, Peter Jackson, were fishing from Mr. Hathaway's boat.

The Edgartown Great Pond is one of the few places on the Island that is open to oystering, having recovered from the disease dermo. Dermo is caused by an aggressive parasite that infects and often kills oysters; it poses no health risk to humans. Tisbury Great Pond is still closed due to infection, as it has been for the past two years. Nearby Oyster Pond is infected as well.

Dermo in fact can still be found in the Edgartown Great Pond - where it first appeared in 1995 - but the oysters have developed a natural resistance.

Mr. Benefit, who is a member of the Edgartown shellfish committee, said more recent concerns stem from a sponge that has been found growing on the oysters, weakening the shells and making them porous.

Oysters reproduce in the summer, and Mr. Benefit hopes to take extra steps this year to ensure there is a big set of young oysters. There has not been a good crop of juvenile seed in more than three years.

"I don't care how I do it, we need to broadcast a lot of shells in the pond," Mr. Benefit said. Shells are perfect for spat, the young oysters, which need to cling onto something as they grow. He added: "One good year is all it takes."

Mr. Benefit recalled one year when the pond had a good set of seed. "It looks like rice. You could see them all over the pond," he said.

Mr. Benefit carried the drag over to the culling board and turned it upside down, dumping more than 30 oysters, eelgrass and a few stones onto the board.

His rubber-gloved hands were quick to cull through and find his bounty. A preferred oyster is one that, once opened, will sit comfortably on a dinner plate. Those are the first to go into the wire basket. Long and thin oysters - called bananas by fishermen - are less popular. Though a banana may not look appetizing in an oyster bar in New York city, Mr. Benefit said, there is just as much meat inside.

Later in the morning, Mr. Benefit approached an ice-covered portion of the pond.

"This is like going into the lost world," he said. With his gloved hand he grabbed a piece of broken ice. He put a sharp edge into his mouth to taste, then called out: "Freshwater."

A gaggle of Canada geese drifted by 200 yards from the boat. Further up the still cove, Stephen Kuehne worked from his skiff. His orange back flashed in the sun. Behind him, the towering Herring Creek Farm silo was silhouetted against the bright blue sky.

Mr. Benefit sped up the boat and did a quick circle, which creates waves that break up the ice.

"It only takes one wave," he said.

After two hours of fishing, Mr. Benefit had caught his limit - two washing baskets filled almost to overflowing. He said he will probably get 25 cents per oyster for his efforts. The fish market then will sell them for 30 to 40 cents apiece. One fresh oyster is cheaper than a candy bar.