A plan for a large oyster farm in Lagoon Pond spurred debate in Oak Bluffs this week, with town officials weighing concerns about the location and effects of the proposed farm with the potential benefits of aquaculture.
Brothers Dan and Greg Martino applied for an aquaculture license to start a four-acre oyster farm at the southern end of Lagoon Pond, south of the sailing camp on the Oak Bluffs side. Their goal, they said, is to establish an ecologically-friendly farm that would grow 2.5 million oysters a year and help reduce nitrogen in the pond. Dan Martino said he learned about oyster farming through filming a documentary about an oyster farmer who has served as his mentor.
The shellfish committee in late March voted against the project, with four against and one abstention, saying the proposed area was too large and would interfere with commercial and recreational shellfishing, as well as other recreational uses in the pond. The board also voted 4-1 not to allow any private aquaculture in the Lagoon, and suggested that the town pursue sewering around the pond to reduce nitrogen.
“I don’t see why one individual can take away from so many,” shellfish committee chairman Mark G. Landers told the selectmen Tuesday during a public hearing on the application. He said the area is used by Sail Martha’s Vineyard and residents as well as by fly fishermen and boat fishermen. He noted that the town had set aside space off Joseph Sylvia State Beach for aquaculture.
Dan Martino said conditional approval from the selectmen would allow further site study by the state Division of Marine Fisheries and other agencies, and the selectmen would have to approve the proposal a final time.
“It’s not easy blazing trails,” he said.
“I’m glad I’m not making this decision, and I’m torn,” shellfish constable David Grunden said. “There’s no question that the oysters and shellfish have a biological service in reducing nitrogen in the water . . . but the town itself does a fair amount of municipal shellfish aquaculture on its own, and it’s a benefit for the town.” He said he didn’t know if Lagoon Pond was the best location for a farm, and noted concerns about conflicting use. In a letter to the selectmen, he said he could not support the application.
Conservation commission chairman Joan Hughes said her committee was also torn. “This is something new to us, we have not dealt with aquaculture before,” she said. “We feel very strongly it’s an excellent thing.”
But she added that while the theory is fantastic, the town needs to look at best practices. She suggested creating a committee to decide how best to approach aquaculture, adding that there should be more input from various groups before deciding on a program.
The selectmen received letters in favor of approving the project, including one from the Lagoon Pond Association board expressing its “wholehearted” support. “We are all aware of how successful oyster culture has been in Katama Bay and would support Mr. Martino’s application to pursue this in Lagoon Pond,” president Jim Butterick wrote. “We believe that while some parties may be concerned as to the impact such activity might have on other commercial or recreational uses of the pond, both should be able to coexist as we enter an era where we must be cautious with our precious resources, like our ponds, that we have otherwise been in the past. Many approaches need to be applied to save and restore our ponds.”
“I think we need to start being innovative, we need to look at alternatives,” Richard Toole said. “I would hate to have you shut this thing off . . . try it out, see if it works.”
Rick Karney, director of the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group, wrote a letter in support of the project. The Lagoon Pond is “one of the most impaired water bodies on Martha’s Vineyard. It is slowly dying,” Mr. Karney wrote. He noted that it is well documented in scientific literature that adult cultured oysters remove .4 grams of nitrogen from a body of water, and though it would take an annual harvest of 15 million oysters to meet the recommended nitrogen removal, “a smaller number of cultured oysters harvested . . . could reduce and lower the amount and costs of sewering.”
“None of the existing uses of this public resource have any positive benefits to water quality,” he wrote. “Is it really in the best interest of the pond to deny an oyster farm because it might interfere with water skiing?”
Shellfish committee member William Alwardt said his concerns were centered on the applicants’ lack of experience. “They’ve never grown an oyster, they’ve never fished commercially . . . if somebody’s going to fail, it’s going to be somebody without fishing experience. We sent all our commercial fishermen outside. Now turn around and privatize our ponds? It just doesn’t make sense to me for what the town gets out of it. To me that’s a slap in the face. Why should a person make all kinds of money and the town not get anything out of it?”
Some questioned the benefits of oysters to the pond. In person and in a letter to the selectmen, shellfish committee member Elizabeth Mansure urged the selectmen not to grant the application, saying that the nitrogen benefit would be on a small scale and noting that current shellfish regulations limit applications to a maximum of two acres, though an applicant can submit two applications for a total of four acres.
The selectmen said that while they appreciated the application, they weren’t ready to grant permission.
“As much as I admire Dan and Greg’s work on this, I don’t feel this is the right way to do it in a coordinated way,” selectman Walter Vail said.
Greg Martino is a Vineyard Gazette employee.
“I think most of the time when an issue like this comes up, the smartest thing to do is take it under advisement,” selectman Gail Barmakian said. “To make a decision tonight when we have so many questions, I think it’s too early to do that . . . I think all of us support the concept of cleaning the ponds, the question is, is this an effective way to do this.” The selectmen voted unanimously to take the matter under advisement.
In other business, they approved a new town library in the form of a Little Free Library that will be located in Healy Square. Books would be housed in a small container, available for people to take. Library director Sondra Murphy said the town would receive the tiny library for free, and the location would provide easy access for those going to the post office or getting ice cream. The library would check on the little free library every day and keep it stocked through excess books. She said she hoped it would be a point of pride in the community. “It’s not just the library’s little free library, it’s the town’s little free library,” she said.
The selectmen approved a transfer of license and change of manager for the Lookout Tavern from Lookout Tavern to Santoro Hospitality Inc. Selectman Michael Santoro abstained from the decision. The selectman also approved chef Ben deForest as the new manager of the Red Cat Kitchen at Ken n’ Beck restaurant. The board also approved an unusual plan for the Lampost to serve food at their establishment. The Lampost does not have a kitchen, so food will be prepared at Skinny’s Fat Sandwiches and taken to the Lampost. The Lampost would have a completely separate menu, and orders placed there would be submitted to the Skinny’s Fat kitchen. The food would be taken about 100 feet through a back alley in covered containers. The establishments worked with the board of health to come up with their plan.
The selectmen approved the annual Little League parade on April 27. The parade will go from the police station to Veira Park, where opening day ceremonies will take place. A portion of Uncas avenue will be closed from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Tuesday’s meeting was Kathy Burton’s last as board chairman. “Two years is enough,” she said, before nominating Mr. Vail for board chairman.
The board voted unanimously in favor of his appointment, and selectman Michael Santoro was voted vice-chairman.
“Thank you for your two years,” Ms. Barmakian said. “You’ll still be here so we won’t miss you.”
“I think you have done a pretty admirable job in the transition for bringing [town administrator Robert Whritenour on],” said selectman Gregory Coogan.
“It was something else,” Ms. Burton said of her tenure.
The selectmen began their meeting with a moment of silence in memory of those who were killed in Boston last week.