Aquinnah selectmen agreed Tuesday to seek advice from town counsel about legal options available to force clean-up of a failed oyster aquaculture project on Menemsha Pond.

Durwood Vanderhoop, Martha's Vineyard

The Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, Aquinnah began the project in 2001. In March of this year, following a public hearing, Aquinnah selectmen voted not to renew the tribe’s ground lease and gave the tribe 60 days to clean up its sprawling oyster farm, or return with a viable plan to continue the project. In May, selectmen extended the deadline another 30 days, after tribe leaders informally outlined a plan to scale back the operation significantly, but maintain a presence on the pond as an educational and cultural resource.

On Tuesday, selectmen Spencer Booker and Camille Rose said that according to their recent observations the clean-up work is not adequate. A work barge with machinery aboard remains moored just offshore.

“The final date for the clean-up is approaching,” Ms. Rose said. “The next logical step is to involve Ron (Rappaport, town counsel). I don’t think we have the ability to single-handedly appropriate property.”

Selectman Jim Newman suggested a different approach. “Don’t you think the next step would be to do an inspection, before we go to our attorney?” he asked.

“To my knowledge, they have not cleaned up the beach,” Ms. Rose said.

“What about trying to enter into a dialogue?” Mr. Newman asked.

“This is 90 days, and it hasn’t been done,” Ms. Rose said. “I’m not saying it won’t get done before the deadline, but I think it’s highly unlikely. I think we should have involved Ron from the beginning, considering it was a legal lease issue.”

“We’ve got to find out what our options are,” chairman Spencer Booker said.

Mr. Booker is a member of the Wampanoag Tribe, and was once oversaw the oyster operation.

Tribe administrator Tobias Vanderhoop attended the selectmen’s meeting, but he declined to make a report on the project’s status. He said he was not authorized to speak for the Wampanoag Aquinnah Shellfish Hatchery (WASH), which is controlled by its own board of directors.

Durwood Vanderhoop, currently a member of the shellfish hatchery board, said in a phone conversation with The Times yesterday that the clean-up effort continues at the site.

“We’ve removed a lot of bags off the site, as well as off the beaches,” said Mr. Vanderhoop. “We’ve had a crew of at least two people working on it almost every available working day, and we’ve also had staff from the natural resource department that has assisted the WASH board with many of the of the cleanup tasks. It’s tribal-wide effort.”

Mr. Vanderhoop said hatchery personnel are addressing the work barge that town officials are concerned about.

“We’re still working on a plan for that piece of equipment,” Mr. Vanderhoop said. “Just because of its size, it’s a much greater challenge than some of the other pieces. But we are taking steps and making plans to relocate that piece of equipment also.”

Problems persist

The oyster project has been costly. The tribe spent millions, according to former project manager David Vanderhoop, trying to get the project off the ground and sustain it. Aquinnah gave tax abatements totaling $48,000 during the past three years to property owners deprived of their right to use the shoreline.

The tribe began raising oysters in 2002. The oyster farming operation consisted of a work barge and rafts of floating plastic mesh bags. Juvenile oysters were placed in the bags and allowed to grow to a marketable size. The bags, tethered together and individually suspended in the water with foam floatation on the sides, rested in the westernmost side of Menemsha Pond, an area where currents are not as strong as along the eastern side near the channel.

In the spring of 2004, the hatchery began shipping shellfish marketed as “Tomahawk Oysters” that had been raised to maturity in Menemsha Pond.

But ambitious plans to ship oysters around the country never worked out. As the operation faltered, shoreside clutter and floating debris became the source of growing complaints. Town officials say each spring, they receive dozens of complaints about the mess. Over the years, oyster bags and other gear has floated out of the pond on the tide, to wash up on beaches along the North Shore and on the Elizabeth Islands. Following a meeting with Aquinnah residents in the summer of 2005, the tribe promised to redouble its cleanup efforts. But after the summer of 2007, the project was essentially abandoned.

with permission, MV Times

By Steve Myrick

Published: June 18, 2009