with permission, MV Times

by Steve Myrick

The Aquinnah selectmen voted unanimously Tuesday to give the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) another 30 days to clean up an oyster aquaculture operation on the western side of Menemsha Pond. The oyster project, abandoned for the past two years, has been an ongoing source of complaints from neighbors and the cause of substantial tax abatements to shoreline property owners.

oyster bags, Martha's Vineyard

Hundreds of oyster bags and a deteriorating work barge remain in Menemsha Pond while the Wampanoag Tribe and the town of Aquinnah dispute a controversial aquaculture operation. Photo by Steve Myrick

At issue is whether the town will renew a lease of more than five acres of bottom below town owned waters, or issue a new lease.

Tribe chairman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais told selectmen the tribe intends to scale back the aquaculture operation, but maintain a presence as a cultural and educational resource. She said the tribe wants to renew the lease.

“Our respect and utilization of Menemsha Pond predates all who have come after us,” said Ms. Andrews-Maltais, in a statement (available at mvtimes.com) she read at the meeting. “Our misfortune was that we allowed ourselves to believe that we should over estimate the potential and responsible use of the pond, inconsistent with our traditional practices. The realization and fact remains that the people of the tribe, as the original stewards of this Island and specifically Aquinnah, are responsible for having kept Menemsha Pond such a beautiful area.”

Selectman Camille Rose said promises made four years ago about better stewardship of the leased waters, and a switch to more manageable aquaculture technology, were not kept.

“I have no faith at all that you are sufficiently committed to keeping that gear together,” said Ms. Rose. “There should be zero tolerance.”

Ms. Andrews-Maltais said weather conditions make it difficult to keep the aquaculture gear in perfect order.

“It’s nature,” said Ms. Andrews-Maltais.

“It’s not nature, it’s carelessness,” said Ms. Rose.

Ms. Rose also disputed the tribe’s contention that poor weather and a short timeframe prevented a complete clean-up.

“There wasn’t any reason it couldn’t have been cleaned up in 60 days,” said Ms. Rose.

Durwood Vanderhoop, acting chairman of the Wampanoag Aquinnah Shellfish Hatchery (WASH), responded. “We’ve done what we could to strengthen all the lines and remove the bags from the beach,” he said. “That’s an ongoing process. You guys could decide to shut this down and go through the clean up yourself.”

The tribe leases waters where the aquaculture operation is located from the town. The lease expired last fall, according to town officials. In March, the selectmen told the tribe it had 60 days, 30 more than the lease called for, to remove its equipment, including a large work barge with mechanical equipment aboard. The selectmen left open the possibility of renewing the lease, if the tribe produced a viable plan for the future.

Oysters, Martha's Vineyard

Tribe and town officials visited the oyster growing site on Tuesday to assess clean-up efforts and discuss future operations.

Selectman Spencer Booker is a tribe member and once oversaw the oyster operation, as chairman of the WASH board. For the first time, he participated in the discussion. Until recently, he was a tribe employee, and he had recused himself from votes or debate. At Tuesday’s meeting, he was critical of the oyster aquaculture operation. Mr. Booker questioned whether the technology is viable on Menemsha Pond.

“Maybe that system doesn’t work,” said Mr. Booker. “If that system didn’t work for you, it’s not going to work for you.”

Ms. Andrews-Maltais said the tribe is unwilling to invest in newer technology that has proved effective in other Island aquaculture projects.

Mr. Booker and Ms. Rose were both critical of the work barge once used in the operation. They say the barge is badly deteriorated and fear that oil and gas from onboard mechanical equipment may leak into the water. They also say it is not essential to a scaled-back operation.

Selectman Jim Newman attempted several times to steer the discussion toward defining a compromise. He asked how many bags would be needed for a scaled down operation, and how much acreage would suffice.

Ms. Andrews-Maltais said a number could be established for the bags needed, but none of those details were available at Tuesday’s session.

Record check

In response to a request from The Times, town officials have so far been unable to produce a copy of a signed lease between the tribe and the town. Similar leases granted to other aquaculture businesses call for an annual license fee of $125. Town accountant Marjorie Spitz and town treasurer and collector Judy Jardin could not produce any records of annual lease payments to the town. Town coordinator Jeff Burgoyne said he did find one check from the tribe to the town in the amount of $150, dated June 14, 2005. Mr. Burgoyne said he did not deposit the check because the selectmen had scheduled a public hearing to discuss the condition of the pond. He said the town held off depositing the check because that would have constituted acceptance.

According to selectman Camille Rose, the town had a marine surveyor examine the work barge from a boat. She said he declared it hazardous and said it could not be towed out of the pond for repairs, but should be taken onto the beach and disassembled. Ms. Andrews-Maltais said the tribe has paid for an assessment of the barge, and that it is in usable working condition. Neither the tribe nor the town, however, produced any written records of the marine surveys.

Foggy picture

On Saturday morning, May 17, a thick fog hung over Menemsha Pond. As the morning progressed, the fog burned off slowly, revealing the full range of natural beauty that draws homeowners and visitors to the picturesque salt pond.

Durwood Vanderhoop, along with tribe members Fawn Fantasia and Roxanne Ackerman worked in among the black plastic oyster bags. Dressed in full-length waders and wearing protective gloves, they secured bags to anchors and untangled snarled lines.

“We’re cleaning up our site,” said Mr. Vanderhoop. “They’re viable oysters. We hope to get them to market as soon as possible.” An earlier work party recovered dozens of oyster bags from the beach and surrounding marsh.

Mr. Vanderhoop was asked what went wrong with the aquaculture operation. “That’s a long story,” he said. “Operations were not handled like a business. There was not a solid business plan that was followed. If I could answer that question, we wouldn’t be where we are.”

In a phone conversation with The Times prior to Tuesday’s meeting, Mr. Booker said he was responsible, along with four other board members, for the operation until about two years ago, when tribe member David Vanderhoop took over. Mr. Vanderhoop did not return a message from The Times seeking comment.

“As with any business, it goes back to management and oversight,” said Mr. Booker. “When I was there, it was a viable business. I had initiated a restructuring. We had to get out of research and development, we had to get out of that mode and into business.”

At one time, according to several people familiar with the operation, the tribe was selling as many as 5,000 oysters per week to markets in New York and elsewhere. But as the project quickly deteriorated, it became an embarrassment to tribe members and non-members alike.

Jeffrey Madison, an attorney and tribe member, spoke passionately about the problems at Aquinnah’s annual town meeting on May 12. He called the failed project appalling and disgusting.

“I’m a member of the tribe and a voter in the town,” said Mr. Madison in a phone conversation Tuesday. “I felt like I needed to say something. Everyone I’ve spoken too agrees with what I’ve had to say.”

He is optimistic that the issues can be resolved.

“It’s a case of two sovereign entities cooperating instead of being at loggerheads with each other, and each of the sovereign entities doing the right thing, and supporting their principles.”

On the spot

Tuesday’s selectmen’s meeting began with a site visit to Menemsha Pond, but close observation of the project was thwarted by a high tide. Selectmen did peer through binoculars at the remaining oyster bags, and began a discussion of the issues.

“We’re not trying to be a commercial operation any more,” said Ms. Andrews-Maltais. “We’re just trying to sell off what’s there. We have a buyer for anything we can come up with.”

Mr. Booker raised the issue of revenue lost by the town. In each of the past two years, the town issued $16,000 in abatements to property owners who were not able to enjoy their legal rights to the shoreline because it was littered with abandoned oyster baskets, tangled lines, and other gear. The town will likely issue the same amount in abatements this year.

“It’s cost us about $50,000,” said Mr. Booker. “We had to vote for a Proposition 2.5 override.” Aquinnah voters recently approved a $100,000 Proposition 2.5 override last week, to cover town operating expenses.

Ms. Andrews-Maltais questioned whether those abatements were proper in the past, or would be in the future. She pointed out what she said was considerable progress made toward removing oyster bags from the beach.

But even as she touted the improvements, selectmen pointed out oyster bags in the marsh about 50 feet from where the small group gathered.

Before any of the tribe or town representatives arrived at Menemsha Pond, a family of visitors illustrated an unintended irony. A Subaru station wagon with Vermont license plates was stuck in the sand, tires spinning uselessly. The driver hopped out, and after less than a minute of searching, located several abandoned oyster bags, which he laid in front of his tires. The bags were no longer useful for growing oysters, but they proved very practical in helping the car gain traction in the soft sand. The visiting family drove off the beach, and zoomed down Lobsterville Road.