Bourne Conservation Commission Approves Oyster Farm Plans
By: Diana T. Barth
After a long process that involved permitting at the federal, state, and local levels, a Gray Gables man received the unanimous approval last Thursday of the Bourne Conservation Commission for his plans to install and operate a commercial aquaculture operation in Bourne.
He expects to be able begin growing Eastern oysters this season.
Patrick Ross of Benedict Road already has a one-acre grant from selectmen, the first to be allowed in town in at least 30 years. That acre is located under relatively untrafficked waters 650 feet west of Tobey Island, off Monument Beach.
Bourne Conservation Agent Brendan Mullaney said Mr. Ross’s underwater grant is, by definition, within a velocity flood zone and a “Wetland Resource Area” and thus is within ConCom’s jurisdiction.
While there were still a few minor outstanding issues, including the need for a sign-off from the state’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, ConCom members approved the operation conditionally and wished Mr. Ross well.
Mr. Ross said he would begin with four lines, to which a total of some 50 to 100 cages would be attached. The oyster seed is put in bags that are then placed inside those protective cages, which are lowered to the bottom of the water, about 9 to 12 feet deep. The lines are periodically pulled up, the bags examined, and the growing oysters transferred into new, clean bags.
The seed, itself, can only be procured from someone on a list of state Division of Marine Fisheries-approved hatcheries.
Depending on the size of the seed, it could take two or more years for the oyster to grow to 3 inches, the size at which they could be legally harvested and sold. The oysters will spawn as they grow, and seed the waters surrounding the grant.
Oysters will also remove nitrogen from the water, Mr. Mullaney said.
He added that if an aquaculture operation is conducted properly, and located according to town regulations, it should not bother anyone. In some other towns, where an operation is visible from waterfront homes, there have been some complaints. Mr. Mullaney said this would not be the case in Mr. Ross’s location.
Boats can go over the waters above the operation, he said this week, just so long as boaters do not hit the buoys that mark the corner of the grant, acting similarly to a lobster buoy. Timothy Mullen, director of the Bourne Department of Natural Resources, said the operation would be subtidal at all times, and thus not visible except for those buoys.
While Mr. Ross’s operation will be Bourne’s first, Barnstable, Wellfleet, Duxbury, and Falmouth are all among the towns that have aquaculture operations. Falmouth now has six oyster farms—four in Buzzards Bay, one in Nantucket Sound, and one in the Seapit River and Waquoit Bay area.
In August of 2011, Falmouth was “the new kid on the block” when it came to aquaculture, and people wanted to know more about operations. According to a Falmouth Enterprise story written at that time, Jerry Moles, an aquaculture specialist for the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, said it would be hard to predict how big the business would get.
“Aquaculture is a wicked big gamble and you have to be a wicked hard worker, sometimes with deep pockets, to make it work,” Mr. Moles said at the time.
In 2010, only two grants had produced enough oysters to market, he said. Those farmers harvested seven bushels of oysters, according to Mr. Moles. There are about 200 oysters in each bushel, he said, for a total of 1,400 oysters. By comparison, in Wellfleet, where the shellfish industry was thriving, 80 people had oyster aquaculture grants. Fishermen harvested more than 5,000 bushels of oysters, Mr. Moles said, for a total of 1 million oysters.
There are now some 300 aquaculture farms on Cape Cod, on more than 1,000 acres, all growing primarily oysters, one Falmouth cooperative member said.
Falmouth’s commercial aquaculture operators have gotten together and formed a cooperative, sharing information about permitting and operations, but primarily for the purpose of marketing their “Sippiwissett oysters” to regional restaurants.
In March of this year, not long after Mr. Ross received his grant from selectmen, he was able to tap into the experience of those operators. He went out to cooperative member Peter D. Chase’s two-acre grant in Buzzards Bay and was able to learn from Mr. Chase’s experience. Mr. Chase owns Quissett Point Lobster Company.
When Mr. Ross began talking about starting an oyster operation in Bourne, the town had no regulations. Given Mr. Ross’s interest in an aquaculture permit, in the fall of 2011 Mr. Mullen of the DNR brought proposed aquaculture regulations in front of selectmen. Those rules created a mechanism whereby selectmen could license certain areas of the Town of Bourne, granting a permit holder exclusive rights to plant, grow, and take shellfish from that area.
For the first year of operation, a Bourne aquaculture license is limited to a maximum of one acre of land and to the hours of operation as spelled out in state law. The town has the right to inspect a grant, and to perform an annual review of the operation as a whole.
Selectmen subsequently approved the regulations and, in January of this year, granted Mr. Ross the town’s first aquaculture permit in many years.
Mr. Ross also needed approval and permits from the town Department of Natural Resources, the state Division of Marine Fisheries, the state Department of Environmental Protection, and the US Army Corps of Engineers.
The DMF approval included a survey of the bottom of Mr. Ross’s grant to ensure that his operation would not endanger any indigenous shellfish growing in the area.
After the first year of operation, a Bourne permit holder can come back and ask for an expansion.
ConCom members joked after last week’s vote that if and when Mr. Ross needed to come in for an expansion of his grant, he should bring in a bushel of oysters.
Mr. Mullen told selectmen when they were reviewing the aquaculture regulations that Bourne does not have the open flats along its shoreline that make such aquaculture operations attractive to commercial operators, as do some Lower Cape towns.
He said then that he did not anticipate a large number of operators knocking on Bourne’s door.
Given the price of oysters, ConCom member M. Peter Holmes said after last week’s meeting that he personally thought that if Mr. Ross is as successful as he anticipates, that might change.