What's next for the Waquoit Shellfish Company?
By: Elise R. Hugus
The fate of the oldest aquaculture grant in the state will be decided by selectmen next month, a decision that will affect the family that has held the grant for the past 55 years, local shellfishermen, the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, local sustainable food production, and water quality issues in Waquoit Bay.
Since 1956, the Kelley family of Seapit Road, Waquoit, has held the right to grow and harvest quahogs and oysters on a 22.8-acre area of Seapit River. The grant was originally created in 1877.
Operating as Waquoit Shellfish Company, Olin J. Kelley was the holder of the grant until he transferred it to his daughter, Denise E. Kelley, in 1986.
In 1996, Ms. Kelley renewed her right to the grant, and was granted a 15-year extension by selectmen at the time.
Ahead of the permit expiration in June, earlier this month Ms. Kelley requested a transfer of the grant to Atlantic Oysters, LLC under another 15-year renewal.
“This license will no longer have anything to do with me,” Ms. Kelley said in an interview this week.
Both the Wampanoag tribe and aquaculture advocates have expressed interest in the Kelley grant in recent years.
- Wampanoag Tribe Plans Bid for Aquaculture Grant in Waquoit Bay (2/25/11)
- Aquaculture topics in Under the Lens
According to state records, Atlantic Oysters, LLC was incorporated in October 2010 by Todd S. Stressenger, of Davis Neck Road, East Falmouth.
Mr. Stressenger, a real estate investor and manager of Atlantic Oysters, told selectmen at a February 7 meeting that he planned to invest $200,000 to upgrade the Seapit Road facility, and would bring in an aquaculture expert from Rhode Island.
Mr. Stressenger said he had not made any financial arrangements with Ms. Kelley, but will lease a property on Seapit Road for a business office, shellfish processing and employee housing.
At the meeting, local shellfishermen and Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe members spoke against Ms. Kelley’s request, suggesting that the town should instead take local interests into consideration by dividing up the larger-than-average grant for more people to use.
Selectmen continued the hearing until March 7 in order to gather more information from stakeholders. Undoubtedly, it will be a difficult balancing act for selectmen, but one that may be made easier with knowledge of the grant’s history.
According to records on file at the Falmouth Department of Natural Resources, Ms. Kelley farmed the grant profitably through from 1986 through 2003.
- During a routine National Shellfish Sanitation Program inspection on November 24, 2003, inspectors found that Waquoit Shellfish Company was “wet storing” shellfish in an on-land upweller without a permit. They also could not verify the company’s sales records, since they had not been maintained.
- Based on that inspection, Ms. Kelley was issued a notice of corrective action that she would be required implement in order to ship shellfish across state lines or sell shellfish to in-state dealers.
- The Department of Public Health’s Division of Food and Drugs sent Ms. Kelley a letter dated December 12, 2003, asking her why she had not submitted a letter outlining the steps she would take to comply with the regulations.
- Finally, on December 31, 2003, the Division sent another letter notifying Ms. Kelley that Waquoit Shellfish Company would be taken off the interstate shipper’s list the next day.
- According to documents on file, Ms. Kelley’s wholesale permit to sell shellfish from the Division of Marine Fisheries also expired on December 31, 2004.
Correspondence in 2009 between Assistant DNR Director R. Charles Martinsen III and Town Counsel Frank K. Duffy indicate that town agencies were not notified by the state or by Ms. Kelley about the change in the permit status.
Ms. Kelley said that she “opted for family over business” and let the permits expire in order to tend to her ailing parents. In order to get them back, she said she would have had to invest up to $80,000 to comply with safety and sanitation regulations.
Unable to afford that investment, Ms. Kelley said she talked with a number of interested parties about taking over the grant.
“It didn’t work out for one reason or another,” she said. Having worked with Mr. Stressenger on the grant transfer since last summer, Ms. Kelley said, “this is a man who stands behind what he says.”
The definition of "dug"
Though she could no longer sell shellfish, from 2005 through 2010 Ms. Kelley continued a quahog and oyster seed hatchery program, propagating over 200,000 shellfish seeds per year.
According to Ms. Kelley’s reports, she “dug” over 5,000 bushels of various-sized quahogs and over 100 bushels of oysters during that time period, but no shellfish were reported for sale.
In August 2009, Officer Martinsen wrote a letter to Mr. Duffy indicating that it had “belatedly” came to his attention that Waquoit Shellfish Company no longer had the right to sell shellfish.
On August 19, 2009, Officer Martinsen and Officer Sarah Brooks of Falmouth DNR joined the Massachusetts Environmental Police and a supervisor of the Department of Public Health’s food protection program for an inspection of the Waquoit Shellfish Company.
Officer Martinsen reportedly asked Ms. Kelley about her reports of over 3,000 bushels of shellfish “dug” between 2005 and 2008 without the proper permits. According to the letter, Ms. Kelley replied that she had dug up the shellfish, sorted them and removed any detritus, and placed them back in the water.
According to Officer Martinsen, prior to 2005, Ms. Kelley’s reports had used the word “dug” to indicate bushels harvested and sold. In his correspondence with Mr. Duffy, he questioned whether Ms. Kelley may be subject to criminal prosecution or revocation of the grant license due to the allegedly “false or misleading reports.”
Lack of "substantial use"
Althouth Ms. Kelley said she allowed members of the Wampanoag tribe and the Falmouth Rod & Gun Club with commercial licenses to harvest shellfish from the grant, the investigation did not reveal any evidence that she had sold shellfish.
In a letter to then-Assistant Manager Heather B. Harper dated February 4, 2010, Officer Martinsen indicated that her lack of use of the grant could be grounds for license revocation.
According to Massachusetts General Law, Chapter 130, section 57, the license “may be revoked by...selectmen.. for failure to comply with any terms, conditions or regulations set forth by these entities, or for lack of substantial use of the licensed area.”
In interviews he conducted in September 2009 with local commercial shellfishermen and neighbors of Waquoit Shellfish Company, Officer Martinsen found that there was little activity at the grant site.
In November, he sent a letter to the town manager inquiring about whether to proceed with a hearing before selectmen on the “abandoned” grant.
While the grant may not have been actually abandoned, the terms of the license granted in 1996 state that the grantee must file an annual report to selectmen on how many bushels were planted or produced.
If less than 500 bushels per year for three consecutive years, the license “may be declared forfeited and the grant shall revert to the Town.” This condition is based on section 65 of the general law.