Tribe Makes A Case To Sell Popponesset Oysters At Farmers Market
By: Geoff Spillane
Fruit, vegetables and shellfish. Not a typical shopping list for a visit to a farmers market, yet one that the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe would like to promote at a seasonal outdoor marketplace at the tribal council headquarters on Great Neck Road South.
Menus at restaurants in Boston and New York City feature oysters grown at the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s aquaculture farm in Popponesset Bay. However, the shellfish are not available to tribe members and local residents due to stringent state and national health and sanitation rules and regulations. This discrepancy has become a source of frustration for the tribe, which has for the past two years been growing oysters at one of its two shellfish grants in Popponesset Bay. One of the grants, off Punkhorn Point, is less than a quarter-mile from the tribal council headquarters.
“The tribal community asks if the oysters are ours, then why can’t we buy them?” said George F. Green Jr., a former Mashpee selectman and current assistant director of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s natural resources department. State regulations dictate that any producer of shellfish operating as a business can only sell product to wholesalers, who in turn can sell to retailers and other wholesalers.
A proposal by the tribe to sell shellfish at its farmers market was generally well received during a presentation to the Mashpee Board of Health in February.
Late last week representatives from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, Department of Public Health, and Department of Agricultural Resources conducted a “listening session” at the Sandwich Human Services Building to discuss potential solutions to the issue. In addition to state officials, the meeting featured a vocal, and often emotionally charged, audience of shellfishermen and aquaculturists from a wide swath of Southeastern Massachusetts, including representatives from the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe.
The session also focused on myriad health hazards that could be associated with selling shellfish at outdoor farmers markets.
“Shellfish is a very perishable and high-hazard food,” said Daniel J. McKiernan, deputy director of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. “We’re very apprehensive about any action that could be taken to change the way shellfish is routinely sold in Massachusetts.”
Under current state laws, shellfishermen must have a seafood dealer and/or a wholesaler’s license to sell their catch. Wholesalers are required to maintain a sanitary processing facility, comply with state-mandated time and temperature standards, and be able to document, identify, and track the origin of all shellfish in the event of a contamination outbreak.
Given the cost of establishing a fixed location with state-of-the art refrigeration and electronic tracking technology, achieving wholesaler status often presents a financial obstacle to small-scale shellfish and aquaculture operations.
“We’re headed in the direction of becoming a wholesaler,” said Mr. Green.
When asked by a state official what was the hurdle preventing the tribe from becoming a wholesaler, Mr. Green replied “money.” A state Department of Agriculture Resources representative in attendance estimated the cost to be $25,000 to $50,000, but Mr. Green believes it could be done for much less, as the tribe already has some of the brick and mortar components in place.
A pilot program for the sale of shellfish at farmers markets was conducted by the state public health department in 2009 and 2010.
“The successful pilot program opened the door for shellfishermen to enjoy the benefits that other farmers have of selling directly to consumers. We hope to adopt a formal program that would enable the sale of shellfish at farmers markets,” said Scott J. Soares, commissioner of the department of agricultural resources.
According to sources from state government, it is expected that a policy will be enacted and in place before the beginning of the 2011 summer season.
Representatives of the tribe declined an interview request to discuss the outcome of the meeting, but did issue the following statement:
“The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s right to fish without interference for all purposes has existed since time immemorial. Our rights are aboriginal and not subject to question. The Tribe is nevertheless always willing to dialogue with federal, state and local officials about programs and projects concerning fisheries. We are responsible stewards of the environment and the protection of our sovereign rights and resources is something we pay careful attention to at all times. We listened carefully to the presentation of the program under discussion concerning allowing the sale of shellfish at farmer’s markets and will gladly dialogue with all interested parties about mutual interests and what makes sense.”
State officials at the meeting appreciated the tribe’s frustration and bewilderment at the situation, but stressed the seriousness of foodborne disease caused by spoiled shellfish.
“You’re one shell away from a PR problem,” said J. Michael Hickey, chief marine fisheries biologist with the state Department of Marine Fisheries.
The health consequences of consuming bad shellfish can be very serious, and, in some cases, lethal. Vibrio infections are a major concern. Vibrio is a bacterium that thrives in brackish salt water and causes gastrointestinal illness in humans, and is most prevalent during the summer months in United States coastal waters.
Mr. Green noted that the tribe’s Mashpee oyster beds have never been under a closure order and, as an environmental bonus, have been proven to reduce nitrates in Popponesset Bay.
Another major concern by state authorities is the extra burden the sale of shellfish at farmers markets would have on the department of public health and boards of health of already cash-strapped municipalities.
According to Eric M. Hickey of the department of public health Food Protection Unit, “Last summer’s extremely hot weather presented a challenge for shellfish vendors at farmers markets. During the pilot program, we found that inspections of certified wholesalers went quicker and more smoothly than those of non-wholesalers, which were more resource intensive and educational in nature.”