At first glance, Rick Karney does not appear to be a farmer. He works on the water and is usually more damp than dirty.

But to watch him in action is to be sure that the work Mr. Karney does at the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group is hardly different from the work Island farmers do in their fields and stables and greenhouses every day.

“We’re farmers,” Mr. Karney said as he checked on the latest addition to his aquaculture farm: 14 million oyster larvae. He had already changed their water and was feeding them from a bucket of live phytoplankton. “There is a small window of opportunity when the weather’s right and the water quality is good and that’s our busy time.”

The Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group began in 1976 when the late Michael Wild, coastal planner for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, organized the Island shellfish constables with the shared goal of managing the Vineyard’s shellfish resources. He hired a biologist to provide technical assistance. That biologist was Rick Karney, a young man who had put off graduate school and was working at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

In 1977, the Island’s first pilot hatchery was constructed on Lagoon Pond. The next year, the hatchery produced its first-ever crop of quahog seed. This was back in the days when aquaculture referred to shellfish grown in fresh water. Mariculture was the term for salt water growing.

“The field was in its infancy,” Mr. Karney said. “It’s like that scene in The Graduate. ‘Plastics. There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it.’”

Mr. Karney pioneered aquaculture on Vineyard. — Mark Alan Lovewell

In the years which followed, the group began growing scallops and oysters too. They built the nation’s first public solar shellfish hatchery in Vineyard Haven and later constructed a nursery on Chappaquiddick for spawned shellfish seed.

The hatchery does innovative and ground breaking research, both for the Island community and the country. It was among the first hatcheries in the country to successfully spawn and rear the giant sea scallop. A few years ago, Mr. Karney held a training program for local fishermen and today, an oyster farm exists in Edgartown. And the facility was the first in the nation to raise a large number of triploid bay scallops.

In recent years, the hatchery has turned out between 18 and 20 million seed, which they distribute in local waters.

The hatchery grew as the aquaculture industry as a whole took off. Mr. Karney attributes the growth of the industry to a rising demand for all seafood because of its health benefits, a rising demand for farmed seafood because overfishing and pollution have depleted wild stocks, a rising cost of seafood and an increased awareness from the federal government.

“All of these factors have contributed to having it make sense to grow it if you can,” he said. “Oceans are two-thirds of the world. If you’re going to feed the world, you have to look at farming the sea.”

Another change since he entered the field: aquaculture, once the realm of fisheries, is now considered agriculture.

“There was a turf battle about 10 to 15 years ago between the National Marine Fisheries Service and the USDA,” he said, referring to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “When it was recognized as agriculture, the field saw benefits. When legislation and funding is passed for agriculture, we see some of it. It is something we can tap into.”

Today, aquaculture is the largest growing sector of agriculture, Mr. Karney said.

Over at the hatchery, the daily chores and the yearly schedule are not unlike those of farmers of the land. The year starts in February when the saltwater pumps are turned on. By March, Mr. Karney and hatchery manager Amandine Surier have begun making their algae. Similar to fertilizer used in the fields, the algae is loaded with nitrogen and keeps the pond and the shellfish healthy and nourished.

This is also the time when the six-week broodstock ripening process begins. “In order to get the first spawning, we have to ripen them by heating and feeding them and fooling them into thinking it’s summer,” Mr. Karney said.

Spawning begins in April. “It’s like growing tomatoes in a greenhouse,” Mr. Karney said. “It’s getting a jump on the season.” The quahogs are first, because they take the most time to grow, and then scallops and oysters. Once the pond heats up to 15 degrees Celsius, the shellfish can leave the nursery. By mid-June, the water will reach 18 degrees Celsius and the season is in full swing. “Things go crazy. The shellfish are doubling in size every week,” Mr. Karney said.

The last spawning occurs at the end of August or the beginning of September. “By this time, the water temperature has dropped and the growing conditions are less than optimal. The productive season comes to a close,” Mr. Karney said.

Hatchery assistant Jim Bishop, left, with Rick Karney. — Mark Alan Lovewell

The winter season means a return to a normal schedule. Beginning in April and continuing on through September, the hatchery is staffed seven days a week. Mr. Karney and Ms. Surier are there every day from eight in the morning until three in the afternoon. They have a seasonal staff of three to four who work six days a week. “The busy time is now,” Mr. Karney said. “This is about as bad as it gets.”

Mr. Karney spends the winter months tuning up the pumps the way a farmer might repair his tractor. He also applies for grants. The hatchery has an operating budget of $200,000; $30,000 comes from the six Island towns. The rest is made up from grants and donations. He also takes a vacation.

There are many reasons why Mr. Karney puts himself through this rigorous schedule year after year. “It’s the slow food argument,” he said. “It’s local production. Take, for example, the salmonella outbreak in tomatoes. You’re not going to find salmonella in a tomato grown here. Growing locally sustains the culture. It provides jobs to locals and keeps the food where you know it.”

This year, in addition to their regular work, the hatchery has begun two new projects. The first is an offshore mussel farm. By next July, Mr. Karney hopes to have two operational demonstration farms which, by the following year, will be run as private businesses by local fishermen. The second is an oyster restoration project on Edgartown Great Pond.

But Mr. Karney always sees room for more.

“There are opportunities for more aquaculture in the ponds than what is going on now,” he said. “I am anxiously awaiting the estuaries project, which I expect will reveal that the ponds are receiving too much nitrogen. So, we want to look at what role shellfishing aquaculture could play in the remediation.”

Mr. Karney hopes the towns will turn to aquaculture projects instead of expensive treatment options. “It’s pretty much accepted now that shellfish aquaculture is pretty benign to the environment and can actually be helpful,” he said. “There can be growth in this area without opposition.”

But for now, there is work to do and Mother Nature does not wait. “Think about it like a farm,” Mr. Karney said. “Cows have to be milked. These spawn don’t have a holiday. They have to get watered and fed.”


This column is meant to reflect all aspects of agricultural activity and farm life on the Vineyard. To reach Julia Rappaport, please call 508-627-4311, extension 120, or e-mail her at