Oak Bluffs selectmen paved the way on Tuesday for a private aquaculture operation in town, granting preliminary approval to an oyster farm off Eastville Beach.
Applicants and brothers Greg and Dan Martino will begin growing 50,000 oysters per year in bottom cages starting as soon as spring of 2015.
Shellfish have not been cultivated in this area previously, so the Martino brothers plan to take “baby steps,” they said, to test the conditions.
“We are starting really small so we can figure it out right,” Dan, 31, told selectmen on Tuesday.
The selectmen gave preliminary approval as long as the brothers arrange their equipment to allow boats to pass through the area.
The brothers will be equal partners in the business, they said.
The Martino’s first proposed farming in Lagoon Pond, which they said would help reduce nitrogen in the pond, but stakeholders objected to that plan.
Last spring, the shellfish committee said the proposed area was too large and would interfere with commercial and recreational shellfishing, as well as other recreational activity. The board also voted 4-1 not to allow any private aquaculture in the Lagoon, and suggested that the town pursue sewering around the pond to reduce nitrogen.
But the brothers pressed on, seeking a location that would be more acceptable to the town.
“We really just worked with the various boards to reach a plan that everybody could stand behind,” Dan said.
The farm will occupy an area of about two acres off the Oak Bluffs side of the public beach.
“We think we are going to be out of the way of the boat traffic,” Dan said. “We are pretty tucked into shore.”
Selectmen received letters of support from Rick Karney of the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group, and shellfish biologist Emma Green-Beach, among others.
“I wanted to commend those two gentlemen for their fortitude in coming in meeting after meeting,” said Rick Huss, a member of the shellfish committee. “I really honestly think it’s a good idea. It’s going along with the Martha’s Vineyard objective of producing locally.”
But other stakeholders expressed concerns about the project’s impact on the Eastville neighborhood.
Abutters said the operation would attract bird pollution, and might pose a navigational hazard to boats passing through that area.
Richard Hehre, a resident of Beach Road, told selectmen he thought the Martinos should document at least three years of experience before taking on a business venture. He also feared their equipment would be uprooted by northeasters that tear through the area.
“In a major way, I don’t think you appreciate the environment in the Vineyard Haven harbor,” Mr. Hehre said. “In my opinion there is no cage that is going to be held down and not yanked off the bottom.”
Members of the shellfish community countered those concerns.
Shellfish constable David Grunden, who helped the men find a compromise site, said the small raft wouldn’t pose more of a pollutant risk than a moored boat.
William Alwardt, a member of the shellfish committee, which unanimously approved the proposal, said he didn’t think weather was a serious threat.
“I’ve gone through hurricanes with conch gear and it doesn’t move,” he said.
As they voted, selectmen reiterated a commitment to preserving the health of the town’s waterways.
“We are trying to develop a fishery here in town, and I think this board in particular wants to see this be successful in terms of water quality,” Mr. Coogan said.
While they have cleared most of the local hurdles, the brothers still have several more approvals to obtain. The state’s Division of Marine Fisheries, Coast Guard and Army Corps will also be looking at the site.
“We have a long way to go, but it’s nice to see that the selectmen and the community recognized the positive economical and environmental benefits,” Dan said.
He said he did not feel like a pioneer because aquaculture is already a mainstay on the Island.
“Edgartown has been doing it forever, up-Island has been doing it, so it’s just really nice to see that the town of O.B. is finally catching up,” Dan said.
He also said he learned the trade from Jack Blake, who operates Sweet Neck Farm out of Katama Bay. “We are standing on the shoulders of giants, so to speak,” Dan said.
Greg commended Mr. Karney and Mr. Grunden for their aquaculture advocacy. “Without them, none of this would be possible,” he said.
Greg Martino is a Vineyard Gazette employee.