At the Troubled Shellfish Hatchery, Good Work Depends on Good Water


This place runs on water.

Filtered salt water fortified with home-grown algae to feed the baby shellfish. Pure pond water pumped straight from the Lagoon to feed the adolescent shellfish. Fresh water pumped straight from a well to keep everything - as Eloise's aunt would say - clean, clean, clean.

It is early Saturday morning and the solar hatchery owned by the Martha's Vineyard Shellfish Group is infused with the sound of water.

Inside the hatchery, downstairs, water pulses through clear plastic tubing and cascades softly through cloth bags suspended above trays of young scallops and oysters. Upstairs water bubbles in tall plastic cylinders that are used to grow nutritious algae for the shellfish. Outside, just a few steps down the bank, the water of the Lagoon laps gently against the shore and swirls in small eddies around a pier that has grown somewhat ramshackle with use over the years. Alongside the pier a shallow wire cage bobs in the water; the cage contains a scattering of mature scallops.

These are the brood stock.

Inside the hatchery, shallow round trays sit in large rectangular tables. The round trays hold scallops so tiny they appear to be nothing more than grains of sand.

These are the survivors.

This month the hatchery lost four million healthy scallops and oysters that were under culture at the hatchery. The direct cause of the shellfish death is not known, but biologists say they are certain that the kill is linked to deteriorating water quality in the Lagoon. Last week Mr. Karney went public with the news about the die-off and said bluntly that unless something is done soon, the future of the hatchery program is in jeopardy.

Tucked into a leafy glade midway up the western shore of the Lagoon on the Vineyard Haven side, the hatchery is an unprepossessing place. Built in the 1970s when government grant money flowed for solar projects in the midst of the national energy crisis, it is at once humble and sturdy and includes a pair of simple wood-frame structures, their steeply pitched solar roofs facing the pond. The smaller building was put up first as an experimental hatchery in 1978. The larger one was built in 1981. Outside the hatchery, shallow rectangular cages fashioned from wire mesh and PVC fittings are stacked 10 deep beneath the summer canopy of scrub oak and pitch pine. Called spawning sanctuaries, the cages are used to protect young cultured shellfish from predators. Nearby, net bags of oyster cultch form a long wind row.

These are the tools of shellfish farming.

Like all forms of agriculture, farming the sea knows no holidays or weekends, because there is work to be done every day. Today, while vacationers on the Vineyard are still rubbing sleep from their eyes and finding that first cup of coffee, Mr. Karney is in the hatchery. All the trays of shellfish must be rinsed and the water must be changed in the large upstairs tanks that contain freshly spawned triploid oysters and scallops.

The triploids are part of an experimental growth trial program at the hatchery to test the health and marketability of oysters and scallops bred with an extra chromosome. The extra chromosome makes the shellfish sterile, which improves marketability for oysters (the oyster meat becomes soft during spawning) and also disease resistant (shellfish are in a weakened state and more susceptible to disease after spawning). The scallops and oysters are bred by crossing patented tetraploid stock, obtained from a marine science program at Rutgers University, with native diploid stock. The result is a triploid.

Shellfishermen from Edgartown to Long Island will participate in the growth trial, which is partially funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But the recent die-off at the hatchery was a major setback for the growth trial, because the shellfish under culture were well on their way to young adult stage.

Time to start over. Today Mr. Karney attends to a large tank with millions of freshly spawned triploid oysters and scallops. Dawn Hintgen, a college student who works at the hatchery, helps out. Tanks are drained, shellfish are sieved and rinsed with salt water, tanks are refilled, shellfish are fed. There is a certain rhythm to it all, and Mr. Karney, the veteran marine biologist who has directed the hatchery for nearly three decades, is the choreographer. The sound of bubbling water forms a kind of background music.

There is time for conversation.

The pond is becoming eutrophic, he says, a bad condition for shellfish and other forms of marine life. "A eutrophic pond is unbalanced. This pond is not dead, but it is definitely having strokes," Mr. Karney says.

Water testing done last week and again yesterday found anoxic conditions in deep water holes in the Lagoon. Anoxia is a condition known among scientists as "dead water" because the oxygen levels are so low they cannot sustain marine life.

"Anoxia is really bad. That's the stuff they are finding in the Gulf of Mexico where the fish are going belly-up," Mr. Karney says.

Amandine Surier, a hatchery biologist and assistant manager, arrives from her morning work at the satellite hatchery on Chappaquiddick.

It's been a tough year for the shellfish group, a year marked by a hard winter with so much snow and ice that spawning was delayed by a month. Then later there was a spate of equipment breakdowns.

Today Mr. Karney frets about the main water pump; he doesn't like the sound of it. He is a one-man band, functioning as not only the leading biologist but also the maintenance man and the administrator.

But today the sun is out and last week's anguish over the loss of millions of shellfish seed appears to have abated just a little.

"It's like a curse; Amandine wants to get Luther Madison [the medicine man for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head] over here to burn some sage," Mr. Karney says, a grin flickering across his face.

Amandine is all business, her eyes trained on a microscope. It is time to count the triploid oysters. Waders hang from hooks nearby. An old bumper sticker is pasted to the wall. The slogan says: "I love clams," a red heart serving as a stand-in for the word love.

Mr. Karney leans over and sniffs a tray as he rinses. "It's a little sour," he says, his nose wrinkling. "It should have a nice fresh smell." A visitor is invited to join the olfactory test, but cannot detect any odor.

More rinsing ensues.

In the air there a faint smell of iodine, which is used to disinfect the trays. It is about the strongest chemical used at the hatchery, where no harsh chemicals and no antibiotics are used, ever.

Amandine scribbles the count on a piece of paper: 4.8 million triploids. In the control group [diploids bred from the wild] the count is higher: 6 million.

"Okay, that's good, knock on wood," Mr. Karney says, tapping his head with a knuckle.

Suddenly it is lunchtime and the morning farm chores are done. Like the July sun glinting off the surface of the pond, Mr. Karney reflects.

"We love what we do here, it's good work," he says. "But we depend on the Lagoon."