The Martha's Vineyard Shellfish Group is in the midst of a financial crisis. Director Rick Karney is troubled; it means greater hardship in an already difficult business of raising juvenile shellfish.
The shellfish group was formed in 1976, operating with the participation of all six Island towns. Each town puts forward a fixed amount of money, and the group hatchery turns out millions of quahaugs, bay scallops and oysters for distribution to the shellfish constables of each of the towns..
But last month, in the midst of its own budget crisis, the Town of Aquinnah voted to cut funding for the group.
For the upcoming year - fiscal 2005 - Island towns were all assessed $23,575 to help the shellfish group meet its proposed budget of $208,410. Before Aquinnah's cuts, that left $66,960 to come from donations and other sources. With Aquinnah's cuts, that number grows to $90,000.
Mr. Karney does not fault Aquinnah for their decision. "I understand where they are. They have other priorities," he said. But it clearly affects his way of viewing his own organization, which he sees as benefiting the entire Island. "It is about treating the Island as a whole," he said. Chilmark and Aquinnah share Menemsha Pond. Edgartown and Oak Bluffs share Sengekontacket Pond. Tisbury and Oak Bluffs share Lagoon Pond. Then there are the Great Ponds. The issues of one town are the concerns of another.
The shellfish group has a board meeting scheduled for Wednesday to discuss the budget. "Hopefully it will be a brainstorming session," Mr. Karney said.
There will be plenty of ideas to throw on the table.
Mr. Karney said one option is to end the season early at the shellfish nursery located on Chappaquiddick Point. The nursery is an essential ingredient in the operation of the hatchery, as it provides a safe place for shellfish that are too large to keep at the Lagoon Pond hatchery but too small to be released in the ponds.
"We might close it in August after the oysters have been done, instead of October," he said.
Another possible option: considering opening up the shellfish group to an off-Island town. There are many towns on Cape Cod that could benefit from being a participant in the group.
Mr. Karney, 54, has headed up the shellfish group for 28 years. He draws a salary of $56,233.
In years past the hatchery, with the help of a team of volunteers, held fundraisers to bring in money to keep the operation running. The Edgartown Seafood Festival ran from the early 1970s to 1999. The festival helped raise public awareness about the value of Island-based seafood, but it was not a big money maker, in its final years raising about $4,000.
There was a lobster lunch at the Home Port Restaurant over Memorial Day weekend that usually raised close to $5,000. There was also a waterfront cocktail party in Edgartown.
But Mr. Karney said he wants to spend his day raising shellfish, rather than chasing down funding. The group will do an annual appeal letter later in the year; last year, that brought $40,000.
At times, Mr. Karney said, it seems like the hatchery is going from one crisis to another.
Last year there were serious problems with the water quality in Lagoon Pond; juvenile shellfish being raised at the hatchery on the shores of the pond were killed.
The freshwater pump that services the hatchery's office also failed. "We had no bathroom last year. The 1965 well gave out," Mr. Karney said. It cost $5,000 to replace. Underground electrical lines also had to be replaced last year.
And the big freeze of last winter caused some problems. Pilings that hold the Chappaquiddick nursery intake pipe in the harbor were damaged by ice. "Steve Ewing of Aquamarine donated his labor," Mr. karney said, but they still had to pay for a new spile.
Nevertheless, beyond the financial woes, the season looks good for raising shellfish.
The hatchery has had a good year raising more than 7 million quahaugs. Each of the towns is getting 1.2 million - and Aquinnah is picking up their quahaugs at the end of this week, Mr. Karney said.
They have 4 million bay scallops growing.
They are raising one million oysters, of which half or three- quarters will be sold to private shellfish growers to be raised as cultured oysters. The Town of Edgartown has agreed to buy the rest to put in Edgartown Great Pond, Mr. Karney said.
The water quality of Lagoon Pond appears good so far this year, and Mr. Karney is pleased with work underway. Amandine Surier, his hatchery assistant, is doing leading science in the raising of triploid shellfish. The Northeastern Regional Aquaculture Center is funding research at the hatchery to come up with the first triploid bay scallops; half of Ms. Surier's salary is paid through that grant.
There are four part-time employees working 20 hours a week.
One of them, Allison Stafford, 20, of Skidmore College, said she would prefer to work at the hatchery more hours but understands what is happening. "I've learned so much here. There is a lot of great science going on here. My intention is to learn about what my options are in environmental science. This is a great place," she said.
"Seeding the bottom with shellfish is the future," she said.