The Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group had one of its most productive summers, mass producing millions of baby quahaugs, bay scallops and oysters. And to top it all off, the shellfish hatchery produced twice the usual numbers of bay scallop seed.
As activities wind down at the Lagoon Pond hatchery, days after the remnants of Hurricane Irene passed by the Island, shellfish director Rick Karney is looking at his numbers and feeling good about what began as a worrisome summer. Overall, the weather was ideal. Water quality in Lagoon Pond was just about right and shellfish cooperated completely. Finally, the severe hurricane that threatened the last of his juvenile animals never materialized here.
Each summer the group raises shellfish for the Island’s towns. The shellfish spawn and are raised at the hatchery. Shellfish constables from the different towns take the hatchery shellfish and spread them out in the coastal ponds. Some shellfish are released when they are very small, almost microscopic. Others are raised until they grow to be larger than grains of sand, and sometimes as big as the letters on this page. The juvenile shellfish often are held in protective cages, guarding against predators and other threats.
Edgartown shellfish constable Paul Bagnall, president of the shellfish group, said, “Rick deserves a lot of credit. He kept cranking out millions of shellfish. From the quahaugs, through to the bay scallops and onto the oysters.”
He said Mr. Karney doubled the production of bay scallops released to the shellfish constables. That number was close to 18 million baby bay scallops.
Mr. Karney and his hatchery manager, Amandine Surier, have several reasons for the seasonal success.
“Water quality was a big thing,” Mr. Karney said. The hatchery gets its seawater from Lagoon Pond. “We started off the season with a scary spring. We had a lot of macro algae. It didn’t look good.
“Then there was the prorocentrum, which arrived at the end of June. We thought it was toxic to shellfish but it wasn’t,” Mr. Karney said. It may have been more harmful to jellyfish.
Ms. Surier said that the algae bloom looked like “river water.”
“Right after the bloom, the water quality got really quite good,” Mr. Karney said.
But soon after the bloom disappeared, the pond cleared up, clearer than in past years. “Basically it was amazing, we didn’t have jellyfish in the pond. Jellyfish are the scourge of the Lagoon. They have been around since day one... they come and go... in recent years they are almost always here all the time. We had some early in the summer, but then the [prorocentrum] bloom came and the jellyfish disappeared.”
Plus, a bacteria that is toxic to shellfish, which usually shows up in small amounts in the hatchery, didn’t show up. “We just had only one event,” Mr. Karney said.
Water quality at the Chappaquiddick shellfish nursery was also ideal, Mr. Karney said.
Summer seasonal staff were a big part of the hatchery’s success, according to Ms. Surier. Since the hatchery operates every day of the week in the summer, it has sometimes been hard to keep the building staffed through the weekend, everyday being busy. Ms. Surier recalled early in the summer how she set up a meeting to work out days off for the staff. “When I asked everyone who would want their days off, I got a reply from one kid who said he would like to work seven days a week,” she said.
“All wanted to work. They were great and everyone got along really well. It was fun,” she said. She offered an example of that spirit. “Rick would be looking through the microscope and would say, ‘Who wants to see the babies?’ All of them wanted to look. And they would get excited by what they saw.”
The team of helpers at the hatchery included Chris Edwards, Molly Bangs, Ceili Brennan, Jon Avery, Elizabeth Mellon, Ryan Antiolick, Boo Bassett and Serena Gordon.
Mr. Karney said the hatchery this year raised six million quahaugs, which is about normal. “All the constables said they got really good growth on them,” Mr. Karney said. The quahaugs were delivered from the middle of June to just before the Fourth of July.
Mr. Karney said they raised millions of oysters of varying sizes. The big customers of oysters were the two great ponds, Edgartown Great Pond and Tisbury Great Pond.
Mr. Karney delivered two million single oysters. These are oysters that set on tiny pieces of culture shell. It is a difficult oyster to raise because each animal is attached to a tiny piece of shell and they don’t like overcrowding. Still, oyster growers prefer that kind of oyster as they don’t grow in clumps. Mr. Karney said that the shellfish constables asked for them.
They also did over six million oysters that develop in clumps, growing together on shells. Those juvenile oysters were put in remote tanks in Tisbury Great Pond and Edgartown Great Pond, to be released later in the season.
“We sent a little over four million to Tisbury Great Pond,” Mr. Karney said. Those animals resided in four saltwater tanks.
“Two million went to Edgartown Pond,” and were kept in two tanks, Mr. Karney said.
In addition Mr. Karney said they delivered 130 million fertilized oyster eggs, half for Edgartown Great Pond and half for Tisbury Great Pond.
Hurricane Irene didn’t have a harmful impact on the Lagoon Pond hatchery. Mr. Karney said the storm accelerated the close of the season at the hatchery, where they normally would be winding down the operation later in September.
Ahead of the storm there were concerns about electricity failing and about a harmful storm surge at the Lagoon Pond site.
Mr. Karney said they did okay, by being pragmatic with the last million and a half tiny oysters still in residence in a floating upweller tied to the dock. They emptied the upweller and towed it to a mooring. They took the shellfish and stored them in the hatchery, out of the water over the weekend. “They don’t like stagnant water,” Ms. Surier said.
Mr. Karney said that oysters can live for more than a day out of the water, and that when the pumps started up on Monday morning they were able to save all the oysters.
Looking ahead, Mr. Karney said that with an earlier closing to the hatchery this fall, they will shift their attention to doing light mechanical improvements to the state lobster hatchery at the other end of Lagoon Pond. Earlier this summer, the state Division of Marine Fisheries agreed to lease the old hatchery to the shellfish group for shellfish enhancement. Mr. Karney said they are looking to begin use of that hatchery next spring.
Mr. Karney said he hopes his summer staff will return next year for what will be an even busier season. “We’ll be taking on another site,” he said.