How can oyster farming peacefully co-exist with waterfront property owners and reduce nitrogen levels in coastal ecosystems? A research project conducted by Dr. Dan Rogers of Stonehill College with the help of the Falmouth shellfish constable at the Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve gathered data and resulted in the publication of a “A Best Practices Guide for Nitrogen Remediation using Oyster Aquaculture.”
If you’re contemplating writing a letter to the Town of Barnstable to support the 175-year tradition of commercial oyster farming in the Three Bays estuary, but want more facts to support your opinion, I recommend the paper linked above.
To get a sense of the type of arguments and exaggerated claims wielded by waterfront property owners in the name of preserving their property values, I suggest reading this letter by Chris Matteo, president of the North Carolina Shellfish Growers Association, refuting the claims made by a retired judge who moved to the coast wanted to protect his view.
The town of Barnstable can put this issue to rest for once and for all by taking the following steps:
Encourage aquaculture in the new local comprehensive plan (LCP) now under development by the planning department. The most recent LCP (dated 2010) devoted one paragraph to aquaculture and stated: “As these same coastal areas become more desirable for recreational users, conflicts have arisen. This conflict must be examined and resolved through a thoughtful public process.”
Educate real estate agents, builders, and owners of waterfront property about the benefits of aquaculture and recreational shellfishing to preserve property values and restore compromised waters in front of their homes
In August of 2023 a group of at least five property owners with homes on the ironically named “Oyster Harbors” in Osterville, sent identical complaints to Barnstable’s town manager about the presence of floating aquaculture equipment on the oyster grants owned by the Cotuit Oyster Company in Tim’s Cove and the Narrows between Cotuit and North Bay.
The use of such equipment was the topic of a fight 16 years ago that was initiated by another group of aggrieved Ostervillians in 2007 who banded together under the umbrella of the “Friends of West Bay.” At that time the former town manager ruled against the applications made by two commercial shellfish companies. These latest complaints — all more or less identical — ask the town to declare a moratorium and develop a “comprehensive and balanced plan for the appropriateness of such devices.”
“Rack-and-bag” oyster bags adjacent to the Cotuit Oyster Company pier
Complaints by waterfront property owners annoyed by the presence of oyster farms near their estates are surging from Maine to Key West. Their annoyance and sense of entitlement has been around forever. Locally the complaints include the Osterville resident who I once witnessed as a Cape Cod Times reporter tell a town board in 1980 that the clammers in the waters in front of her waterfront home were “only a nine-iron shot” away. And who can forget the sheer gall of the Popponesset Bay plutocrats (including Patriots owner Bob Kraft( who in 2014 paid a Boston lobbying firm to convince a lame duck, off-Cape state representative to tack an amendment onto a budget bill that attempted to establish a “marine sanctuary “which conveniently happened to coincide precisely with the map coordinates of a Dick Cook’s commercial oyster grant which they feared would spoil their million-dollar view of Cotuit’s undeveloped shoreline?
A copy of one of the complaints and the response by Chris Gargiulo, owner of the Cotuiot Oyster Company can be downloaded here:
I write in support of the Cotuit Oyster Company (COC) in the face of objections made earlier this month by a group of Oyster Harbors residents upset by the presence of floating aquaculture equipment on the COC’s aquaculture grants in Cotuit Bay and the Narrows.
This issue is neither a new nor a unique one for the town. In 2007 a different group of Osterville residents known as The Friends of West Bay persuaded the former town manager to deny the application of two commercial oyster companies to use similar “rack and bag” systems on their grants. I believed then and continue to believe today that Mr. Klimm made the wrong decision.
The Cotuit Oyster Company is one of the oldest continuously operated oyster companies in the country. It is a beloved institution in the village that made the name “Cotuit” world famous. The commercial harvest of oysters in Cotuit extends back to 1850. Three of the Oyster Harbors complaints were filed by property owners who only purchased their properties between 2020-2022.
The crux of their complaints are three issues: 1) the safety and the alleged health threats the floating bags pose to swimmers and boaters; 2) the commercial misuse of a public resource and; 3) the “public trust doctrine” that establishes the waterfront rights of private property owners and the public use of the waterways offshore of those properties.
The portion of the COC’s rack and bag equipment in the Narrows is tucked between a phalanx of private piers that encroach into the aptly named Narrows from the Oyster Harbors shoreline between Cotuit and North Bays.
In no way does the COC’s equipment in the Narrows or Tim’s Cove pose a navigational challenge to watercraft transiting the Narrows – either within or outside of the marked channel. As a rower who uses those waterways daily, I am grateful to the COC’s for placing its equipment between and inshore of the ends of the piers located at 220, 200, 180, 166 North Bay Road.
The map below (fig.1) is derived from an aerial photo found on the the Town of Barnstable’s GIS property map. It shows the location of the marked navigational channel (green hash marks), the adjacent and unofficial lane used by small boats that runs parallel to the south of that channel (yellow hashmarks), and location of the COC’s equipment (outlined in red) placed between the aforementioned piers where no watercraft can safely navigate due to the decision of the town’s conservation commission and waterways committee to grant pier permits to those Osterville property owners. Those piers, (which the residents of Cotuit were able to ban from its side of Cotuit Bay in 2007 despite the strenuous objections of Osterville’s town councilor), are true private taking of the public waters. In no way does the Cotuit Oyster Company’s equipment impede access to the privately owned piers in the Narrows.
Fig. 1 The location of the Cotuit Oyster Company’s equipment inside of the Narrows
Why are the bags where they are today, and not elsewhere? Raising oysters from seed stock to a size sufficient for transfer to the COC’s grants off the western shore of Grand Island requires constant attention and care. Relocating any of the bags in Tim’s Cove or the Narrows to another portion of the Cotuit Oyster Company’s permitted aquaculture grants is unfeasible and would present a hardship to Chris Gargiulo and his employees, who require proximity to their oyster nursery operations as rack-and-bag cultivation demand constant sorting, transferring, and cleaning of the equipment.
Fig 2: The Tim’s Cove location of the oyster bags
The complaints claim the bags pose a safety risk, echoing the same complaints made in 2007 about Al Surprenant’s operations in West Bay. One of the “Friends of West Bay”, Missy Kalat of Osterville told the Cape Cod Times in a story published March 2, 2007:
“It looked like a football field of floating bags,” said Kalat, who lives year-round in her home. “What scared me the most was seeing the kids around it. Sailors, swimmers and kayakers. I was so concerned they would get hurt.”
Aside from opening her statement with a comment about the visual appearance of the bags, Ms. Kalat worried about a threat that simply doesn’t exist and has never occurred. I cannot find one instance where an aquaculture grant caused an accident or injury to a swimmer, sailor, or kayaker. Nor am I aware of any incident where floating oyster bags caused injury, damage, or inconvenience to any member of the public or their vessel.
Oysters are the only thing (aside from a few I/A septic systems) presently working to reduce nitrogen levels in the Three Bays. An oyster filters 50 gallons of water a day. The COC has up to six million oysters in the bay at various stages of maturity. That is 300 million gallons of water a day being filtered by a natural process that requires no electricity, bond issues, or massive infrastructure projects. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Division, one acre of oysters provides $6,500 in denitrification services, and shoreline stabilization benefits valued at $2,125 annually.
These complaints utterly defame the quality of the Cotuit Oyster Company’s oysters by implying they are raised in “fecal infested” waters contaminated by “repeated high fecal counts” and that the COC is breaking the law by moving clams from areas subject to seasonal closures by the town’s shellfish warden to “clean” locations before being sold. Such reckless claims, expose the complainants’ ignorance of the town’s long-standing practice of seasonal closures for many recreational shellfishing areas such as Cupid’s Cove on Sampson’s Island and Cordwood Landing. Many portions of the bays are closed during the summer months due to elevated levels of fecal coliform attributed in large part to bird feces. Many quahog relay areas —including those at Cordwood Landing and Handys Point across from Grand Island — are closed during the summer months for that reason. Those clams are eventually moved to non-compromised locations for recreational and commerce harvest where they are given enough time to flush themselves before being tested for harmful bacteria. The same holds true for the immature oysters grown in the COC’s seed bags. Once the seed oysters outgrow the bags, they are transferred to the Oyster Company’s grants on the west side of Cotuit Bay and placed in cages which much be tended and cleaned regularly before the oysters reach a saleable size.
If the five property owners from Oyster Harbors are concerned about high fecal counts and the health and safety of the public, then I look forward to reading their future letters to the Board of Health warning people to stay out of the water, especially the swimmers they must feel are endangered by swimming in the same waters where these oysters are grown.
It is risible to describe any aspect of the Cotuit Oyster Company as “an industrial-scale” operation. It is a small business which employs five to ten people.
Impacts on dredged channels
As for the complainant’s’ speculation that above water equipment “may also undermine the massive investment of public funds in the dredging of the Cotuit Narrows.” I am unaware of any recent dredging in that area and to the best of my knowledge much of the recent dredging in the Three Bays was confined to the entrance of Cotuit Bay between Sampson’s Island and Riley Beach. Past dredging projects have been funded by a combination of private and public funds. My research shows the town spent the “massive” sum of $22,000 in 1968 to dredge the Narrows between Cotuit and Osterville.
Justification for above-water rack and bag propagation
A 2004 study by the University of Rhode Island’s Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture reported in a paper published in the Journal of Shellfish Research:
“These findings indicate that shellfish aquaculture gear provides habitat for many native species of recreationally and commercially important fish and invertebrates in their early life history stages throughout the year. Therefore, we conclude that shellfish aquaculture gear has habitat value at least equal to and possibly superior to submerged aquatic vegetation.”
Rack and bag aquaculture equipment is not used out of greed or convenience, but a matter of business survival. Oyster farms once bought seed oysters acquired from elsewhere. For years, Barnstable oysters began life in places like Connecticut and Buzzards Bay and were translated as seed into local waters. Unfortunately, that practice of planting seed oysters sourced off-Cape nadvertently introduced protozoan diseases into the local stock which devastated the industry and nearly caused it to collapse.
Dick Nelson, the previous owner of the Cotuit Oyster Company had to, according to a 2006 story in the Barnstable Patriot, “…confront an unfortunate event when the company bought seed that turned out to be contaminated, setting the business back for several years.”
Fortunately for the Cape’s aquaculture industry, a disease resistant strain of oysters was found which some experts say was the catalyst kicked off the oyster craze that has put a such premium on Cape Cod’s oysters from Cotuit to Wellfleet. Advances in the cultivation of brood stock through upwellers and the use of the same mesh bags the complaints object to have helped dramatically reduce protozoan diseases such as Demo, MSX, and SSO, while protecting vulnerable seed oysters from predators that prey on them when they are planted on the bottom of the bay.
The Public Trust Doctrine and waterfront property rights
Massachusetts is the only state in the country to grant waterfront property owners rights to the “wet sand” below the mean high-water mark. The COC has been nothing but respectful and accommodating of those rights, and despite allegations made in the complaints, the COC has tried to minimize the impact of its gear by submerging it underwater in the winter and placing far less visible equipment on its grants than it is entitled to place there.
It’s all about the view
Why are aquaculture operations along the entire east coast fighting to stay in business in the face of growing opposition and expensive lawsuits brought against them by wealthy waterfront property owners?
The complaints, for all their pious handwringing about the public good, are about protecting property values and views.
“Up and down the East Coast, as fishing has become less profitable, fish piers have been replaced with condos and fishing boats have been pushed out by yachts, according to Bob Rheault, the executive director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association.
“We live in a rural area, so there’s a ton of space to do things, but our access is limited when it comes to the waterfront,” said Black. While she has found that aquaculture farmers in the area don’t lack places to live or clean their equipment, she has noticed in recent years a growing tension between farmers and people moving in. In her experience, newcomers don’t often understand what an oyster farm is and don’t want one in their backyard.”
In 2019 the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries issued a “Study On How to Reduce User Conflict Related to Shellfish Cultivation Leases” which sums up the true motivation behind the surge in property owners complaints against aquaculture in their front yard:
“Many user conflict cases brought by riparian owners adjacent to shellfish lease locations seem to be driven by a concern for viewshed. Viewshed is not a public trust right traditionally acknowledged under North Carolina common law.”
Please dismiss these complaints and clean up the bays
I implore the town to dismiss these complaints and consider the source. I assume the five parties on Oyster Harbors have the funds to sue the town and most likely will if the town doesn’t kowtow to their demands. I say bring it on. These complaints are only the skirmish in what promises to be an expensive court battle and an attempt to deny the Cotuit Oyster Company a renewal of its permits when they come due next year. Please shut down this blatant attack on the character and health of the waters of Barnstable and send a message to these latest so-called “Friends of the Bay” that this is a town that was built on the water by people who made their living on the water, and not a one ruled by those who sell the land around it and build the homes that overlook it. Revise the commercial shellfishing regulations to encourage the cultivation of shellfish. They are the proverbial canary in the coal mine and action is needed now – not twenty years from now – to revise the CWMP and prioritize “time to travel” septic systems for immediate connection to a sewer, I/A system, or composting toilets.
Town Councilor Gordon Starr, Councilor Eric R. Steinhilber, Councilor Betty Ludtke, Councilor Nikolas Atsalis, Councilor Paul Cusack, Councilor Paul C. Neary, Councilor Jessica Rapp Grassetti, Councilor Jeffrey Mendes, Councilor Tracy Shaughnessy, Councilor Mathew P. Levesque, Councilor Kristine Clark, Councilor Paula K. Schnepp, Councilor Jennifer L. Cullum, Derek Lawson, Director, Marine and Environmental Affairs, Amy Croteau, Shellfish Constable, Stuart Rapp, Chair-Barnstable Shellfish Committee, Brian W. Taylor, Harbormaster, Chris Garigulo, Cotuit Oyster Company, Ed Gargiulo, Carol Zais, Cotuit Santuit Civic Association
 Journal of Shellfish Research, Vol 23. No 3 867-875 2004, Dealteris, Kilpatrick and Rheault
Last night at the meeting of the Cotuit Santuit Civic Association a moment of silence was observed for the victims of the Maui wildfire which swept through Lahaina last week. As I stood with bowed head it occurred to me that for many Cotuit sailors in the 1850s, Lahaina was their winter port of call, a favored port for provisioning, repairing and finding new crew for their whaling ships.
I honeymooned in Lahaina in the early 1980s and poked around the old port looking for vestiges of the golden age of whaling in between the t-shirt and saltwater taffy shops, and the sidewalks thronged by weed sellers who carried their buds of Maui Wowie on overturned Frisbees which they would reveal with a discrete little “voila” and a whispered offer to purchase some “kind bud.” It was difficult to look out at the anchorage and imagine dozens of whaling barks anchored off the beach, but the connection to Cape Cod was still palpable more than century after the end of Pacific whaling. For many Cotuit whalers in the first half of the 19th century, Lahaina was more familiar to them than Boston.
My great-great-grandfather Thomas Chatfield first sailed into Lahaina in 1849 on his first whaling voyage as the cabin boy aboard the Massachusetts, an Edgartown whaler captained by Seth Nickerson, Jr. of Cotuit. The ship called at the port after escaping San Francisco at the peak of the Gold Rush, when many Nantucket whaling ships succumbed to gold fever and rotted at anchor off the shore of San Francisco, abandoned by their crews who were prospecting in the gold fields of the Sierra Nevada foothills. Nickerson had his wife and children with him for that voyage, but his baby daughter died enroute to San Francisco from Callao, Peru when the captain decided to give passage to a mob of desperate prospectors trying to find passage to California, likely bringing aboard yellow fever which killed his daughter. Nickerson was able to rally enough crew to get the Massachusetts out of San Francisco Bay and back to sea to resume its original voyage. Chatfield wrote in his 1904 Reminiscences:
“We anchored at Lahaina the latter part of October. Uncle Seth, Aunt Rose and the children immediately went ashore to remain during our stay; and the following day every man jack of that crew had gone too, leaving the black cook Jordan and myself to take care of the ship, just as we did a year before when we arrived at the same port from San Francisco. It was while at Lahaina that Uncle Seth sent an undertaker on board with a zinc lined casket; and between us we took Baby Ella out of the cask, cleared the little box which the little lady lay in, and put it into the casket. A pane of glass had been placed over the face, which had become loosened and slipped from its place, so that its features were exposed to view. The rum had all leaked out and been absorbed by the lime. Still, the features were perfect in form and only slightly discolored, a very light brown, probably caused by the rum. The man sealed it up very carefully, using solder, and then went ashore again, and I made a strong box of boards, put the casket into it, and then replaced it on the topsail, where it remained until we arrived home some months later. Neither Uncle Seth or Aunt Rose saw their baby’s body: and he never alluded to it in my presence: and she only once, when she asked me in what condition it was. I was glad to be able to tell her; and she seemed gratified to be told that it was in good condition. I have always thought that Aunt Rose had a sort of mother love for me, big, awkward boy as I was that time: and she certainly trusted me entirely. Uncle Seth sent me some native sailors, and with them I filled water, rebent sails, replaced chopping gear, all of which had become badly worn during the cruise and the rough and tumble passage from the north. So I was kept busy all the time we were there. “
Rear View of Lahaina by Edward T. Perkins circa 1854.
“According to Henry L. Sheldon, “the business of the entire population was the furnishing of supplies to whalers and entertaining the crews”. Sailors who had been hunting whales for months at a time went to Lahaina to drink grog and meet women. By 1825 a kapu prohibiting women from going out to ships for the purpose of prostitution was proclaimed by the Hawaiian chiefs (ali’i ). Enraged that they could not cajole, coax, or coerce Hawaiian women into violating the kapu, the sailors turned their frustrations on the American missionaries, whom they blamed for the emergence of this new unreasonably strict moral law. Whalers opposed any rules governing alcohol and prostitution, and blamed missionaries for influencing the Kingdom of Hawaii to enforce such rules. Riots broke out at least four times—in 1825, 1826, 1827, and 1843. In the 1827 riots, sailors on the John Palmer fired their cannons at the home of missionary William Richards and threatened the safety of the community.”
Chatfield avoided Lahaina when he was in command of the Massachusetts. Inflated prices for provisions, the temptations for the crew, and the slow decline of the port in the 1850s caused him to prefer San Francisco despite that port’s reputation as a graveyard for whalers. A bitter rivalry grew between San Francisco and Lahaina for the whaling fleet’s business, but for Chatfield and other Cotuit whalers, San Francisco was a better place to sell their whale oil and bone in between the summer season in Siberia’s Sea of Okhotsk.
My condolences to the people of Maui who lost family, friends, and their homes to the fires. Cotuit’s fire chief, Sean Brown, is in Lahaina now with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Urban Search & Rescue Task Force on the ground assisting with recovery efforts and the sad task of locating and identifying victims of the blaze.
Ezra George Perry was a real estate promoter and developer from Bourne; a self-described “Cape Cod Boy” who marketed the sublime pleasures of owning a Cape Cod summer estate in an illustrated guidebook, “A Trip Around Cape Cod.”
“At the end of the nineteenth century, Perry came back to Bourne, his hometown, where he began buying up pastureland around Phinney Harbor and developing it into lots to be sold to the urban rich for seaside summer estates,” writes John T. Cumbler in Cape Cod: An Environmental History of a Fragile Ecosystem.
Perry’s book is the first time I’ve ever seen the full extent and scale of some of the old estates and seaside hotels and the different styles and grandeur of estates that were marketed by Perry as a more moral and natural alternative to the excesses of Newport. President Grover Cleveland turned his 110-acre estate, Grey Gables, into the Summer White House from 1893-96, which in turn brought the railroad, electricity, and telegraph to the region for the first time.
Ezra Perry’s colorful career and shameless hucksterism comes through his copywriting in A Trip Around Cape Cod. He spun a grand, compelling vision of the Cape that enticed more tycoons and scions and developers to follow and spur the development of grand estates and establishing a number of exclusive summer enclaves in Cotuit, Oyster Harbors, Wianno and Hyannis Port that began to fill in the economic void left by the decline of whaling, shipping, and the traditional Cape Cod arts of shipbuilding, shellfishing, and shipping and the related need for salt to preserve fish, wood to build saltworks, rope, sails, and the other components of the maritime culture that faded after the Civil War, done in by the railroad, petroleum and steam. In their place followed the grand hotels and guest houses and eventually the private clubs along the shores of Buzzards Bay and Nantucket Sound.
The book is available for free online – Google Books is where I found a copy that can be downloaded as a PDF or read in a browser.
I took the liberty of making copies of the Cotuit photographs from A Trip Around Cape Cod. I’m sure Ezra Perry would appreciate the back links were he still flogging land on the Cape today.
I’m moderating a panel discussion on Friday, Sept. 30 at 6 pm EST. with five experts from IBM, Samsung SDS, Oxford University, Volkswagen, and Thomson Reuters. The topic is Artificial General Intelligence (essentially the rise of a AI system which can understand or learn any human intellectual action on its own), a controversial topic in light of recent debates at Google when a researcher’s memo about the company’s LaMDA project (Language Model for Dialogue Applications) claimed the system was “sentient.” The engineer was fired.
The science fiction scenario of a world governed by a massive AI presence has be been around since the earliest days of computer science, with the result that many within the AI community as well as the press, are calling for safeguards that would constrain such a self-learning system and ensure it operates ethically, under a sort of code similar to Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. The panel of experts will debate the concept of AGI and offer their insights from their experiences with advanced AI.