Reckoning With An Oyster Ban

Reckoning With An Oyster Ban

Now sharks have gotten round the barrier

By David Mittell, Politicus #1,186

Until 1932, Duxbury Bay's mudflats were covered with eel grass up to four-feet long. There were many seals but not many fish after the seals' lunch. That year, eel grass on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean succumbed to a blight from which, in these waters, it has never fully recovered.

In Duxbury Bay, flats no longer held fast by the eel grass eroded, increasing the water's depth. Seals disappeared (a $2 bounty on each seal's nose was partly the cause) and fishing improved. The eel grass's fate was the first of at least four abrupt alterations in the life in the Bay in the 20th century – three of them disappearances.

The second change was a sudden, vast increase in the number of scallops in Duxbury Bay in 1953. In 1954, 11,000 bushels were harvested despite the effects of Hurricane Carol on Sept. 1. Life Magazine sent a photographer to town and the Director of the state's Division of Natural Resources – future Governor Francis Sargent – called Duxbury's 1954 catch the biggest ever known north of Cape Cod. Sounding prescient, he explained that warming waters were bringing bay scallops farther north.

The Clipper ran a picture of a young Linde, Olsen, Ragazzini, Wirt and two Nathan brothers returning with one December day's catch. In his final editorial of the year, Clipper editor John Cutler quoted a marine biologist that Duxbury's "sea gold" could not possibly be over-fished. But the scallop has a short life cycle, and within two years had lost its taste for breeding in Duxbury Bay. That was the second disappearance.

During these years, and throughout most of the century, mounds of mussels reliably raised up flats exposed at low tide. By the end of the century, they too were disappearing. We do not need to be expert to respect the obvious: The marshes of Marshfield and the tidal bays of Duxbury, Kingston and Plymouth are sensitive environments whose speciation can change abruptly with seemingly invisible changes in conditions.

That is the truth we need to keep in mind when evaluating the indefinite closure on Aug. 30 of oyster beds in the waters of the four towns. The cause is the bacterium vibrio parahaemolyticus, which causes gastrointestinal illness in humans, and leads to blood infections in 10 percent of victims. It is reported to have caused 12 deaths in the United States in 2012.

Thoughts at this reckoning:

* Public safety comes before anyone's economic interest.

* We should not repeat the error of 1954 by assuming this "sea gold" will necessarily have a different fate than the scallops.

* At the town level, the evaluation of aquaculture licenses should be performed by disinterested officials. They should have no reason to promote aquaculture, or to raise revenue for the town; and the harbormaster, who has police power over licensees, should advise but not have the power to decide.

*On the other hand, elected leaders need to monitor state and federal bureaucrats whose "new rules" could recklessly strangle a sustainable industry.

In his 2012 book, "The View from Strawberry Hill; Reflections on the Hottest Year on Record," author William Sargent – son of the late governor – notes that Wampanoags' ancestors were "slurping down" oysters more than 8,000 years ago. In a note to The Clipper he adds that before "Silent Spring," Rachel Carson observed (as he quotes her) that "the ocean was getting so warm many species were getting around the biological barrier of Cape Cod."

Now sharks have gotten round the barrier. We need to be serious.

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