Jan 10 2013
On my late morning stroll to the Town Dock with the dog, leaning into a strong southerly breeze that felt like a Swiss foehn, I saw a clutch of clammers working the shallows off of Lowell (or is it Lowell's?) Point. Being a Tuesday, it is either a bunch of commercial quahoggers or the volunteers from the Barnstable Association for Recreational Shellfishing performing one of their relay projects. Recreational clammers like yours truly are permitted to clam on Wednesday and weekends, while the commercial license holders get the other days (and sometimes clam off their personal recreational licenses on their off days).
Relays are the process where clams are harvested from polluted waters -- usually up high in the estuary where the tidal flushing is very slow and the nasty bacteria make the clams inedible -- and relayed to clean beds near points of public access, or Town Ways to Water. This is back breaking work, performed by volunteers from BARS under the supervision of the town's Department of Natural Resources. Relays in Cotuit are located at Handy's Point, Cordwood Landing, Lowell's and in the cove behind Uenoyama's and the lane behind the Stucco Cottage at the corner of Oceanview Avenue and Main Street.
The clams clean themselves out after a few months, during which time the relay area is closed. Most of the relay beds local to Cotuit are accessible by foot. I don't know of any around Dead Neck/Sampsons Island.
Apparently some commercial clammers hit the Lowell Point bed pretty hard last year, hard enough that complaints were made and fingers are being pointed at some Wampanoags clammers. I saw them at it last year -- they seemed like nice enough, hardworking guys and I assumed they were Wampanoags because they had a tribal bumpersticker on their pickup truck -- but now there is a sign on the beach saying the beds are closed to commercial clammers. The volunteers who broke their backs relaying the quahogs are upset, the town is considering changes to its regulations to stop the commercials from hoovering up clams, and talks are underway with the Mashpee shellfish warden to see if it can be stopped from happening again.
The issue of native American fishing rights is an interesting one that has been played out in the courts over the years. The issue comes down to the sovereign riparian rights of a recognized member of the tribe to fish and hunt without license or regard to the regulations of whatever town they clam in.
The issue has been in the courts before. In 1984 a precedent was set in [Commonwealth v. Hendricks, et al., Barnstable D. Ct. No. 84-3415]. Quoting a page on Wampanoag fishing rights hosted at the University of Massachusetts:
"A court decision in October, 1984, [Commonwealth v. Hendricks, et al., Barnstable D. Ct. No. 84-3415] had decided in favor of Wampanoag Indians' rights to hunt and fish, holding specifically that the Wampanoag have the right to hunt and fish in order to sustain themselves, without obtaining any permits from the towns or the state. That decision became the basis for a consensus among Wampanoag people and most law enforcement agencies not to interfere with Wampanoag fishing and hunting."
The 1984 ruling was tested when two Wampanoag clammers were fined for clamming on a "closed day" in Bourne. They were fined $50 but appealed, their case making it to the state supreme court where their "aboriginal" rights were upheld.
The situation is murky in the case of this recent contretemps due to the alleged commercial interest of the Wampanoags and whether or not "sustain" as quoted above applies to the harvesting of shellfish for resale. The Cotuit-Santuit Civic Association discussed the issue at their December board meeting:
"Tom Burgess noted that he had been contacted by State Senator Dan Wolf’s office concerning alleged over-harvesting of relay shellfish. This was in response to letters written to the Governor, State legislators for our district and the Chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council. The Senator’s office will contact Kris Clark, the Mashpee Shellfish administrator, The Tribal Chairman, and former congressman Bill Delahunt, who works with the tribe to try to open up a dialogue on this concern. Meanwhile the Town of Barnstable may be exploring legal avenues to establish relay areas as Town owned grants, so Jessica Rapp Grassetti mentioned."
Declaring the relay areas "grants" is akin to fencing off a section of public property for private use -- aquaculture grants abound on Cape Cod -- there are at least three in the Three Bays complex, some very old such as the Cotuit Oyster Company's. I suppose by calling the relay beds "grants" then the town could impose a different set of regulations. Anyway, nothing like a clamming controversy to help pass a Cape Cod winter.
On a related note regarding the Dead Neck dredging proposals. I didn't make the Conservation Commission hearing on Tuesday but watched a replay via the town's website. I'd say the Three Bays Preservation/Mass Audubon application is in for a hard fight -- this is not a popular project gauging from the public comments, which ranged from socio-economic concerns to some interesting biological/habitat preservation policy issues. Shellfish are a big concern as past dredging projects have had a negative impact with water borne sediment gunking up the bed, especially in West Bay. One commercial shellfisherman from Cotuit arrived at town hall with a five-gallon bucket and pulled out a nasty blob of slimy algae he attributed to the recent dredging around Cotuit's Town Dock. I know exactly the slime he's talking about -- it's pretty much everywhere and another harbinger of a dead harbor but I don't know if I would tie it to the dredging.
And on an unrelated note -- Lowell Point has the remains of an old concrete seawall in front of it which has broken apart, revealing some iron rebar rods that have corroded into nasty sharp points. I have nightmares about stepping on one of those fangs. The armoring of the bluff with rock has also resulted in a lot of small, "non-native" sharp rock, to scatter over what was once a nice sandy beach. In general the entire beach front is a mess -- partially due to erosion, but also past construction sins. If the town wants to declare the place an important shell fish grant/relay zone t should think about a restoration project as it gets more and more use as time goes by.
Final digression: It's called "Lowell's Point" after Abbot Lawrence Lowell, the late president of Harvard who lived in the grand mansard roofed (now covered perpetually by blue tarps) mansion on the bluff above. It has the best views in Cotuit in my opinion and should be bought by the town and turned into a park as the current owners seem to be content to let the place sink into decrepitude. He was pals with my great-great grandfather, encouraged him to write his reminiscences, and even had his secretary type up the manuscript. He was also on an advisory committee appointed by the governor to review the Sacco-Vanzetti case, a role that according to Wikipedia "dogged him for the rest of his life."