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Success Stories - Wampanoag Tribe | Massachusetts

Conservation: Our purpose. Our passion.
David Vanderhoop, Wampanoag Aquinnah Shellfish Hatchery
Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah)
Aquinnah, Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts

By Diane Baedeker Petit, Public Affairs Officer, NRCS Massachusetts

Preserving an ancestral resource: Wampanoag Tribe conservation practices protect Menemsha Pond

"Menemsha Pond has fed our ancestors for thousands of years. It's very important to the Wampanoag people," says David Vanderhoop, Manager of the Wampanoag Aquinnah Shellfish Hatchery and a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), on the island of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. The tribe's aquaculture operation produces oysters in Menemsha Pond and markets them as "Tomahawk Oysters" to local stores and restaurants.

David Vanderhoop, Manager of the Wampanoag Aquinnah Shellfish Hatchery and a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), on the island of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts."We've harvested from the pond since time immemorial. Every single Wampanoag has had his ancestors eat from this pond. I believe it's a very, very important resource to keep healthy. That's why I'm so passionate in trying to make sure this project is a success."

Vanderhoop is speaking about the tribe's participation in a pilot project with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to develop best management practices (BMPs) for shellfish aquaculture. Growers on Martha's Vineyard and the Cape Cod mainland were eligible for technical and financial assistance to implement the practices through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), a first-in-the-nation application of this federal farm conservation program.

Shellfish aquaculture best management practices protect water quality by controlling oil and gasoline emissions from outboard motors, endangered species through gear management, and shellfish health through buffers, record keeping and monitoring.

The Wampanoag Tribe has run the shellfish hatchery since 1999, when David's brother Matthew Vanderhoop started the project. The tribe had run a pilot aquaculture project in the 1970s, successfully growing scallops until funding ran out and the project ended.

"We decided that we would put this hatchery up for not only the economic viability of growing oysters, but also to help the pond stay healthy. With all the native shellfish in the pond the hard shell clam, the quahog, the scallop, the soft shell clam and oysters, "It's an important natural resource not only for the tribal people but also the non-tribal people in the town," says Vanderhoop.

Oysters in Menemsha Pond and markets them as Vanderhoop explains that over-fishing and pollution have contributed to decline of shellfish populations in many places on the East Coast. "With this project, and with the help of all the different grants that we've gotten, we've been able to help maintain the shellfish population in the pond,"says Vanderhoop.

Although the aquaculture operation has had environmental benefits for the pond, there has been some impact, as well. The tribe has been proactive about reducing its impact.

"We grow on top of the water simply because that system is a lot less maintenance. With our system, the oysters are in mesh bags that float on the surface. To clean the bags, all we do is flip the bag over once every two to three weeks. The sun bakes off the algae that grow on the bags. It's a lot less maintenance than a deep water system," explains Vanderhoop.

The bags are kept afloat with Styrofoam tubes, called noodles, similar to the colorful ones that kids float on in a swimming pool. Because of the wave action in Menemsha Pond, which opens onto Vineyard Sound, the tubes get chipped and the chips wash ashore and accumulate in the eel grass.

"The last couple of years, we had a beach clean up in the spring and summer. We walk the beaches and gather the eel grass. We take it upon ourselves to go in there and clean it up," says Vanderhoop. "Any bags that get loose or noodles that come off, we take it seriously. If it comes from us, we clean it up. Even if it doesn't come from us, we clean up the trash and keep the environment clean."

"In 2005, our director at the time, Rob Garrison, put his feelers out and asked different agencies if they could be of assistance to us," remembers Vanderhoop. "We contacted NRCS and was able to secure some funding for specific parts of the project, mainly making sure that the shoreline stayed as pristine as before we started. The help that we got from the NRCS was just what we needed at the time."

Oysters in mesh bags."I feel really thankful that the NRCS was able to help us in that way," says Vanderhoop, adding that NRCS assistance not only helped them with their environmental concerns but also with their relationship with the town. "I think it's had a positive effect on what this project has to offer the tribal members and non-members."

"The Wampanoag Tribe was the first aquaculture operation to sign onto the fledgling EQIP shellfish program," says NRCS District Conservationist Donald Liptack, who oversees the agency's Barnstable field office. "They also provided valuable input for the development of the best management practices."

Liptack adds the Massachusetts Aquaculture Association and the Southeastern Massachusetts Aquaculture Center were also involved in development of the BMPs and outreach efforts.

The operation's BMPs have included replacing the foam noodles with hard plastic noodles that won't chip. "That has been a heavy expense in terms of time and money but we've shifted that way because it's better for the environment," says Vanderhoop. "We had as many as 12,500 bags out there at once and we'se had to change the noodles on each one of those bags because they had a small impact on the environment."

Vanderhoop explains their oyster aquaculture process:

"We spawn them here in the lab, they live here for six to eight months, then we put them out in the field in Menemsha Pond. From the hatchery they are moved into an upweller system, which is a system where the water is funneled through bins with screens that the oysters are sitting on. The water goes in one end, goes through the oysters and out the other end. They remain there for another three to four months.

"From the upweller they've moved to a shallow grow-out site. It takes two and a half to three and a half years for an oyster to reach maturity or marketable size, which is over three inches. The bags are different size mesh and are floated on top of the water. A lot of oyster growers put their oysters in cages which go on the bottom. We are one of the few that grow ours on top of the water.

"I believe that with this operation has actually enhanced the health of the pond. We maintain between two million and three and a half million oysters in the pond. These, along with other shellfish, are filter feeders and they do filter out much of the nitrites and nitrates, whether they come from the natural influx or man-made influx. So, I think it's impacted the health of the pond in a good way,"says Vanderhoop.

Vanderhoop points out another environmental consideration: Herring Creek, which flows into Menemsha Pond, is a natural anadromous fish run for alewives and herring come from the salt water through the Herring Creek and into the brackish water of nearby Squibnocket Pond.

"With this project and the help of the NRCS, we've been able to control a lot of the waste management and the environmental impact that we could have had on the area," says Vanderhoop. "We'll continue to maintain the area as pristine as possible, as it was when my ancestors were here. We are conservation minded and we're here for the good of the town. It's important today but it's also important to my children and my people."