Living on Martha’s Vineyard we are lucky enough to have a vibrant farming community. We support and love our farms, and we are big into the concept of “farm-to-table” in our restaurants and even our schools. However, we don’t often talk about what’s going on in our waters which we also “farm” in way.
In comes the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group. This small organization has an enormous impact on the sustainability of our waters.
With the amount of people we have fishing our waters and natural predators, the shellfish population could easily reach really low levels or even disappear. The MVSG gives Mother Nature that extra little bit of help in keeping the waters populated with scallops, oysters, and clams.
When I visited the MVSG last week, they were getting ready to spawn clams. Hatchery Manager, Amandine Surier Hall took me on a tour to learn about what goes into this process.
These clams really have a good life for a while. There were 35 clams, from Edgartown, Chilmark, and Oak Bluffs, living the life for the past 4 – 6 weeks. They were kept in warm, clean water, fed a special mix of algae, and just got to hang out. As Amandine said, they were living a “spa” lifestyle.
Then, it’s off to the spawning table where they will be placed in a water bath and exposed to alternating warm and cool currents. This will coax the clams into releasing their sperm and eggs. To my surprise, this can actually take quite awhile. So, MVSG staff will sometimes talk to the clams for a little encouragement. You have to have a lot of patience during this phase.
Then the sperm and eggs are mixed together. When all goes well, larvae are created. You may wonder what can 35 clams do to help sustain the clam population? Well, clams play the numbers game. Those clams can produce up to 20 million larvae. Pretty impressive.
For the first two weeks, clams are these strange, alien looking swimming larvae. Then they go through metamorphosis and now you have a perfect, sweet little clam. It’s now a sedentary creature. The clams will be kept at the hatchery for a bit longer and then given to the shellfish constables.
Funded by all six Island towns, the MVSG is sort of a CSA for the towns. Each town gets a portion of the MVSG’s crop. The Shellfish Constables will help the clams survive the “nursery” phase of their lives for a couple of months, and then release them into the wild when ready.
Have you ever seen the floating boxes in Sengekontacket? Those are floating sand boxes for clams. The clams are kept there when they’re young, safe from crabs and other predators. Once the water tempatures cool and the crabs aren’t so abundant, the clams are released into the wild.
How cool, I had no idea how well these clams are cared for. Well at least until we go clamming and then they end up steamed in my white wine and butter sauce or grilled up. Oh how I love fresh clams!
Last year, the MVSG planted 10 million baby clams in the ponds. Now can you see how important the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group is to Martha’s Vineyard. These forgotten farmers are doing their part to help keep our waters populated with shellfish and keep our waters clean.
The shellfish that are being added to the water are bivalves. Not only an amazing food, bivalves are the only protein that has zero impact on the environment and actually improves the quality of the water they inhabit. They are like little biofilters, they clean the water that surrounds them. The bivalves feed on all that algae that can be harmful and pollute water. I would say that shellfish are pretty important to us, and an added bonus – they’re pretty tasty.
Though town funded, the MVSG has had a number of large expenses over the last couple of years, and the group needs to bridge the gap between town funding and their expenses.
How Can You Help Support MVSG?
On Saturday night, April 20th, from 7 – 10 p.m., the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group will host its second annual Shellfish Extravaganza and Chowder Contest at the Chilmark Community Center.
Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish will be playing some Island favs and there will be a huge raw bar with $1 local oysters from Edgartown, West Tisbury, and Menesmsha, so you can indulge in the finest oysters New England has to offer.
Let’s discuss the Chowder Contest. New this year, this is going to be a fiercely competitive and tasty assortment of chowders.
A number of favorite Island restaurants including Among the Flowers, State Road, The Beach Plum Inn, Art Cliff Diner, Herring Run Kitchen, The Outersmost Inn, The Port Hunter, and Lucky Hank’s. With these restaurants, you’ve got some amazing chefs competing in this fun event, like Aaron Oster, Chris Fisher, and Teddy Diggs, just to name a few.
Aside from the amazing shellfish you’ll be enjoying, Johnny Hoy will be playing, and you know that means that there will be a whole lot of dancing happening. There is also a silent auction with over 40 items to bid on, including this amazing Wampum necklace made by Kate Taylor. I love the little beads on this gorgeous piece. For $25 a person, I think you’ll be happy as a clam to support such a wonderful non-profit organization.
So next time you’re wading through the lagoon searching for clams, remember that the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group is helping to keep these beloved Vineyard activities viable for us and for future generations to come.
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