Living in Liquid
Years ago, with my children still fast asleep, I would sneak out into the early morning, climb into our old canoe and paddle slowly and silently as possible around Tashmoo pond. Passing over the thick eelgrass beds that crowded the shoreline an intriguing company appeared. As I waved my hands just above the surface of the water tiny baby scallops clapped their fluted shells and headed up the water column toward me, as if on cue. Their beautiful rows of bright blue eyes flashed as they made their way towards my shadow. We were fascinated with each other’s company. Once I passed beyond them they would float back down to the comfort of their grassy beds.
“They were either too crowded or fearful and trying to get away from your canoe shadow, which could be a potential predator,” Rick Karney, a shellfish scientist and director of the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Hatchery later told me. I was deflated. We weren’t perfect companions after all. Still, our connection remains an important bridge. It is nostalgic, available now just below the surface. But, those tiny scallops connect me to aquatic life, they extend my world into liquid, into a seemingly timeless, fluid place I floated on. Today, my relationship with aquatic life is useful. It connects me, a human being surrounded by air, with the small, shelled animals that live in liquid.
Intellectually, I understand scallops, oysters, quahogs are shelled, aquatic animals that respond to light, to oxygen, have a need for food, the urge to reproduce—and they live in water. As I gained understanding of my multi-eyed companions my mind began to easily submerge with them. Because I am aware of their “habitat,” their place in relation to my own, I can fathom and recognize our interconnectedness. On this island we indulge the “expansive unknown of water” every day. At the same time we actively cloud our awareness of water’s health and the health of animals living in aquatic places around us. At times it seems we use the beauty of the expansive, “unknown” ocean to obscure our capacity to understand our surroundings—we cannot or will not see beneath the horizon of our own limited awareness.
Scallops, unlike humans, don’t change things as much as they evolve or adapt. They can move, but only so far, and not out of water. They live in the medium they’re given. The water we are connected with—drinking, flushing, washing, watering—finds them: from our stomachs to theirs, from our homes to theirs.
When asked about the water quality around the Lagoon, Rick Karney pointed out that much of the upper Lagoon is now considered a ‘Dead Zone.’ 93% of the bottom species no longer survive. There is no oxygen in the water, and it can’t support any life. He said, “Not much can live in these waters.” So, different from what first meets the eye, our island waters are not pristine, and the wild stock of the many shellfish and fin-fish are in jeopardy. Many of the eelgrass beds are gone and the protective nurseries for the tiny shell and fin-fish in many places simply no longer exist. The island’s water quality is in serious trouble.
The saltwater ponds on the island have been part of an extended study of water quality conducted by the towns, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and the Mass Estuary Project. The results of the collected data are coming in. Our waterways, almost without exception, are suffering from excess nitrogen flowing through the ground water into ponds. The excess nitrogen is coming from multiple sources—acid rain from the Midwest, fertilizer from lawns, golf courses and farming, and by far, the biggest culprit of all, is urine from our septic systems. All these sources of nitrogen are seeping into the ground water and moving at one foot a day towards our water bodies.
Now that some conclusions have been drawn from the Mass Estuary Project on particular Island ponds, the State has dictated a certain percentage of nitrogen be removed from each tested pond in order to restore the health of the pond. So far the only viable solution is to sewer around down island ponds. Some sewering has already happened around Edgartown Great Pond and the Lagoon, which has helped, but a great deal more is needed. Only the very congested areas down island can be sewered. The rural areas of the island may be suited for onsite Innovative Alternative septic systems (IA). These systems can be difficult to justify, as they remove a minimum of nitrogen, are relatively expensive and require a great deal of monitoring and maintenance. Other possible nitrogen reducers are composting toilets, and urine separating toilets. These have gained popularity in Europe.
Melinda Loberg, President Tisbury Waterways, is working on a different aspect of capturing pollutants from ‘road run-off’ before they enter the waterways. “We have always thought of the oceans as an endless resource that can be used for dumping all of our waste and pollutants. We thought the vastness of the oceans would be able to absorb all of our problems. As it turns out we now know that our waters are indeed finite and are suffering from all of our excesses. We can’t continue to pass on our problems into the waters around the Vineyard. It is time to take responsibility for our own behavior and do something about it here on island.”
She and her group have worked for years with the town to install catch basins to help remove the heavy metals and other pollutants that get washed down the town roads in a rainstorm. In addition, they just installed a bio-swale rain garden at the bottom of Owen Little Way, where native vegetation has been planted in a constructed trench of crushed rock and loam to filter the water that rushes through on the way to Tisbury harbor. They are also responsible for securing pump-out boats to be available to the yachting community, so they can make sure to pump their heads rather than run the risk of polluting the waters. And lastly they have been responsible for spearheading the dredging of the inner harbor channel in Vineyard Haven.
Processing waste and blocking run-off are two methods of improving the health of our waters. Natural filtering is another. Aquaculture in the multiple ponds around the island not only produces exceptional food, it helps to naturally clean our ponds. Oysters are known to filter up to 50 gallons of water, full of algae and other food sources, a day.
The Sweet Neck Oyster Farm, in Katama Bay, run by Jack Blake and his wife Sue, is an environmentally sound, sustainable business—using only water and shellfish. The one-knot current flowing through the breach cleans and feeds his stock with nutrient rich water. He and seven other families maintain oyster farms in Katama Bay.
It is exciting when Jack and members of the other family farmers gather to collect their share of 4 million oyster seed from the Muscungus Bay Aquaculture hatchery in Maine.
Each person receives his own bundle of seed, in which huddle 600,000 baby oysters. “You can’t distribute them on a windy day because they are so tiny even a slight wind could blow them away,” Jack stressed.
Jack has designed large rectangular wooden structures to provide a safe nursery. Nutrient rich water passes through the baby seed, and they double in size each week. Later, a sorter separates the larger seed, and they are put in grow-out cages. “The animals are constantly handled, Jack says, as they are moved and tumbled to be cleaned for market.” If by chance they pass the ideal market size the “jumbos” are turned loose along the shore, where they spawn.
Neighbors on Chappy and Edgartown have been very supportive. Jack says residents appear to be watching the use of fertilizers and pesticides that could leach into the bay. Many people have small green belts immediately around their houses and have left acres of natural “Vineyard lawns” to catch any run off, or contaminates that might reach the waters edge. Responsible homeowners and the significant natural flushing of Katama Bay have helped to make its oysters some of the most sought after on the island.
Rick Karney has long been responsible for hatching and releasing shellfish into the waters around Martha’s Vineyard. He’s witnessed the changes in eelgrass habitat, the added nitrogen loading, the algae and slow asphyxiation of pond life. Recently, Rick gave a talk at the Unitarian Church on the history of man and the humble quahog. He said that about 160,000 years ago in South Africa there was a terrible drought that created a wide swath of uninhabitable land. Few people survived. 600 or so migrated to Pinnacle Point on the South African Coast. There the charcoal remains of shellfish were found that later proved to be the food source that helped the people survive. Ocher dyes and shell jewelry was also found indicating a symbolic use of body paint and jewelry. Evidence was discovered that the tides and moon phases were studied in order to have the best access to quahogs. A small but significant culture formed. Through these findings, the quahog—rich in Omega 3 oils—has been credited with the survival of people considered an important part of our ancestral human tree.
“Quahogs may be low on the food chain, but this life form is very successful, they have been around for about 60 million years, and don’t need eyes or a head. “We have a lot to be thankful for from this eyeless headless creature. I like to think of it as very Zen,” he said.