Navigating the Cape Cod Region’s Blue Economy

Jan 1, 2021 Profiles In Blue: Rick Karney

By Rick Karney, Director & Shellfish Biologist at Marthas Vineyard Shellfish Group

Since 1976, I have been the shellfish biologist and director of the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group Inc., a nonprofit consortium of the shellfish departments of six towns on Martha’s Vineyard. It has been personally rewarding to have played a supporting role in the development of the shellfish industry. In my tenure with the shellfish group, I have carried out a successful community-based resource development program for the commercially important shellfish species (quahogs, bay scallops, oysters, and mussels) on Martha’s Vineyard.

Presently, the hatchery operation produces over 40 million seed shellfish annually and, in 2016, Vineyard shellfish farmers were paid over $3.8 million for their aquaculture products. Shellfish aquaculture is the quintessential component of the Cape and Islands’ Blue Economy. Providing employment and enjoyment for residents and visitors alike, the region’s renewable shellfish resources ideally support both year-round and seasonal economies. In addition, the production of filter-feeding shellfish improves the region’s marine environments that are the ultimate source of the region’s wealth.

Despite the demonstrated social, economic, and environmental benefits of shellfish aquaculture, real and perceived conflicts with other user groups of the marine common hamper expansion of this green industry. Foremost is the opposition by waterfront homeowners to the creation of new shellfish farms within their view scape. Much of this opposition is based on a misunderstanding of the impacts to these residents and may well be mitigated by aquaculture educational efforts geared to the general public. Growers need to be aware of neighbors’ concerns and both sides need to work in good faith to resolve conflicts both real and imagined.

With limited inshore acreage and inevitable user conflicts, substantial growth in the aquaculture industry will require expansion into less-congested offshore areas. Offshore aquaculture requires the development of culture methods for species, like mussels and kelp, amenable to open water habitats and the design of gear able to withstand deployments in high energy marine environments. Offshore wind facilities may offer opportunities for collaboration.

Water quality is crucial to all our shellfish resources, both public and private. Nitrogen overloads from human development fuel algal blooms that degrade marine waters making them unsuitable for aquaculture and many other facets of the blue economy. Restoration and protection of marine water quality will require substantial investment to eliminate nitrogen inputs. Aquaculture bioremediation can help to lower the nitrogen levels already in our embayments.

The Cape Cod Blue Economy Project was initiated by the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce with regional partners in 2016 to grow the marine technology sectors, build a prepared and educated workforce, collaborate with government agencies, regional nonprofits and the private sector, while recognizing that the environment is our economy — accepting the responsibility to steward growth sustainably.