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By Jennifer Lade  June 24, 2013 

A Plymouth Town Meeting vote to rebuild a deteriorating T-Wharf in historic downtown may also create opportunities for building a local aquaculture industry.

The method of seafood farming can augment local commercial fishing endeavors and brings with it environmental benefits, according to aquaculture supporters, but it has been slow to catch on in the region. Plymouth’s vote in April, intended to mitigate overcrowding at another town wharf, could help the town grow aquaculture business by creating more wharf space to deal with shellfish harvests.

“The town sees it as a complement to the fishing industry, something that we’d like to see continue to grow,” said David Gould, director of Plymouth’s Department of Marine and Environmental Affairs.

Town Meeting approved $1.25 million to rebuild T-Wharf, which is currently closed to vehicles because of its condition. That money would be a local match to a grant Plymouth applied for a year ago with the state Seaport Advisory Council to fund the $4.5 million project.

“It sort of depends on when we hear back from the Commonwealth,” Gould said, regarding the timeline for the project, the first phase of which would rebuild T-Wharf and extend the town pier.

Currently, Plymouth has issued six licenses for four-acre aquaculture sites on Commonweatlh tidelands, and a seventh license is in the application process. The Duxbury-based Island Creek Oysters was approved at the June 11 selectmen’s meeting to start the permitting process to farm on 10-acres of private tidelands, Gould said.

In addition, he said, there are 50 people on the waiting list for a permit.

The town would like to see all the permit holders using a common commercial wharf for their landings. Once the wharf is rebuilt, Plymouth will be able to issue more permits for aquaculture.

“We consider it a sustainable industry,” Gould said, noting that it simultaneously provides food and improves the water quality. Duxbury and Wellfleet have a lot of aquaculture activity currently, Gould said, but he sees the industry expanding throughout the region and beyond, in time.

“I think there’ll be a lot of activity not just in Massachusetts but up and down the East Coast,” he said.

Chance Perks, a New Bedford native and an agricultural consultant working at UMass Dartmouth, expanded on Gould’s enthusiasm for aquaculture. Farming shellfish, such as quahogs and oysters, is a “no-brainer,” Perks said.

“This is only going to add to our economic ability as a town.”

When it comes to sustainability, aquaculture is superior to fishing. Rather than depleting ocean supplies of fish, aquaculture adds to the supply and reduces the nitrogen load of the ocean in the process, actually cleaning the water.

Meanwhile, Perks encouraged people to look at commercial fishing like forestry or mining: it is taking a resource that will be depleted if not handled properly.

“It’s the last frontier where you’re able to go and catch something wild,” he said. “Aquaculture is clearly the next step.”

Although aquaculture will be much smaller in scope for the foreseeable future, Perks and Gould agreed that it would be a complement to, rather than competition for commercial fishing enterprises.

Perks said that as fishing companies bow under the weight of heavy regulations, aquaculture could supplement their catch. “Here, you’re able to grow,” he said.

In addition, because shellfish farming takes place on the ocean floor, the rigs would not interfere with either commercial or recreational boating.

“We’re not here to compete with you, we’re here to find you a better way,” Perks said.

Gould envisioned commercial fishing boats checking their aquaculture rigs on their way back into port.

It’s “one more way to have some income,” he said, adding that commercial fishing requires a significant investment of equipment and aquaculture has the potential to be cheaper for the business owner.

New Bedford and surrounding towns do not have much of an aquaculture presence yet. The industry is gaining traction in Massachusetts and Rhode Island as well, but it might take time to see it crop up everywhere.

Some of the issues are simply logistics; it takes a coordinated effort to “get everybody at the same table” to establish aquaculture in a town’s waters, Perks said.

While the SouthCoast is not yet a hotbed of aquaculture activity, there are active seafood farmers there, according to Bob Field, owner of Copper Beech Farm.

Field has been farming oysters in Mattapoisett for the last five or six years and now has about 100,000 oysters in his Mattapoisett nursery. At least three other operations are happening on the SouthCoast, he said, naming seafood farmers in Marion, Wareham and Fairhaven.

But Field agreed about the need for towns to establish aquaculture interests, noting that communities must address competing interests in local waters such as recreational boating, fishing, and marine views. Mattapoisett, he said, struggled to find that balance but eventually succeeded in creating regulations to address aquaculture.

“The (industry) potential is certainly there and the interest of people to do it is certainly there,” said Field. “But this town had quite a struggle”»when other people wanted to do it and they were all concentrating in the same area.”

Field also sees the industry as viable for business owners seeking to make a living.

“I’m on the way to doing that,” he said about Copper Beech’s profits. “I’m not there yet, but there certainly are places out there doing just that.”

Existing concerns about the industry include vandalism and food safety. Perks said it is a matter of promoting locally-sourced food, as has been done with traditional agriculture in the form of buy local campaigns and farmers markets. “But it’s also a wider idea…of being comfortable with food growing in your backyard.”

“As with everything, education is a big part of it,” Perks said of shaping public opinion on aquaculture. He said town shellfish wardens would have a large role to play in this area.

“We just have to as a culture become more comfortable with it.”