Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
Volume 41 Issue 20 • Sept. 22-28, 2011
now in our 41th season

Coastal Heritage

by Dr. Sarah D. Oktay
Managing Director UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station

Nantucket is defined by many things, but the overarching one is the water that surrounds us and the nature of life in a fishbowl 26 miles out to sea.  If you are on-island next week, you should check out two events that remind us of our natural heritage and local treasures including the bays, our coastal waters, and the various fisheries which support so many islanders and island businesses.  First on Thursday, September 29 and Friday, September 30 will be the Coastal Communities Conference called “Living on the Edge” Nantucket 2011: Creating A Blueprint For Our Coast.  This conference is designed for planners, state officials, fisheries experts, and laypeople interested in how people make laws and establish procedures that enable sea side dwellers and those that depend on the water for their livelihood (or in the case of creatures and habitat—for life itself) to thrive side-by-side.  As Massachusetts evaluates how and where to co-locate wind mills, offshore green energy projects, shipping lanes, marine sanctuaries, fishing zones, and the myriad of things that can go on or under the water, planning efforts and fair use doctrine come into play. Compatible fair use between public and private entities can be tricky and our long association with the sea does not always make that easier.

On May 28, 2008, Governor Deval Patrick signed the Oceans Act of 2008, legislation that required Massachusetts to develop a first-in-the-nation comprehensive plan to manage development in its state waters, balancing natural resource preservation with traditional and new uses, including renewable energy.  The plan was completed in December of 2009, but Nantucket planning officials were not included in the group of advisors and stakeholders (Ocean Advisory Commission or OAC) who were designated to help oversee the plan’s creation and review information in the plan.  After some wrangling, Marine Superintendent David Fronzuto, and Planning Department Director Andrew Vorce convinced state officials to include them in all ongoing ocean planning efforts.

From a press release out of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs: “The final ocean management plan provides a comprehensive framework for managing, reviewing and permitting proposed uses of state waters.  Previously, development in state waters has been handled on an ad hoc basis.  The plan provides a roadmap for both environmental protection and sustainable use of ocean resources going forward.  Like the draft plan, the final ocean plan creates three management categories for the planning area defined by the Oceans Act: coastal waters at least 0.3 nautical miles seaward of mean high water (excluding the most developed harbor and port areas), and then extending to the three-mile limit of state control.”  So in plain language, up to now, there was no official oversight or rhyme or reason as to who got to do what in our coastal waters.  Three miles from shore is the beginning of federal jurisdiction.
The public trust doctrine is the principle that certain resources are preserved for public use, and that the government is required to maintain them for the public's reasonable use.  Access along the shoreline is defined by the Public Trust doctrine, which holds that the citizenry has certain rights of access along the shore, typically for fishing, shellfishing, and navigation.  In some states, these rights include the right to walk in either the intertidal area between the low and high tides lines (Massachusetts and Maine) or the dry sand area above the high-tide line (most other states).  However, the definition of just which parts of the shoreline are open for access (sub-tidal, inter-tidal, or above the high tide line) and the purposes for which the access may be used varies between states.

From the Coastal Communities Conference website ( “What's often missing from planning is science-based information that evaluates the compatibility of conflicting uses and environmental impacts.  New tools are available to help analyze current and anticipated uses of ocean and coastal areas to enable communities to achieve maximum economic and social benefits while ensuring that the ocean remains ecologically healthy.  There is a near term need to develop a regional response for our waterfront planning since the federal government is working towards a mandatory coastal waters management strategy which includes ecosystem protection. The 2011 Coastal Communities Conference, with its focus on the land/sea interface, will highlight the elements of Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning in the context of the competing uses in the near shore—how to knit together the shared edges between the blue water, the near shore, and the watershed. Plan to come together with us on Nantucket as we explore new approaches and apply those understandings to benefit our coastal communities.  This conference is co-hosted by ReMain Nantucket and Egan Maritime Institute in collaboration with the Massachusetts Ocean Partnership, The Nature Conservancy, Maria Mitchell Association, the Urban Harbors Institute, UMass Boston, and the UMASS Boston Nantucket Field Station.” Both of these events are sponsored by reMain Nantucket and the Egan Institute.  For more details, visit:  Attending the conference costs $125 and includes lunch, entrance to the Whaling Museum, and the cocktail receptions.  Registration is closed, but they may be accepting late attendees, call Virna Gonzalez (Events Manager) at reMain Nantucket at 508-901-4143 for details. You can learn much more about state planning efforts at the Massachusetts Ocean partnership website at  A UMass Boston student and Nantucket Field Station colleague, Kim Starbuck, will be here on island for the conference along with Jack Wiggin of Urban Harbors institute whose group created the 2009 Update to the Nantucket and Madaket Harbors Plan and is currently working on the Shellfish Management Plan with an advisory group and the Marine and Coastal Resources Department (information at ).

Maritime Festival

On Saturday, October 1, the 2011 Maritime Festival will take place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Children’s Beach and at Brant Point.  The purpose of the Maritime Festival is to celebrate the joy of living on an island and to experience maritime activities at the shore front.  The Maritime Festival evolved from Egan Institute board members who remembered and enjoyed SeaFest celebrations in the 70s and 80s.  The festival will be packed with free activities for the whole family, including boat races, shucking contests, entertainment by local musical groups, art projects, and face painting. Food will be available for purchase from Nucci’s and the Sons of American Legion.  This festival is being held on the first day of Family Scalloping Season, October 1.  No seaside festival is complete here unless we include bay scallops, which have sustained island families and our economy for many years.  Nantucket is home to the last commercially viable “wild” bay scallop fishery and preserving this treasure is, in a way, tantamount to preserving Nantucket.  Other fisheries up and down the East Coast have been significantly dependent on augmenting their scallop populations with scallops grown in cages or otherwise introduced into the population.  Although the Town of Nantucket does provide spat scallop that have been grown out from larvae as a way to boost recruitment (number of baby scallops who decided to stick around and grow to adulthood), the population in the harbor is just barely able to procreate enough, barring any disasters, to replenish the stock.  A severe storm, or algae bloom or metabolic deaths due to too hot of water, or loss of eelgrass due to shading of the water column, put stress on our population that make it vulnerable to loss. 

Let’s back up a bit for those who may not know a lot about our famous native.  A scallop is a marine bivalve mollusk of the family Pectinidae.  Scallops are found in all of the world's oceans.  Many scallops are highly prized as a food source and the brightly colored, fan-shaped shells of some scallops, with their radiating fluted pattern, are valued by shell collectors. From the website, Online Etymology Dictionary, the word "scallop" is derived from the Old French escalope, which means "shell"; this "bivalve mollusk,” first named in the 1400s, takes its name from a variant of eschalope which probably derived originally from a Germanic source. Many paintings of Venus, the Roman goddess of love and fertility, included a scallop shell in the painting to identify her.  This is evident in Botticelli's classically inspired The Birth of Venus (also known as Venus on the half-shell).  One legend of the Way of St. James holds that the route was seen as a sort of fertility pilgrimage, undertaken when a young couple desired to bear offspring. The scallop shell is believed to have originally been carried therefore by pagans as a symbol of fertility.

There are many things that can endanger a scallop population.  Storms that occur the two times a year when scallop larvae are in the water (late spring and early fall) can send scallop larvae out of the bay and into the ocean where water depth and reduced suitable substrate exists to support them. Storms can also stir up silt and sediment that can choke out the gills and filtering apparatus of the scallop.  Winter storms like Nor’easters push seed and adult scallops onto shore.  Nantucketers are especially responsive and almost heartbreakingly willing to gather together on bitter cold mornings after large storm events to scoop up the scallops and return them to the safety and relative warmth of the water.  Even persistent northerlies (winds from the north) can stack scallops like sea foam on the beaches on the southern side of Nantucket Harbor.

Bay scallops are filter feeders and eat plankton (which could include some inadvertent cannibalism) in the water column.  Siphons bring water over a filtering structure, where food becomes trapped in mucus.  Next, the cilia on the structure move the food toward the mouth. Then, the food is digested in the stomach and digestive gland. Waste is passed on through the intestine and exits via the anus. Like many filters feeders, if there is something dangerous in the water, a scallop is rarely going to be able to avoid that or selectively feed. Sometimes due to a combination of factors, the algae species present can “bloom” or increase rapidly in numbers, tinting the water and causing adverse impacts.  The phenomenon is not that different from the way cancer cells multiply in tissue: something triggers a beneficial growth situation, introducing more food, a change in temperature, or something else metabolically advantageous that causes these organisms to multiply out of control.  The term “red tide” is usually used by lay people to refer to any number of large explosions of algae populations.  Oceanographers and marine biologists use the term “harmful algal blooms” (HABs) to refer to large outbreaks of algae that release toxins that can be concentrated in creatures which ingest algae, or can cause fish kills and other adverse effects.  In New England, and more specifically Massachusetts, red tide was relatively unknown until 1972.  According to the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (Mass-DMF), during the fall of 1972, Hurricane Carrie slowly passed through the Gulf of Maine during a massive toxic algal bloom in the Bay of Fundy.  The counter-clockwise winds intensified the traditional water current patterns and deposited red tide dinoflagellates known as Alexandrium fundyense/ tamarense, along the Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts coasts.  This was the beginning of the red tide menace in the Bay State. (

Just a month ago we discussed eelgrass beds and their function as habitat for bay scallops ( Coastal planning efforts, whether in the harbor as part of the Nantucket and Madaket Harbors Plan ( or in state and regional planning efforts for coastal waters, often is concentrated on protecting resources like eelgrass beds while allowing boaters, fishermen, docks and other public and private access to exist. The balance between all these users or stakeholders is key, and protecting natural resources while allowing fair use goes back to decision made and communication between users during a planning process. It doesn’t help to allow a lot more boats in the harbor if that drives away scallops or keeps swimmers from using the area.

The past few years a more worrisome alga has been showing up in the upper and middle harbor as far west as the field station harbor front in Quaise. This is the infamous rust tide caused by the dinoflagellate (small unarmored 2-8 cell organism with flagellas or little whip like tails, cute but deadly) called Cochlodium polykrikoides. The filter feeding scallops ingest the dinoflagellate in the water column, which although it does not kill the scallop, leads to decreased body mass weights.  Think of it as trying to eat healthy veggies and proteins and only finding watermelon to eat.  In Japan and Korea, this dinoflagellate has been blamed for fish kills and is often called a “red tide” organism. It is different from the Brown tide organism (Aureococcus anophagefferens) which almost completely decimated the bay scallop population in Peconic Bay (Long Island) in 1985. Of course, until you get these critters under a microscope, they all look the same!

University of Massachusetts Dartmouth’s School of Marine Science doctoral candidate and beloved Nantucket Marine Biology teacher, Val Hall has been working on the dynamics of the scallop spawn and population for several years. She has been collecting data on the range of sizes and age classes of scallops in the harbor and working to determine the significance of the Fall spawn scallop to the overall health of the bay scallop fishery. Bay scallops (Argopecten irradians irradians (L.)), have a relatively short life span, generally between 18-22 months in the northeastern USA, and it is theorized that only a few scallops survive to participate in a second spawning event. In northern areas like Nantucket, bay scallops can spawn in It can be argued that the bay scallops process of having two spawning periods, one in late spring and one in early fall, is a type of “bet hedging” that allows a population to overcome hurricanes, red and rust tides and other natural or not so natural disasters. 

States up and down the east coast experience the same dangers for recruitment and retention of bay scallops.  In North Carolina, the bay scallop harvest has decreased to essentially no landings because of recruitment failure resulting from a red tide event in 1987, several hurricanes in the 1990’s and cownose ray predation.  Hopefully with good planning and excellent science, we can avoid that here.


Nantucket’s most complete events & arts calendar • Established 1970 • © © 2024  Yesterday's Island •