On a recent windy morning on a sandbar on Barnstable Beach, Corey Hendricks picked up a steel net bag. One of 125 large bags spread out, all filled with young oysters.
“Once they make it that big, they go straight to the nest,” he said.
Hendricks poured oysters from the bag into one of the 100 nests lined up on the sandbar, then spread the shellfish evenly down.
This layout does not look like a typical image of a farm, but that’s what it is: instead of agriculture, it’s aquaculture. Hendricks said the changing tides disturb the oysters and help them grow.
His company is called Duck Island Oysters and the farm is 2 acres of coastal public land controlled by the Town of Barnstable.
“I have about half a million oysters,” Hendricks said. “And we planted 200,000 quahogs last year. Another 200,000 this year.”
Shellfishermen in Massachusetts By 2022, oysters and quahogs are estimated to be worth $37 million. Like other fisheries, shell fishing is managed by towns and cities. But there has been intense debate in some Cape communities about changing those rules and what it means for the future of the industry.
Because these farms are considered a community resource, some Cape communities like Barnstable and Wellfleet have made it a point to limit resident permits.
But Barnstable is currently considering two controversial changes to their shellfish regulations. First, some people in the city want to increase the size of individual farms from 4 to 14 hectares. Also, there is a proposal to allow companies and corporate bodies to hold licenses, not just people living in cities.
If those changes are made, Hendricks said, existing farms could merge to form larger companies, making it harder for smaller farmers to compete.
“If they change the laws, they can now manage all the agricultural lands under one name under one license, the corporate name,” he said. And the company does not exist in the city, and it is not. I will not die.”
Nowadays, when a person dies or gives up their will, it returns to the city. That permit is available to other residents through a waiting list. Hendricks said changing the rules to require companies to hold permits could mean people like his mother on the city’s waiting list may not have the chance to own their own shellfish farm.
The changes to Barnstable’s regulations were proposed by Al Serpent, founder and owner of Cape Cod Oysters, one of the largest oyster growers in New England.
Surprenant is on the city’s Shellfish Advisory Board. And there’s a reason he wants to increase the size limit to 14 acres: His company manages 14 acres of oyster farms in Barnstable that are licensed to individuals who live in town, including some family members.
“And there’s probably 10 other farmers in town who have as many family members as I do,” Serpent said. What happens when mom and dad die?
If there is no other family member in the city to transfer the licenses to, he said, the licenses cannot be kept at the company under current city rules.
“What you’re doing is breaking up small family businesses,” Serpent said.
Tamar Haspel and her husband own a business called Barnstable Oysters.
“If we could have put in our two grants under corporate names, we would have,” Haspel said. And I think other small, family-run companies do the same.
For one thing, she says, allowing a company name on a shellfish license makes it easier to sell the company.
“If you put a lot of money and a lot of effort into building a business, you shouldn’t expect to walk away from it,” she said. .
The proposal to allow company names on shellfish licenses was debated by the Shellfish Advisory Board in Wellfleet over the summer.
Wellfleet Shell Fisher and board member Michael DeVasto supported the proposal. He said his attorney told him he would be better protected from lawsuits if he put the license in the name of a limited liability company or LLC.
“You know, the industry has grown a lot in the last ten years,” DeVasto said.
His Wellfleet constituent, Ryan Curley, sees things differently.
Curley said the city could create a situation similar to what has happened to the rest of the fishing industry, where corporate fleet ownership and even fishing rights have pushed out the small man.
“And that has led to lower incomes for fishermen and consolidation across the board,” Curley said.
Shellfishing is exempt from all of this, as it is locally controlled by cities. But Curley worries that if shellfish licenses — or grants, as they’re called — are held by corporations, those shellfish rights can essentially be bought and sold as private goods.
“The ability to hold a bond in a corporation essentially makes it a tradable financial asset, which is not allowed under our rules,” Curley said.
But if the change is accepted, there is nothing they can do.
Wellfleet’s Shellfish Advisory Panel ultimately voted against the proposal.
A vote is still pending in Barnstable, where Corey Hendricks hopes to see his proposal meet a similar fate.
Hendricks said he hopes to one day pass on his shell fishing license to the next generation in his family, or perhaps to an employee or apprentice. If not, he said, it should go to someone on the city’s waiting list.
“If I’m too old and no one wants to take over this farm and I pass, you know what, a 22-year-old can get that farm and get a chance to make a couple hundred thousand dollars a year and survive in this Cape Cod economy,” he said.
And this, he says, is what keeps the local economy of small shellfish farmers alive in their towns.