It is a familiar site in the Vineyard in the summer going back hundreds of years: shellfishermen at low tide in the mornings raking the sandy bottom of Sengekontacket Pond and filling wire bushel baskets with quahaugs.
But with the recent decision by the state Division of Marine Fisheries to close the pond to shellfishing for four months in the peak summer season because of high levels of dangerous bacteria, many say the Island has both lost a source of income and recreation, as well as a link to its past and seagoing heritage.
"Something needs to be done, and something needs to be done now," said Earl Peters, chairman of the Oak Bluffs shellfish committee. "People come here specifically to go shellfishing in Sengekontacket in the summer, and we're going to drive them away."
Shellfisherman Steve Amaral agreed. "If we don't do something to fix that pond and reopen it to shellfishing [in the summer], who can we blame?" he said. "We can't let that important part of the Vineyard just slip away without doing something."
Mr. Peters and Mr. Amaral were among several shellfishermen who attended a recent selectmen's meeting in Oak Bluffs to vent their frustration over the pond closure. While some said they were upset with the state fishery and the methodology used to test the waters, most directed their venom toward the sea ducks and cormorants they feel are the cause of the high bacteria levels.
For the first time in its history, the pond that spans Edgartown and Oak Bluffs will be closed until the end of September. The decision was made in July after tests revealed unsafe levels of fecal coliform bacteria. The maximum permissible level of fecal coliform is 28 bacterial colonies per 100 milliliters of water. Readings at eight stations were greater than 51, the highest concentration the testing system registers.
In no uncertain terms, shellfishermen at the recent meeting in Oak Bluffs blamed the sea ducks and cormorants and advocated using lethal force if necessary to get rid of the bird problem.
"I say we go down there with a shotgun and we get rid of them; I propose we have a Monster Goose Tournament," said Mr. Peters, referring to the controversial Oak Bluffs Monster Shark Tournament.
"At the very least, we should put someone in a boat and go down there with a shotgun filled with blanks and scare them away a couple of times a day," said Paul Humbert.
Mr. Peters urged selectmen to take immediate action instead of creating a committee to discuss the matter further or debating the merits of killing the birds.
"We need to take the bull by the horns here, that pond is jam-packed with shellfish and the people can't get to them," he said.
He also said the state fishery should have done more testing before closing the pond. If testing was done in deeper waters and at both high and low tide, he said, it would be representative of the actual bacteria levels. He also questioned the validity of the high bacteria readings and whether the shellfish were unsafe to eat.
"I don't like the idea that you cannot take shellfish from the pond but it's still okay to swim. . . And what's the idea behind the [four month] closure, aren't the birds going to the bathroom in the pond year-round?" he said.
Shellfish constable David Grunden admitted he too was frustrated by the state's testing methods. He said state fishery officials have ignored his request they contact him before they do the testing. Although he said the state testing may not be the most accurate representation of the average bacteria counts, a recent round of testing he conducted revealed bacteria counts well above the state limits.
"I agree we have a problem with high bacteria counts . . . I don't dispute that," he said.
Mr. Grunden said cormorants are protected under federal law and he doubted the town would ever receive a permit to use lethal force on the birds. As for using other techniques to disrupt the birds and scare them away - like installing a propane cannon or firing nonlethal shells - the town would also need a permit, he said.
Mr. Grunden said even a simple solution to scaring away the birds, like bringing a dog to Sarson's Island to chase them away, might require some kind of a permit.
"If your dog naturally chases a bird in your backyard then it's okay - but if you knowingly bring a dog to an area to chase away the birds that's considered harassment and it requires a permit," Mr. Grunden said.
The bureaucratic roadblocks to scaring the birds clearly frustrated some fishermen.
"There are too many rules and regulations . . . we just need to get rid of those birds," said shellfisherman Glenn Peters.
Mr. Grunden did have some good news. Several weeks ago, the town received a permanent maintenance permit that will allow for the removal of sand and other material from the channel near the little bridge and along the beach between the two bridges. The removal of sand is expected to improve the tidal flow in and out of the pond, which could reduce the high bacteria levels.
The permanent maintenance permit from the Division of Marine Fisheries allows excavated sand to be deposited along Joseph A. Sylvia State Beach, although the town has formally requested to amend the permit so it can deposit material on the town waterfront at the Inkwell Beach.
A public hearing on the amendment will be held today at noon in the conference room in the town hall.
If the amendment is granted, it could solve the added problem of erosion at the Inkwell Beach likely caused by the jetty that separates it from the old Pay Beach. The Army Corps of Engineers built the jetty in the 1970s to protect the beach, but in fact it has starved it from the sand that would otherwise sweep down from East Chop and the northern tip of the Island.
Several shellfishermen said excavating the channel at the Little Bridge would improve the tidal flow of the pond.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that when the channel is filled with sand there is no flushing," Mr. Peters said.
Mr. Grunden said the channel could be excavated by using a backhoe and a loader, and may not require dredging, which is much more expensive. But even with the excavation, he said he was doubtful that the state fishery would reopen the pond for shellfishing next summer or even the summer after that.
Selectman and board chairman Kerry Scott encouraged Mr. Grunden to do more testing and then submit the results to the state. Ms. Scott said reopening the pond should be a top priority.
"If the state is going to push us into a corner then we are going to have to start pushing back. The time has come for the town to bring every resource we have to bear on that pond - and not in the coming years or months but in the coming weeks and days," she said.
Suzan Bellincampi, director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, which manages Sarson's Island where many of the cormorants are concentrated, agreed reopening the pond to shellfishing is a priority. But she cautioned against placing all the blame on the birds without more testing.
"I know it's easy to blame the birds, but I think we should get all the facts first. That is a very sensitive coastal waterway that could be affected by any number of factors - including high levels of nitrogen that can be traced back to the septic systems of homes along the pond," Ms. Bellincampi said, adding:
"Let's remember we are talking about a federally protected species."