Land Under Water, Specifically The Ocean


LAST MONTH the Conservation Commission unanimously voted to add “land under water, specifically the ocean” to its local regulatory purview.  Since the ConCom is a quasi-judicial local board that locally administers the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act, the idea of extending its regulatory footprint to the ultimate “wet land”—land under the ocean—seemed worthwhile to explore.  Henry Oettinger, PhD, is on the MBTS Conservation and discussed the board’s move with Cricket Editor Erika Brown.

Q:  Thank you for meeting up with us, Henry.  First off, can you help me understand the Conservation Commission’s move to add “land under water, specifically the ocean” to the local regulations, in layman's terms?  Apparently, it mirrors the state’s wetlands regulations?

A:  The state’s Wetlands Protection Act is a set of rules that we follow.  Local regulations can be more stringent or more specific than the state’s Wetlands Protection Act.  In this case, the change to include language for “land under water, specifically the ocean” isn’t about more stringency.  It’s really about bringing some specificity to the regulation, by calling out the eelgrass beds in particular.  So, in layman's terms, it’s as if the Conservation Commission is putting a highlighter—a shout out, if you will—on the “land under ocean” and “eelgrass.”

I'm trained as a scientist, and I joined the Conservation Commission because I have an interest in local flora and fauna and how they relate to wetlands protection, and ocean protection as well.  I've been with the Conservation Commission for four years, and in that time, we’ve heard several different constituents voice different interests in protecting eelgrass.  It’s become my interest as well.   

When we referred to this change in the newspaper several weeks ago, we indicated that it was a change in the local “bylaw” and not a change to the local wetland “regulation.”  What is the difference?

Manchester has its own bylaws, and changes to those bylaws are brought to Town Meeting so that citizens approve it or not, by vote.  This change was to the local regulations, which is discussed during our open meeting, and voted on by the Commission. 

Why now?

We did that because we are aware that there's community interest in protecting this resource (eelgrass).  Manchester Harbor, in the past and currently, has some very healthy eelgrass beds, and has had some diminution since 2013.  Also, Manchester mooring monitoring studies have found scarring of the land under Manchester’s waters that has resulted in an estimated four to six acres of eelgrass loss.

So, because that falls under our jurisdiction, we thought it was a productive idea to add this change.

My understanding is the regulation covers land under water out to the town line (about a mile out to sea) or an eight-foot depth, whichever comes first.  Is that correct?  And is that eight feet at low tide, or high tide, or the median mark?

I went back and looked at Chapter 91, and I'm fairly certain that that number is an 80-foot depth, or the town line, whichever occurs first.  But I’m not sure of the relevance, because when we’re talking about eelgrass, we're talking about a marine species that typically lives from half a foot at mean low tide to 18 or 20 feet. We don't need to worry about 80-foot of depth.

Got it.  So really this is just about Manchester Harbor.

Yes, exactly.

Three years ago, eelgrass was the source of an animated public discussion focused on recreational boaters who like to anchor for the day off Sand Dollar Cove and Long Beach.  At the time, we interviewed Phil Colarusso—nick named “Mr. Eelgrass,” because he is a biologist and eelgrass expert working for the US Environmental Protection Agency.  He’s also a member of the ConCom in Hamilton.  We learned that eelgrass is powerful because it can absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide (called “carbon sequestration,”) making important in combating global warming.  It’s also the ideal habitat for young, growing marine life, like fish or shellfish.

Yes, Dr. Colarusso spoke before the Conservation Commission here during the debate about boats parking off Long Beach in 2019.  During that time, he and I set up a project where he helped us with a technique for reseeding eelgrass.  As a carbon sequestrator, if that is a word, eelgrass is a big protector of the environment.  In fact, research shows that eelgrass is probably more efficient than terrestrial plants—trees and plants and shrubs—when it comes to carbon sequestration.  I had been teaching science at  Brookwood School at the time, so we got a pilot project together and some interested students.  For the project, Phil Colarusso brought his divers in full scuba gear, and, with Harbormaster Pike we all went out, harvested eelgrass seeds and under Phil’s direction we reseeded an area of the harbor.  I brought some students to observe that process because I thought it was really cool.  They really enjoyed it.  It has turned into a longitudinal project, where we’ve looked back at the area again, in 2020 and again in 2021.  And it’s a continuing effort.

So, this sounds like less of a regulatory change, and more like a public information effort and eelgrass protection effort as well.  And while you didn’t work with Bion Pike before making this local regulation change, there’s no impact on his role as the local agent for administering Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection regulations on the water, or moving existing moorings.  Correct?

Yes.  Anything that's on the water, and in the harbor, we will steer clear.  Bion's been very helpful, offering, for instance, a boat for taking the Commissioners around and helping with the reseeding as well.  So, we would work kind of hand in hand with him.  But not on the regulation issues.

But my understanding is the Conservation Commission will come into regulatory play with all the things that it currently does, such as construction within the wetlands, or construction impacting lands under water such as mooring fields.

Yes, exactly.  The ConCom is already looped into the question of mooring fields.  That hasn’t changed at all.  I’m working with (fellow Conservation Commission member) David Lumsden on a “Frequently Asked Question” document which we will post on our agenda when we discuss it at our next meeting, I believe.  So that'll be available for public comment, I believe, and questions.  I think it will be helpful.

I agree.  In the ConCom’s discussion of this regulation change at its last meeting, you all mentioned something called “Widgeon Grass” along with eelgrass.  You also mentioned mollusks.  What is widgeon grass and where is it in Manchester?

Widgeon Grass is a marine plant that grows in Massachusetts waters, but to my knowledge it’s not yet in or around Manchester.  It’s a plant that prefers a low salinity.  And it grows more around the Cape and Islands.

And to be clear, shell fishing (including installing and moving lobster traps) is not part of this.

No, shell fishing is regulated by the state.

And with eelgrass, you’re talking about two areas in Manchester, off Long Beach and in Area 7, which is the area past the Manchester Yacht Club going toward West Beach and Beverly Farms.

Yes, the big healthy beds are in the regions you're talking about.  And there are some spots on the inner harbor that have eelgrass too.

Well, thank you for taking the time to let us know about this change, Henry Oettinger.  It seems like the Conservation Commission will now be making eelgrass an important issue to “highlight” for public awareness and protection.

Yes, exactly.  Thank you, and people should look for the FAQ coming out on the Conservation Commission’s website when it’s complete.

henry oettinger, conservation commission, concom, massachusetts department of environmental protection, eelgrass, long beach, west beach, manchester harbor, us environmental protection agency, david lumsden, sand dollar cove, phil colarusso, harbormaster pike, manchester yacht club, cricket editor, erika brown