The Essex Board of Selectmen meeting Monday voted to keep the status quo on “residents only” for the town’s public boat ramp and it heard about the prospect of participating in an oyster bedding program to help the environment.
First up was whether the town of Essex would be willing to put itself in for consideration to participate in the Massachusetts Bay Oyster Project (MBOP), an environmental non-profit based on the South Shore working to restore native shellfish and local coastal estuaries by donating thousands of silver dollar-sized baby oysters to towns willing to host them. The program is free.
Essex Shellfish Constable Billy Novack told the BOS Monday the MBOP caught his attention when Gloucester announced in 2018 it would be growing 60,000 baby oysters in an aquifer of its inner harbor. Then last year, he said, Gloucester was again selected to participate in the free program. So, Novak called the organization and asked how the city did it.
“The answer was, ‘They were the only ones that applied,’” said Novack. “So I asked them, ‘Well, how can Essex apply?’”
Oysters are an important element of improving water quality because of their incredible capacity to filter water of its pollutants and leave behind clean water. According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, oysters remove chemical pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorus. In fact, a single oyster can filter 50 gallons of water a day according to the organization.
According to Novack, much of Essex with its sandy bottomed waters aren’t ideal for oyster beds (“They like a rocky bottom”) but there are some key rocky spots where he thinks they’d likely thrive. The baby oysters would take about two years to grow to maturity. Novak said it’s a great program, and Essex should try to get involved.
“Oysters filter and clean the water,” he said. “Plus, they’re fun to eat.”
Selectman Peter Phippen, who in his day job is coastal coordinator for the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission and the MassBays Estuary Program, said knows of the MBOP and visited one of its other projects at Eagle Hill and Middle Ground in Ipswich. He suggested Novak connect with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries before deciding exactly where to place the oysters. “Have a plan,” said Phippen. “At least discuss it with them – what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”
The BOS voted to allow Novak to proceed and report back when he had more details. The program would be scheduled for October, he told them, so there’s plenty of time for planning.
The selectmen then took up the business of the town’s boat ramp, and whether to open it up to non-residents in light of the current Massachusetts “stay at home” order, which has been extended through May 18.
Phippen said he wasn’t sure if closing the ramp to non-residents will have the intended impact of keeping crowding down. “I don’t know if that will do it or not,” he said. If there are more people at the ramp, it could be better for downtown businesses, he said. But until the state’s advisory is lifted, his vote would be to keep non-residents out.
Selectman Andrew Spinney agreed that keeping traffic down at the ramp would be helpful for managing public safety in light of social distancing requirements, but he disagreed that boaters would trigger unsafe crowding downtown. “I’ve never seen a boat trailer at a restaurant,” he said.
In the end, it was an easy vote to keep access to the boat ramp to town residents only. Existing exemptions for non-residents with work permits, or US Army Corps of Engineers that have standing access will remain.
The issue will be revisited at the next BOS meeting, scheduled for May 18.