For Fishermen, Rain Means Closed Shellfish Beds

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Gary Sherman knows what it's like to work the Westport River. He was a fisherman first, and now he's been the shellfish warden here for more than 20 years.

It's Sherman's job to monitor and maintain the shellfish in these waters, just off Buzzard's Bay. That means it's Sherman who has to tell local fisherman when it's not okay to do their jobs.

The recent heavy storms sent bacteria-rich runoff into clam and oyster beds, leading many to be closed for almost a month. They've only just reopened.

Standing on the deck of his patrol boat, Sherman is worried he might have to close them again.

Gary Sherman, shellfish warden for the Westport River. (Sonari Glinton for WBUR)
Gary Sherman, shellfish warden for the Westport River. (Sonari Glinton for WBUR)

"You don't get seasick do you?" he asks me. "We're going to fly along here now so we can get this done today." He starts the engine.

Sherman is taking me out on patrol with Greg Sawyer, a marine biologist for the state. Sawyer is here to test the water for bacteria — looking for anything that gets washed into the river by the rain.

"Now we're going take a water sample," Sawyer says, using what looks like a water bottle to collect water samples, which he puts over ice. "And now we'll do this about 23 times today."

We criss-cross the river basin, gathering sample after sample. If a sample tests positive for bacteria like ecoli, the area it comes from is closed.

That's bad news for the fishermen — especially the 50 or so independent fishermen who work these waters.

We run into Jim Manchester — or "Crab," as he's usually called. He could be the Gorton's fisherman, with a white beard, bright orange rain suit and big rain hat. You can see in his face every one of the 56 years he's been working on the water.

Crab shows us his haul.

"If you can get 1,000 pieces a day, you're a hero," Crab says.

Because 1,000 oysters and clams makes for a $200 day. Crab usually brings in a little more than half that.

He wants Sawyer and Sherman to keep the beds open.

"There's plenty of seed here," Crab says. "We've cultivated it nice but it's gotta be open."

"I understand, but I just want you to understand where I'm coming from," Sawyer answers.

"We're beating our heads to death here now, you know? I don't want to see it close," Crab says.

"I hated closing it, but we have to go by the rules and regs that we have to follow," Sawyer says, ending the discussion for now.

That's the tension. Heavy rains mean closed beds, which means fisherman can't work. But the wardens and the state wildlife and fisheries have to keep the beds safe from contamination.

"Behave! I hope you get a million of them," Sawyer says as we leave Crab to his catch.

The warden and the biologist talk to about half a dozen more independent fishermen. After two hours of gathering samples in the very cold drizzle, they head back to the dock. They know just one tenth of an inch of rain will bring contaminated runoff, and they will have to close at least some of those beds this week.

Warden Sherman say he wishes it didn't have to come to this.

"The perfect world, it would be open all the time. You'd have plenty of shellfish for everybody all the time. And everybody just have a smile on their face. But that isn't, that isn't quite how it works," Sherman says, laughing.

Sherman is trying to change how it works. He says the most important part of his job is education — and that's the education of homeowners, farmers and even schoolkids.

Because what's in the fields, on the roads and in the yards will eventually end up in his river.

This program aired on April 27, 2010.


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