After one of the busiest summers in recent memory for recreational boating in Cape Pogue Pond, the Edgartown marine advisory committee is proposing a temporary ban on anchoring in the pond, amid concerns about preserving the globally rare coastal embayment.
The proposal would ban boaters from anchoring in almost the entire pond, save for a small, sandy stretch just northwest of the opening known as the Gut. Surrounded by conservation land, most of it owned by the Trustees of Reservations, Cape Pogue Pond has long had one of the richest and most productive bay scallop beds in Massachusetts.
All of Cape Pogue Wildlife Refuge was designated some years ago as a district of critical planning concern (DCPC), a special overlay planning district enacted through the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.
But increasing use of the pristine pond by recreational boaters in recent years has set up a delicate balancing act between recreational and ecological stakeholders.
This past summer was a record year for recreational boating around the Island, including at Cape Pogue, when hundreds of vessels filled the pond on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays between July and September according to town harbor master Charlie Blair.
Now town officials say the scales have tipped.
All three members of the marine advisory committee — Bruce McIntosh, Martin (Skip) Tomassian and Scott Morgan — support the proposal, according to minutes from advisory committee meetings and an interview with Mr. McIntosh, who is chairman. The Edgartown planning board has also voiced approval for the moratorium, voting in a Nov. 17 meeting to support it, according to administrator Doug Finn.
“The Edgartown planning board heard from members of the Edgartown marine advisory committee, and the Edgartown shellfish constable, who expressed concerns regarding the impact of recreational boating — specifically anchoring and rafting — on the marine wildlife of Cape Pogue,” Mr. Finn wrote to town administrator James Hagerty in an email provided to the Gazette. “After deliberation, it was voted, to recommend and support a moratorium on anchoring in Cape Pogue for a period of one year, or until revised regulations regarding use and activity in the area are approved, whichever comes sooner.”
In a brief interview, Mr. Hagerty said a ban on anchoring in the pond would have to come from town selectmen. Mr. Finn said in an email that the planning board and marine advisory committee would both be sending letters to the selectmen expressing their stance.
A similar proposal was recommended to the town selectmen last year by the marine advisory committee, but was met with hesitance from selectmen. The proposal was ultimately tabled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Ironically, one year later, members of the marine advisory committee and town officials felt it was the pandemic that prompted recreational boating in the pond to get out of control this past summer.
“There was a lot of discussion about it last winter. Then the selectmen said, when Covid happened, that they didn’t want to change anything this year,” Mr. McIntosh said. “But boating took off this year. Everybody bought new boats, and came from wherever . . . there were maybe 150 boats anchored in there, which it is just not designed to handle.”
Cape Pogue Pond — surrounded by approximately seven miles of an ecologically unique, question-marked shaped barrier beach on Chappaquiddick — is home to oysters, steamers, quahaugs and some of the region’s last fertile shellfishing grounds for bay scallops. The remote spit of land, which contains nesting grounds for rare birds, including piping plovers, is primarily owned and managed by the Trustees. A handful of houses, most of them old summer camps, are situated in the wildlife refuge.
Although shellfish catch in the pond has declined dramatically since the 1980s, when more than 100 commercial scallopers would bring in 25,000 bushels annually, the pond still has approximately 20 regular commercial bay scallopers, who haul between 5,000 and 10,000 bushels per year.
The decline is only part of a long story of development and use, shellfish constable Paul Bagnall said.
“As the population of people on the Island increases, there seems to be some reason the population of scallops decreases. That happens for a number of different reasons,” he said. “Nitrogen in the water. More boating use. But we’ve always caught a significant portion of the state’s bay scallops. And we still take a significant amount . . . it’s a premier scallop area for the state of Massachusetts, let alone the town of Edgartown.”
The health of scallop beds is contingent on a dense growth of eelgrass, which provides protection for bay scallops during their post-larval phase. Bay scallop seed in thickets of eelgrass have a higher rate of survival, attaching themselves closer to the top of the canopy and avoiding ground predators, like crabs and conch.
Anchoring threatens the habitat, pulling eelgrass out of the ground and damaging the beds. Whereas scallop drags are designed to go over the eelgrass growth, anchors are designed to root under it.
“Eelgrass is a keystone species,” Mr. Bagnall said. “We want people to come and have a good time, but not to decimate a scallop crop.”
Mr. McIntosh said the anchoring ban would be focused on areas of the pond containing eelgrass, not the traditional sandy-bottom landing spots just west of the Gut, which he hoped would stay open to boats and beachgoers.
“What everybody wants to do is to help save the pond, or the gut. That’s the interest,” Mr. McIntosh said. “Everybody should be on the same page with the health, ecologically, of the pond. And, obviously, you don’t want to have a Coney Island-like circus going on down there, either.”
Mr. Blair the harbor master and others have also expressed safety concerns about the rise in boating before the selectmen this summer, especially as commercial kiteboarding has proliferated in the pond. Kiteboarders say denying them permits would hurt their business. After tense discussion this summer, selectmen ultimately approved permits despite a proposal from the marine advisory committee to deny them.
Mr. Hagerty said that the anchorage issue would likely be taken up by the selectmen at a meeting sometime in January.
“It’s a balance,” he said. “It’s a balance of Cape Pogue being a recreational area. It’s a balance of the shellfishing. It’s a balance of landowners.”