Permanent Closure of Shellfish Beds in Our Watershed?

Photo by Trillium Studios.

Shellfish are an important source of protein for shorebirds, and their habitats are an excellent measure of the health of our coastal waterways. For centuries the shellfish beds of the North and South Rivers have provided nourishment and recreation for Indigenous Peoples, European settlers, and generations of families. That all came to an abrupt halt in 1988, when more than 600 acres of shellfish beds were closed due to high fecal coliform levels.

In the last 30+ years, NSRWA staff and volunteers were instrumental in improving water quality through vigilant testing and advocating upgrades to the Scituate treatment plant, septic systems, stormwater, and new sewering in Marshfield. That multi-million-dollar investment resulted in a seasonal opening of the shellfish beds on the North River (1996) and South River (2011) to recreational harvest from November 1st – May 31st.

But in October 2020, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (Mass-DMF) closed the beds indefinitely, citing an FDA regulation for interstate commercial shellfishing that requires a dilution rate around a sewer treatment plant outfall. Despite our best efforts and large municipal expenditures, it is doubtful that the Herring and North Rivers could ever meet this commercial standard, effectively ending recreational shellfishing in those rivers.
This August, Commissioner Ronald Amidon and MassDMF staff met with local recreational shellfishers, along with State Senator Patrick O’Connor, Representative Patrick Kearney, and NSRWA board and staff. Attendees pressed the Commissioner to consider regulating shellfishing in a manner similar to recreational fishing or hunting, and he agreed to have his legal staff review the matter.

Thanks to NSRWA monitoring, we have data to show that our waters can meet the standards for recreational shellfishing from November – May. Further, there have been no reports of illness related to shellfish harvested from the North and South Rivers’ beds; soft shell clams (what is harvested locally) are cooked, not eaten raw; the treatment plant uses ultraviolet light to kill viruses and bacteria; and tidal flushing in the North and South Rivers is significant.
NSRWA has partnered with EarthRise Law Center to generate a public records request that may shed more light on MassDMF’s decision-making. Meanwhile, we continue to pursue all avenues to ensure that a popular aspect of our coastal heritage is not lost forever.

Photos by Trillium Studios.