The tides dictate their 'office' hours

The environment and shellfish growers benefit from aquaculture conservation efforts.

"This weather is brutal," says shellfish "farmer" Andrew Cummings. Wind tugs a mesh bag horizontal as he dumps a bucket of freshly harvested oysters into it. Brilliant sun glistening on the roiling waves only hints at warmth on this frigid December day. Cackling gulls hover in the salty breeze as shell fishermen, who stud Wellfleet Harbor off Cape Cod, make the most of low tide to rake littleneck clams out of their sandy "farm" plots and harvest oysters from suspended baskets.

End-of-the-year holiday revelers spike a demand for these delicacies served on the half shell. So Mr. Cummings has buyers waiting for his crop. Encased in neoprene waders, thick insulated gloves, and a wool cap, the ruddy fisherman dismisses the idea of waiting to harvest until the weather is better. He knows those buyers are waiting. "I can't pick my days," he says.

Cummings and other ocean's-edge farmers primarily grow oysters and clams: clams in sand and oysters in mesh bags suspended on racks. They fix 12- by 100-foot swaths of quarter-inch plastic mesh over the clam beds to minimize predation from crabs, starfish, and gulls.

Despite the rigors of the business and making far below the six-figure incomes of his cubicle-bound friends in Boston, "I've got peace of mind," Cummings says. "I've got wide-open spaces."

However, as he hauls in waste, packs up gear, and processes oysters, Cummings repeatedly brings up the need to enjoy every nice day. It's his mantra, it seems, to help make this freezing one more bearable.

As with conventional farmers, Cummings's livelihood often depends on forces beyond his control, such as the weather, commodity prices, and the health of his crop.

But in 2005 Cummings - and the environment - benefited from a new initiative of the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service. This pilot program - the first year of which just ended in Massachusetts - offers incentives to shellfish growers for conservation measures that minimize waste, protect endangered species, and reduce petrochemical pollution. While most growers handle waste mesh responsibly, improper disposal can cause death for aquatic species that get entangled in it. Program participants receive 50 cents per pound for waste material. This year 80 tons of shellfish aquaculture waste made it to the landfill; more than half of that was due to incentives.

With the federal government rewarding Cummings for his conservation practices, "I'm growing better oysters, more of them, and my entire farm is just a lot healthier," he says.

Does that mean a healthier overall environment? "Absolutely," Cummings declares.

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