As the aquaculture industry continues to grow and prosper here on the Eastern Shore, the use of plastic mesh, sometimes called clam netting, has become even more ubiquitous. Clam netting is used by growers to protect the juvenile clams from predators as they mature to market size. The maturation of the clam to market takes place in three phases–first is the hatchery phase, which is designed to provide the ideal growing conditions for the brood stock. This is followed by the nursery phase, during which time the juvenile clams are nurtured. The last phase, known as the grow-out, is where seed clams are planted and eventually harvested at market size.
The clam growers need the clam nets to protect their clams. Without net, cultured clams could not be planted in the wild and have survival rates that could sustain the industry. The nets provide adequate and cost effective protection from most predators encountered on the seaside of the Eastern Shore. To be effective, the nets must remain intact. Even a small tear of a few inches can allow some predators to devastate entire beds of clams. Growers have developed effective ways of securing their nets over the young clams to protect them. Despite the care given to ensure that nets are properly placed, nets are still damaged or destroyed by man-made and naturally occurring events.
One problem with clam netting, which was identified in the early 2000s, is the abandonment of the netting during and after harvesting. Unfortunately, the issue of abandoned nets is still occurring today. The netting can be found on the barrier islands, as well the coves and islands of locations such as Plantation Creek.
One issue we have heard from smaller growers is that the netting is so large, that using regular dumpsters to dispose of it is impractical, which means more and longer trips to the landfill. After a long day of harvesting on the water, the temptation to just discard the netting on site can be an attractive option. Although it is still illegal to dump any form of plastic or polymer from a watercraft, ‘storing’ the discarded netting on site, to be ‘removed at a later date’, is currently an option. If the tide happens to take it away before it can be removed, so be it.
Since the clam netting issue first became visible, Virginia Eastern Shorekeeper has been working with the aquaculture industry to help remediate the amount of discarded clam nets washing up along the Bay and Barrier Islands. Back in 2004 (and 2006), Shorekeeper issued reports on the status of discarded clam netting ( “Discarded and Abandoned Aquaculture Clam Netting on the Atlantic Barrier Islands on the Eastern Shore of Virginia”). According to those assessments, “ the potential cumulative and secondary impacts of discarded clam netting to the Seaside’s fragile ecosystem. Preliminary results indicate that the netting has little short term environmental impact and acts in a very similar fashion to beach wrack”.
As the photos indicate, there is still way too much clam netting washing up on the beach and islands; a more current study may be needed. Given how tough the netting is, analysis of the long term, cumulative effects it is having on the coastal environment certainly seems warranted. To be fair, it should also be noted that the aquaculture industry is attempting to address this issue themselves. Working with Shorekeeper, local growers helped to create a “Clam Net Hotline” to report discarded netting.
As the Eastern Shore aquaculture industry continues to boom, discarded netting washing up all over the place still has the potential to damage not only the coastal environment, but also current branding efforts. Given the vital role this industry is playing in our local economy, it may be time to incorporate proper disposal techniques for clam netting in Aquaculture Best Management Practices.
Editors Note: All images of abandoned netting are from July and August this year.