On a sandbar just off the coast of Barnstable one recent windy morning, Corey Hendricks picked up a metal mesh bag. It’s one of 125 large bags laid out, all full of young oysters.

"Once they get big enough like this, they're going to go pretty much straight in the cage," he said.

Hendricks poured the oysters from the bag into one of 100 cages lined up on the sandbar, then evenly spread out the shellfish to line the bottom.

This setup doesn’t look like the typical image of a farm, but that’s what it is: instead of agriculture, it’s aquaculture. Hendricks said the changing tides jostle the oysters and help them grow.

His company is called Duck Island Oysters, and his farm is 2 acres of offshore public land controlled by the town of Barnstable.

"I have roughly a half a million oysters," Hendricks said. "And last year we planted 200,000 quahogs. This year another 200,000."

Shellfishermen in Massachusetts farmed nearly $37 million worth of oysters and quahogs in 2022. Unlike other fisheries, shellfishing is regulated locally by individual cities and towns. But in some Cape communities, there's been a hot debate over changing those regulations and what it would mean for the future of the industry.

Oysters farmed in cages off the coast of Barnstable, Mass.
Craig LeMoult GBH News

Because these farms are considered a community resource, some Cape communities, like Barnstable and Wellfleet, make a point of limiting permits to residents.

But Barnstable is currently considering two controversial changes to their shellfish regulations. First, some in the town want to increase the size limit of an individual farm from 4 to 14 acres. Also, there’s a proposal to allow companies and corporate entities to hold licenses, not just people who live in town.

If those changes are made, Hendricks said, existing farms could wind up merging to form large companies, which small farmers would have a hard time competing with.

"If they change the rules, they can now combine all that farmland that they are managing into one license under one name, which is a company name,” he said. “And a company doesn't live in a town, and it doesn't die.”

Currently, when a person dies or gives up their license, it reverts back to the town. That license then becomes available to other residents through a waiting list. Hendricks said changing the rules to allow companies to hold licenses could mean people like his mother, who are on the town's waiting list, never have a chance to get their own shellfish farm.

The changes to Barnstable's regulations were proposed by Al Surprenant, the founder and owner of Cape Cod Oyster, one of the largest oyster growers in New England.

Surprenant is on the town’s shellfish advisory board. And there’s a reason he wants to increase the size limit to 14 acres: His company collectively manages 14 acres of oyster farms in Barnstable that are licensed to individual people who live in town, including some of his family members.

"And there are maybe ten other farmers in the town right now that are in the same position that I'm in, where they have multiple family members that have … 2 acre parcels,” Surprenant said. “So they have maybe 10 acres all together. And so what happens when mom and dad pass away?"

If there's no other family member in town to transfer those licenses to, he said, under the current town rules, the licenses can't be kept in the company.

"What you're doing is blowing up small family businesses," Surprenant said.

Tamar Haspel and her husband own one of those businesses, called Barnstable Oyster.

“If we had been able to put our two grants in a corporate name, we would have,” Haspel said. “And I think other small, family-run companies would also.”

For one thing, she said, allowing company names on shellfish licenses would make it easier to sell the company.

"If you put a lot of money and a lot of effort into building a business, you shouldn't be expected to walk away from it,” she said. “And I think it's not good for the town if people walk away from established businesses, because established businesses employ people, buy services, buy supplies — and that's how you get a vibrant economy."

A proposal to allow company names on shellfish licenses was also debated by the shellfish advisory board in Wellfleet over the summer.

Wellfleet shellfisherman and select board member Michael DeVasto supported the idea. He said his lawyer tells him he'd be more protected from lawsuits if he put his license in the name of his limited liability company, or LLC.

"You know, the industry has grown up a lot in the last ten years,” DeVasto said. “There's a lot more gear in the water. And basically we're farming in a public waterway where people recreate. And it's fraught with liability."

His fellow Wellfleet selectman Ryan Curley sees things very differently.

Curley said he's worried the town could wind up creating a situation similar to what's happened with much of the rest of the fishing industry, where corporate ownership of fleets, and even of the right to catch fish, have pushed out the small guy.

“And that's led to a decrease in earnings of fishermen and consolidation across the board,” Curley said.

Shellfishing has been largely immune from all of that, because it's locally controlled by towns. But Curley worries if shellfish licenses — or grants, as they're also called — were held by corporations, those shellfishing rights could essentially be bought and sold like a private commodity.

"The ability to hold a grant in a corporation would then basically make it into a financial asset that could be sold, which is not allowed under our regulations," Curley said.

But, he said, there would be nothing they could do about it if the change was approved.

Wellfleet's shellfish advisory panel ultimately voted against the idea.

A vote is still pending in Barnstable, where Corey Hendricks hopes to see the proposal face the same fate.

Hendricks said someday, he hopes to transfer his shellfishing license on to the next generation in his family, or maybe to an employee or intern. If not, he said, it should go to someone on the town’s waiting list.

“If I'm so old and no one wants to take over this farm and I pass away, you know what, some young 22-year-old might get that farm and give him a chance to make a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year and survive in this gentrified economy of Cape Cod," he said.

And that, he said, is what will keep this local economy of small shellfish farmers alive in his town.