The First Twenty Years 1989-2009
by Christina G. Miller
Sengekontacket Pond has been an Island resource for thousands of years. If we were to write a “Song of Sengekontacket” we would sing of Wampanoag settlements along the shores of what is now Major’s Cove, of a hunting camp on Marinelli’s Point and a Pond still called Anthier’s Pond by some old timers, of the creation of the second opening to the sea at the north end of the Pond in 1932, of extensive eelgrass meadows and eels, bountiful harvests of shellfish, the timeless beautiful vistas across salt marsh to the sea and sunsets that seem almost ethereal. Songs are often composed from memories full of joy and sentiment, and until the late 1980’s what was known about Sengekontacket Pond was primarily anecdotal.
Then in the summer of 1988 the 745 acre Pond was closed to shellfishing for the first time by the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries due to high levels of bacterial contaminants, causing great concern. Theories abounded about what was wrong with the Pond and how to fix it. Many blamed shoaling in the Pond, preventing the cleansing exchange with ocean waters and advocated for dredging -- “the solution to pollution is dilution.” Others blamed waterfowl and other wildlife, development and houses built in the tidal flood zones at the Pond’s edge, failed septic systems leaching into the Pond, fertilized lawns adding nitrogen and nutrients which promoted algae growth, and runoff that carries contaminants from the road in rainwater draining into the Pond.
The following summer, July 1989, a symposium titled “Our Coasts In Danger” featuring nationally prominent speakers in environmental and coastal affairs, was held at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown. After the symposium the public was invited to form working groups and it was there that Christina Miller, author, with a background in environmental affairs met Jeanne and Arvin Wells who live on the Pond. Soon many others joined. We held public meetings at the Massachusetts Audubon Society at Felix Neck to discuss Sengekontacket Pond and how to restore it to a healthy estuary. Out of these well-attended meetings a steering committee was formed and from that emerged a Board of Directors for a new organization called the Friends of Sengekontacket. Serving on that first Board of Directors were: Rene Blanc, Gray Bryan, Claude Davis, Mrs. James Doan, Steven Ewing, Christina Miller, Robert Priestley, Charles Sanders, Alan Schweikert, and Arvin Wells. Officers were Christina Miller, President, Arvin Wells Vice-President, Rene Blanc, Treasurer, and Charles Sanders, Secretary. At the same time Friends of Sengekontacket also formed an Advisory Board composed of individuals who were Edgartown and Oak Bluffs Selectmen and shellfish constables, County Commissioners, and the Directors of Felix Neck and the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group. The meeting place of the Board of Directors shifted to the Edgartown Yacht Club.
Modeled after the Edgartown Harbor Association the Friends of Sengekontacket began the legal process to form a 501-c3 corporation that would allow tax-deductible contributions. Charles Sanders also became Chairman of our first fund raising drive, and an appeal letter was mailed with funds raised from early contributors. The first of many enjoyable clambakes was held on the beach so people could become acquainted. By the end of the year we had raised $42,000 towards a study by the world renowned Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
In 1990 Friends of Sengekontacket entered into a $65,000 contractual agreement with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to identify sources of pollution in the Pond and examine how the Pond worked, measuring currents, and rates of flushing. Dr. Arthur Gaines was the principal investigator. At the Friends of Sengekontacket sponsored meeting at the Wakeman Center in 1992, Dr. Gaines and his associate, geologist Dr. Graham Giese, reported on their work and findings. Science was replacing anecdotes! From both individual contributors and successful grant applications, Friends of Sengekontacket has raised thousands of dollars to fund major additional studies: by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, by environmental firms such as Horsley & Witten, Inc., by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, the Massachusetts Lakes and Ponds Program, the Massachusetts Estuaries Project, ecologists at the Massachusetts Audubon Society, and scientists doing DNA ribotyping at the University of New Hampshire. We now know more about Sengekontacket Pond than has ever been known before and we recognize that ultimately the passing of by-laws and zoning articles based on this data rests with the Towns. The work of the Edgartown and Oak Bluffs Joint Committee on Sengekontacket, of which Friends of Sengekontacket is a member, is vitally important in developing new strict regulations and comprehensive strategies to limit nitrogen in the ground water, restore eelgrass beds and the shellfishery, and control development in the watershed.
But first there are three more important elements to the Friends of Sengekontacket story.