The Father of Modern Aquaculture: David Belding
“The future success of the Massachusetts oyster industry will depend not only upon producing oysters of good quality and accessible markets, but also upon the rising of seed oysters.” So begins the oyster section of Dr. David Belding’s 1912 pioneering work on aquaculture, “A Report Upon the Quahaug and Oyster Fisheries of Massachusetts.”
Belding, a shellfish biologist and medical doctor originally from New York, accepted a job in 1905 with what was then known as The Massachusetts Commissioners of Fisheries and Game after his graduation from Williams College. His role was to conduct studies of commercial shellfisheries in the Commonwealth, for which he ended up spending extensive amounts of time in Wellfleet studying oysters and their spat.
His meticulous scientific process, including surveys of the natural oyster set, observations on the spacing and larvae in the water and experiments with spat collectors in different parts of the bay, provided the town of Wellfleet invaluable information to allow it to enhance and protect its natural oyster fishery. Almost more importantly, his work ushered in a century of purposeful aquaculture in Wellfleet, resulting in today’s robust and sustainable system of grants, licensing, propagation and management.
His substantial efforts, conducted without the benefit of modern technologies, laid the groundwork for the Commonwealth’s overall shellfishery strategy. In the forward to the 2004 Cape Cod Cooperative Extension’s publication “The Works of David L Belding M.D.,” J. Michael Hickey, who at that time was a Chief Biologist with the Division of Marine Fisheries, says that Belding’s work remains extraordinary and “many of his observations and recommendations are still the basis of shellfish management decisions.”
In his tenure with the Commissioners of Fisheries and Game, Dr. Belding also authored treatises on bay scallops and soft-shell clams, before serving in the Army Medical Corps in France during World War I. Once home, he furthered pursued his medical career, publishing additional volumes on bacteriology and parasitology, as well as articles on a variety of diseases, before becoming a Professor of Bacteriology and Experimental Pathology at the Boston University School of Medicine.
For Wellfleet, however, his impact remains that of creating a platform for much of the town’s shellfishing success. We can assume that earlier generations of oyster farmers and fishermen took his advice to heart, when he stated as one of his conclusions from his 1912 report “...experiments have demonstrated the spat can be successfully gathered if the oystermen will use intelligent perseverance."