An Intertidal Beauty Contest
The oyster is one sexy mollusk. Granted, shellfish are often described in reference to phlegm by the uninitiated. Yet the oyster, despite its wide, knobby shell and globular body (if it had a face, it would certainly be one that only a mother could love), wears the mystique of an aphrodisiac like a clinging negligee. Slurping raw oysters, wet lips to shell, is a primal act of indulgence, one well known on the Cape.
The allure of the oyster permeates Cape Cod in the summertime, with visitors seeking out the briny creatures by the dozen on the half shell. This is especially true in Wellfleet, a town renowned for growing some of the best oysters in New England. By day tourists crowd the roads and beaches, ostensibly to enjoy the National Seashore. But by night they fill local restaurants to feast on oysters fresh from the nearby harbor.
Wellfleet has a public image as a working-class seaside community, an identity at odds with the town’s economic reliance on summer tourism and a growing population of retired second-homeowners. What truth lies behind the town’s salty image is largely derived from shellfishing.
The town has cast the oyster as the lead character in its public identity, but it would be deceitful not to include the clam as a critical supporting actor. Add oystering and clamming together and the sum is a story about sustainable food systems and a year-round community of fishermen who make their living harvesting shellfish from Wellfleet Harbor.
A littleneck clam would win out against an oyster in an intertidal beauty contest. Smooth, symmetrical and round, they fit in the palm of the hand like a river stone. Inside, the clam body is firm—a salty clean bite of meat swallowed alive. When cooked, it becomes a tender flavorful addition to a sauce or stew. Though neither the oyster nor the clam is a beauty queen by conventional standards, they are important enough to the town of Wellfleet to deserve their own pageant—an event in mid-October called Wellfleet OysterFest, which attracts 20,000 oyster- and clam-slurping shellfish devotees.
Shellfish, though an effective lure to hook hungry tourists, is also the largest-employing industry in Wellfleet, an indispensible part of the year-round economy. Andrew Koch, the town Shellfish Constable, the man responsible for implementing and enforcing shellfishing regulations, values the harvest between $2 million and $4 million. While much is sold locally to feed the droves of summer visitors, many fishermen look beyond the ten-week boom of the tourist season by establishing themselves in off-Cape markets.
Patrick and Barbara Woodbury are shellfish aquaculturists who earn the most coveted of Cape treasures—a year-round local living—by selling shellfish to many of Boston’s best restaurants. Pat and Barbara earned Master’s degrees in organismal biology from the University of Chicago, but grew tired of research science and moved to the Cape in 1986 to try their hand at the then-emerging practice of shellfish aquaculture. Not wanting to compete with their neighbors for local restaurant accounts, they approached Boston chefs and found considerable interest in their product.
“When I went to Boston no one had contact with the kind of product that we were growing,” says Pat. “They were using stuff that was harvested from the wild, probably by a dragger, a large boat. The quality was a lot different. They were many days older and jammed with sand.”
Working in chest-high waders in the cold water of Wellfleet Harbor, the Woodburys harvest by hand at low tide, when their rows of clams are most accessible. A bullrake—a metal cage open on one end with a long handle—dragged through the sand collects a hundred wet and shining blue-grey littleneck clams. Jim Rohrer, one of the Woodburys’ two employees, delivers the clams, out of the water for less than 24 hours, to restaurants throughout the Boston area.
The Woodburys sow seed—tiny baby clams, bought from a nursery—in the intertidal sand of their grant, an area of Wellfleet Harbor granted by the town for shellfish aquaculture. The harbor’s salinity, rate of tidal flow and abundance of nutrients is ideal for growing clams. In three years a five-gallon bucket of seed grows into tons of littleneck clams worth tens of thousands of dollars. Shellfish aquaculture is unique as a food production system in that it benefits the local ecology. Both oysters and clams eat by filtering algae and phytoplankton from the water that flows past their open shells. Nitrogen is a common pollutant from lawn and agricultural fertilizers, as well as finfish aquaculture, that causes an overabundance of phytoplankton which clouds the water, starving organisms on the sea floor of light.
Pat says, “We’re cleansing the environment of nitrogen, which is one of the chief complaints of finfish aquaculture. Because they are feeding them they find they are loading the environment with nitrogen [when unconsumed feed falls from the fish pens]. Shellfish take nitrogen from plant material and incorporate it into their body tissue; they need nitrogen to grow.”
Before industrial pollution, overharvesting and coastal development, shellfish were abundant, with oysters growing in large reef colonies in estuaries all along the Eastern seaboard. Oyster reefs fill an important enough role in coastal ecosystems that Mass Audubon, with support from the town, started an oyster reef restoration project.
Oysters live a lifetime anchored in one place. They often attach to each other, with young oysters growing on piles of old shells, forming a reef. A mature reef becomes a natural barrier that protects the shore against erosion. Oysters filter algae from as much as 50 gallons of sea water a day, allowing the sun to penetrate to greater depths, promoting the growth of eelgrass, an important habitat for other sea creatures. The reef also provides nooks for small fish to escape predation.
The project, now in its second year, still has a long way to go, for reefs form slowly over many years. And though reef restoration is an unusual project, it does fall in line with the town’s goal of maintaining a healthy fishery.
The town strictly regulates catch size and sets a size limit that guarantees that all harvested clams and oysters have spawned, helping contribute to the next generation. The town also plants clam seed and kulches, dumping shucked clam and oyster shells back into the harbor for baby oysters to grow on.
Harvesting the fishery sustainably and keeping it abundant allows all residents of Wellfleet access to shellfish as either a living or a meal. By wading out on the town flats, a resident with a $50 yearly recreational permit ($200 for non-residents) can collect more than enough oysters or clams for a nice dinner. With a $300 commercial permit (only available to residents) an hour is enough to collect a bushel of oysters that can sell for as much as $250. With 150 commercial permits issued in 2009, and 1,100 of the 1,400 recreational permits going to residents, nearly half of the town has a stake in this fishery.
Though the money may sound easy, the reality is that shellfishing is not a get-rich-quick scheme. Earning a living in Wellfleet has never been easy. As Andrew Koch, the Shellfish Constable and longtime shellfisherman, says, “It’s the Cape—you’ve got to do four things to get by.”
Koch exemplifies the role shellfishing plays in Wellfleet’s working class community. He began shellfishing in the 1980s, working on a dragger, a boat that pulls a cage that rakes up clams, oysters and scallops from the sand in the deep water of the harbor. He tried clamming, oystering and aquaculture. He also spent 15 winters doing carpentry. He knows the constant hustle to make a living on the Cape. Oysters and clams are a valuable product—if you can find a buyer.
Koch says, “If I could sell the product every day, I’d have kept farming.”
Now he spends his day in the Shellfish Department’s small office overlooking the harbor, issuing permits and doing administrative work, or out on the flats enforcing shellfishing rules rather than hustling around trying to sell product.
The challenges involved in running the business side of a commercial operation drove twelve shellfishermen to start the Wellfleet Shellfish Company. Founded in 2002 as a co-op, the company handles the business side of selling shellfish, allowing the fishermen to focus on what they do best: growing and harvesting.
Paul Wittenstein, the general operations manager, sees the company as a way to help fishermen smooth out volatile prices and give them access to markets. By collecting shellfish from the twelve owners and buying from another dozen fishermen, the company is able to sell Wellfleet clams and oysters to large wholesale accounts such as the Fulton Fish Market in New York City and supermarkets like Price Chopper and Whole Foods.
The Wellfleet Shellfish Company handles both wild and farmed oysters and clams. Wittenstein says the diversity of product is important. It is good to support the wild fisheries since wild shellfish are usually hardier, often surviving disease and cold winters better than farmed shellfish. However, restaurants require round, clean, uniform shellfish, a quality more consistently found in farmed product. The company goes to the unusual effort of storing their clams in tanks filled with water from Wellfleet harbor. Wittenstein says that method keeps the clams fresher longer than dry storage and gives them time to purge themselves of sand.
For both the Woodburys and Wellfleet Shellfish Company, the ability to survive as a business depends on earning a premium price for a high-quality product. Shellfish grow slowly in the cold waters of Cape Cod. But the cold water, the salinity of the harbor and many environmental factors specific to Wellfleet make these clams and oysters particularly delicious. But viability of the industry rests on preserving the reputation of the Wellfleet brand. Wittenstein says that the old timers are often the ones reminding him of the importance of selling quality product to maintain Wellfleet’s good name.
“You’ll see this with the younger guys—they’re not thinking of the future when they sell ugly oysters,” says Wittenstein. “They are thinking of 20 cents a piece now rather than 50 cents a piece in the future.”
To some people all oysters and clams seem ugly, odd creatures that even the ocean turns its back on twice a day. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and once these mollusks are seen in their ecological and community context, they become much more attractive. And for those who enjoy their sweet and briny flavor, low tide never looked so appetizing.
Mike West is a freelance writer and professional cook currently working at Oleana Restaurant in Cambridge. Through years of cooking in restaurants he saw a connection between the food people eat and where it comes from. He writes about food production systems and the communities that support them.