As a shellfish constable responsible for the sustainable management of Wellfleet’s shellfish resources, I am very aware of just how closely tied the town’s year-round economy is to Cape Cod’s Blue Economy. In 2017, Wellfleet was first in the state of Massachusetts for both wild oyster landings and farmed quahog landings. It was third in the commonwealth for farmed oysters and fourth for wild quahogs. These oyster and clam sales represented more than $6.3 million to local shellfishermen, highlighting the importance of the shellfish industry to the town’s — and the region’s — Blue Economy.
With more than 150 wild commercial harvesters, 134 grant lease holders and many more employees, shellfishing is a primary year-round economic driver for the town. About 15 percent of its residents are involved in shellfishing, not including restaurants, fish buyers and markets — impressive for a year-round population of approximately 3,100. With a centurieslong tradition of harvesting oysters and clams for the public’s enjoyment, our community identity is inextricably woven with the brand name recognition of Wellfleet oysters and littleneck clams.
Shellfish farms in Wellfleet are family-run operations and continue long-standing traditions of shellfish farming that began in the 19th century. In addition to tremendous economic benefits, shellfish aquaculture provides important ancillary benefits to the harbor ecosystem as well. When the vast numbers of shellfish being cultivated here spawn, they add juvenile oysters and clams to our wild fishery. Shellfish aquaculture is extremely effective at removing nitrogen from the water, in effect purifying our estuaries and harbors, because shellfish are removed for sale during the peak of nitrogen assimilation. This maintaining of clean and healthy waters is the cornerstone of our continued existence. The town has formed a Wastewater Management Committee to look closely at how we could supplement this nitrogen removal with specific oyster reef initiatives to remove even more nitrogen with the goal of avoiding expensive sewering as a clean water solution.
If our shellfish farms are the economic engine of the town’s blue economy, the wild fishermen represent our heart and soul. Wellfleet is the only town in Massachusetts with a significant wild oyster fishery, and it is fueled by natural reproduction, thanks in large part to the spawning of tens of millions of farmed oysters. Close to 100 families rely on wild shellfishing as a primary source of income. The Wellfleet oyster brand began with a bounty of wild harvested oysters dating back to the 1700s. The town’s recreational shellfishery also directly and indirectly effects the blue economy. By issuing recreational shellfishing permits, Wellfleet provides opportunities for more than 850 members of the public to collect oysters, clams and other shellfish to bring home and enjoy. These positive recreational shellfishing experiences create new customers at the retail and restaurant level all across the region — and the country.
The town is undertaking a Local Comprehensive Plan initiative and for the first time is creating a chapter dedicated to the shellfishing industry and its community impacts. Town leaders agreed on the importance of modernizing the Shellfish Department and a 109 percent increase in funding for its operations, including doubling its propagation resources, was approved at town meeting in April 2018. This forward-thinking and resource support highlights the town’s commitment to a blue economy as integral to its success in the future.
For us to continue to be successful into the future, we must be nimble and forward-thinking. Using the knowledge of local shellfishermen and the scientific resources of our partners at the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension and others, we will devise ways to mitigate the challenges and take advantage of the opportunities that Mother Nature presents us. In Wellfleet, we’re in it for the long haul.