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An Introduction to the Commercial Shellfish Industry on Cape Cod

Josie Cataldo | 9/15/2022
Draggers in Wellfleet Harbor

A New England Delicacy

Ever heard the phrase “the world is your oyster?” Well, for many individuals in Wellfleet, specifically commercial shellfishermen, the phrase is more accurate if you switch the placement of “oyster” and “world.” Oysters, salt-water bivalves that are abundant in the nutrient rich waters of Cape Cod, may seem insignificant, even disgusting, if you’re not familiar with the New England delicacy. However, for a large group of people living on the Outer Cape, shellfish are at the center of their day-to-day life. The oyster is their world.

Wellfleet: A Community United Through Shellfish

Wellfleet, a town beloved for its eccentric community, abundance of eye-catching art galleries, and a natural landscape that in and of itself rivals the wonders of the world, is home to many members of the commercial shellfish industry. These commercial shellfishermen, oyster farmers, etc. are the individuals responsible for catching and harvesting the "symbols" that are proudly plastered across the sweatshirts you purchased in memory of your Cape vacation. This said, why not learn a little more about the industry? And maybe next time you sport your "Wellfleet Oysters" sweatshirt, you'll think back to this blog post. Let's take a look into the lives of some of these commercial fishermen, and learn a little bit more about what the commercial shellfish industry is all about.

A Commercial Fisherman's Vocabulary

Let's start with the very basics. If you ever have a conversation with a commercial shellfisherman, you're going to need to learn a bit of terminology in order to hold your own. So, let's cover a few key-words that'll ensure your being able to follow along in a conversation about commercial shellfishing. First off, we have a "dredge." A dredge can be either a big steel cage or chain bag (depending on the fishery), that is dragged along the seafloor to target a certain species of shellfish. "Bushel" is another word you'll hear frequently if you ever find yourself surrounded by a few individuals in the industry. A bushel is the unit of measurement that shellfishermen use to keep track of their catch. This unit of measurement is equivalent to 6 gallons volume, 80 pounds of clams, or approximately 300 oysters. Finally, in a few of the photos included in this blog post, you'll see the fisherman sorting through the shellfish and tossing aside various sea creatures. This is called "picking the pile." When you pick the pile, you're sorting through everything that was pulled up in the dredge to collect the shellfish you're selling end of day.

A Day in the Life

A commercial shellfisherman's day is anything but your typical 9:00 to 5:00. As federal fisheries are not limited to daytime hours, boats often leave the dock as early as midnight, sometimes not returning until days or weeks later. The individuals working on these boats carry out tasks physically and intellectually challenging, frequently lifting thousands of pounds worth of shellfish a day. Not only do these fishermen have to work fast and smart, they also have to be extremely precise and careful not to break any of the shellfish when hauling them onto the vessel. While enjoying fresh shellfish at one of the many spectacular seafood restaurants on the Cape is quite an easy task, it's important to remember the delicious delicacies before you were the result of the hard work and long hours of commercial shellfishermen.

Picking the Pile

Q&A with a Commercial Fisherman

As a resident of Wellfleet for many years, I'm fortunate to have quite a few close contacts in the commercial shellfish industry. I was fortunate to sit down with a Wellfleet native and commercial shellfisherman to ask him some questions. Below you'll find a transcription of our conversation.

Which type of shellfish are you most excited to see in the dredge when you haul it up?

"Definitely sea scallops. They're a great snack and worth over $30/pound."

What are the shellfish being used for once they're sold?

"Oysters and little necks typically go to restaurants and fish markets, whereas sea clams are most often used for bait or shipped overseas for sushi markets. Steamers and mussels are often sold to consumers at fish markets to be used in home-cooked dishes."

What are some of the major shellfish companies that you sell to?

"Just a few of the big-name companies are Intershell, Red's Best, Wellfleet Shellfish Company, A.R.C., Island Creek Oysters, etc."

Has the price of oysters fluctuated significantly since you've been in the industry?

"Quite the opposite, actually. Oysters have been around 40/60 cents/piece for the last twenty years."

What would you say is in abundance right now?

"There was a big sea scallop rush in Provincetown this winter. Millions of dollars worth of scallops were being caught. My friends out scalloping can make thousands per day."

How would you say the industry has changed since you've been a part of it?

"Prices have been volatile. Many guys are having a difficult time finding help, and fuel prices have doubled in the last year. This has never happened in the history of fishing."

Which New England towns do most commercial shell fishermen leave out of?

"Gloucester, Provincetown, and New Bedford."

What would you say is the most dangerous part of your job?

"Definitely rough weather and working in cold and dark conditions."

How about your favorite part of your job?

"There's nothing better than coming back after a long trip with a good haul to unload. It's definitely hard work but it pays off."

Though there’s much more to the commercial shellfishing industry that lies beyond the confines of this blog post, we hope this was an informative introduction. From all of us at WeNeedaVacation, we hope the next time you sit down to enjoy some shellfish, you find they taste a bit better knowing the hard work that was exerted to obtain them.