As the people who work the sea for food face growing challenges - such as fewer fish to catch and more stringent regulations - shellfish farming is flourishing. It’s commonly called aquaculture, and while it surely has pitfalls, more and more people are entering the business and making a decent living at it. Demand is high, and prices are relatively stable.
Wellfleet in particular is known as a hotbed for oyster farming, and the shellfish growing areas along the town’s inner shoreline continue to be productive.
It was a 5-minute ride in Laura Scheel’s green pickup from the parking lot out to her grant - the area on the beach on Indian Neck in Wellfleet that she leases from the town to cultivate her crop. The oysters grow in plastic mesh bags that sit side-by-side on metal racks set out in rows along the sand. She picks up a few bags the wind has knocked over. The bags also need to be shaken frequently to prevent overcrowding.
Not a Fisherman, but a Farmer
Technically, Scheel is considered a farmer, not a fisherman. She’s been raising oysters for 10 years using a sustainable method of planting shellfish seeds, and cultivating them to maturity.
"We’re not using resources," she said. "We’re not using irrigation, because the oysters are just eating whatever’s in here, which is a very rich, dense nutrient spot - Blackfish Creek. A lot of food coming in and out of here."
Oysters are filter feeders, so when they’re submerged around high tide, that constant filter-feeding activity helps keep the surrounding waters clean.
The job has its hazards, including unpredictable weather. There was an especially violent storm a couple of years ago. Another time, a boater ran over some of her equipment, costing her $600 in lost product. But freak storms and over-zealous boaters aside, Scheel still loves the business.
"It’s not one of these businesses where you can look at your paycheck and say, 'Oh, and how many hours did I work for that?'" she said. "It’s not what you want to be doing for this. That’s just part of the package."
Scheel sells her product to Chatham Fish and Lobster, a local wholesaler. The wholesalers are especially vigilant these days about the Vibrio bacteria, which can cause serious health problems.
"And the oysters, because they’re filter feeders, eat this all the time," she explained. "But the thing is, this bacteria is activated by heat. So if you want to harvest an oyster and it’s been sitting out here like this with the sun baking on it, or it’s in the back of your truck for a while on your way to market and those oysters inside start to heat up, it becomes a perfect, harmonious place for this bacteria to just explode and multiply."
Regulations require that oyster farmers get their oysters refrigerated within a very specific time frame, and to document their activities meticulously.
While Scheel typifies the rugged, individualistic fishing spirit, some towns have started community shellfishing areas, which operate much like community gardens. Truro and Provincetown are jointly creating just such a site - a 50-acre area in Cape Cod Bay on either side of the two town’s border. The Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies helped to map out the site, and Owen Nichols was part of that team.
"It was intended to be a community aquaculture development area," Nichols says, "in the sense that it would give individual growers an opportunity to experiment with sub-tidal aquaculture."
So far, half a dozen applicants from each town have expressed interest. But there are still some issues to work through. Some are frustrated that the State won’t allow the use of a popular floating type of apparatus. State officials contend that marine mammals might become entangled in the ropes used to raise these structures from the bottom. In May, a seminar was held to solicit ideas from people who want to farm at the site.
"It’s got some challenges due to the exposed nature of the site, the depth of the site," Nichols said. "But I think it’s an area in which people can innovate and come up with new ways to do things, too. And that’s exciting - it’s always exciting being a part of that."
Cultivating Shellfish Seed
One name that’s familiar to most shellfish farmers on Cape Cod is Aquaculture Research Corporation in Dennis. ARC is the Cape’s only shellfish hatchery, and a vital lifeline to the industry here. The company supplies 70 to 75 percent of all the seed grown on the Cape. Shellfish farmers usually buy their seed in lots of hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions.
ARC’s buildings sit at the end of a long neck of land behind Chapin Beach. They’re somewhat run-down, and could use a good coat of paint. But inside, shellfish propagation goes on day and night from January to July. The process of fertilization and seed growth takes about three months, until they’re big enough to sell for planting. Shellfish begin life as organisms only a few microns in size. That’s about one-tenth of a grain of sand. They’re fed by algae that’s grown on site.
Richard Kraus is ARC's president. "The water you grow the algae in is absolutely clean - no bacteria, no nothing," he explains. "When we put in wells in this site, we come up with salt water, and it comes up absolutely pristine and pure, and allows us just to pump it right into the tanks and off we go growing algae."
Raising shellfish seed is expensive. So Kraus wanted to install a wind turbine to help reduce electric costs - he estimates it could save $200,000 a year. Neighbors objected, and stopped the project, but that decision was overturned earlier this year in Orleans District Court. Now the case is being appealed, and may go all the way to the Massachusetts State Supreme Court. A resolution could take years. Meanwhile, Kraus vows to do whatever it takes to stay in business.
While traditional fisheries continue to struggle, and many fishermen have chosen to get out, other people are looking to get in to aquaculture – and communities appear to be on board. The number of shellfish farms in Massachusetts has increased dramatically in the last 25 years. All this points to an industry that, for the moment at least, appears healthy and economically viable.
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