Ark of Taste: Protecting the Wellfleet Oyster and the Northern Quahog

Jun 15, 2017

Rachel Hutchinson of Brewster has a deep respect for local clams.

“The Northern Quahog, or our hardshell clam, is a very important species all over Cape Cod," Hutchinson says. "It’s been here since Indian times, so it’s kind of one of our level species, something shell fishermen have always had to harvest. Where there have been booms and busts in other species, the quahog has always been a dominant species for our wild harvesters, as well as for our aquaculture industry.”

Hutchinson is co-chair of Slow Food Cape Cod—a regional chapter of an international organization working to get what they call good, clean, and fair food to all. She believes the Northern Quahog epitomizes this kind of eating, and she’s also worried that because of climate change, it’s in danger. “Our changing climate can affect our whole shellfish industry, because the change of the temperature of the water will change the assemblages of different algae in the water, and that will change what species we see here, along with ocean acidification.”

Ocean acidification is the most pressing threat, and it’s hard for us to understand because you can’t see it or feel it or taste it. Basically, since the start of the industrial revolution, we’ve been releasing more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. The ocean acts like a sponge and it absorbs about a quarter of this excess CO2 every year. When CO2 meets H2O, it dissolves and forms something called carbonic acid. Carbonic acid changes the pH of the water and makes it more acidic.

Hutchinson explains why this is a big deal for shellfish: “Shellfish need calcium carbonate to build their shells. And so the more acidic the ocean is, the less calcium carbonate in the water, and so the less calcium carbonate for the shellfish to grow their shells, specially at that larval stage when they need to take calcium carbonate out of the water.”

Fine specimen of the Wellfleet oyster.
Credit Elspeth Hay

In the mid-2000s, shellfish growers on the West Coast, where ocean acidification is happening faster, started seeing huge die-offs as shellfish larvae struggled to grow and form shells. Researchers identified changing ocean pH as the problem, and now shellfish hatcheries are using lower pH water to raise shellfish for seed before transplanting them onto the more acidic grants. For now, this is working. But unless we change course, the ocean will get ever more acidic, and eventually the shells of adult shellfish on the grants will be at risk too.

To try to raise awareness about this issue, Hutchinson and other members of Slow Food Cape Cod nominated the Northern Quahog and the Wellfleet Oyster to the international Slow Food Ark of Taste. “The Ark of Taste is an initiative from Slow Food to catalog endangered and heritage foods, kind of to keep those heirloom varieties of foods going—foods that are endangered or culturally important because of location. So whether it be a plant, a shellfish, or a product, the Ark is that catalog.”

You get analogy, right? We’re in a climate crisis, like Noah. And like Noah, Slow Food is bringing on the  animals two by two. Fittingly, Slow Food Cape Cod succeeded last year in getting both the Wellfleet Oyster and the Northern Quahog accepted into the catalog.

Quahogs.
Credit USDA / Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=137234

“They’re important products that are sustainable," Hutchinson says, "that are healthy, good for the environment, that people see as a local culturally important product, and something for highlighting the region.”

Hutchinson admits she doesn’t actually eat shellfish (shhhhh, she says), but that hasn’t stopped her from fighting to raise awareness about the risks our local species face and their cultural significance. For those of us who do enjoy Wellfleet oysters on the half shell and stuffed clams or clam chowder, Hutchinson’s work is not just food for thought—it’s a wakeup call.

Learn more about the Slow Food USA Ark of Taste.