By Christine Harris
For seafood aficionados the town of Wellfleet, Massachusetts is synonymous with one thing: oysters. These briny morsels have been a staple of the town’s economy since the 1700s and are known far and wide for their unique flavor. The decline, recovery, and cultivation of oysters in Wellfleet follows the ecological understanding of these animals and has led to an innovative recycling project in the town.
First called Oyster Bay by Samuel de Champlain when he explored the area in 1605, Wellfleet Harbor has been a hotbed of oyster harvest and cultivation for over 300 years and was likely harvested by the native Wampanoag people for centuries beforehand. However, by the beginning of the 1800s the oysters in Wellfleet Harbor were gone. The disappearance is likely due to a combination of overfishing and a lack of cultch in the harbor. Cultch is a term used to describe broken shells used by baby oysters or “spat” as a substrate on which to grow. The spat attach to cultch and grow and live affixed to that substrate.
During the 1700s the shells of oysters and clams that were harvested from the harbor were used to make shell lime for mortar for construction and thus not returned to the water. Without the return of shells to the harbor spat had no cultch on which to grow and over time the oysters disappeared. With little understanding of the life cycle of the oyster, many of the people of Wellfleet believed that God was punishing them for their sins by taking away their most valuable food and economic source.
With the loss of its native oysters, the people of Wellfleet began to bring in oysters from the Chesapeake Bay to grow in the waters of Wellfleet Harbor and later be sold in markets in Boston. Though the oysters may have originated elsewhere, the flavor of an oyster comes from the waters in which it lives, so these imported oysters still tasted like Wellfleet oysters. Today the cultivation of oysters in the harbor continues to thrive.
In celebration of the importance of the oyster to Wellfleet, an annual Oysterfest is held in October each year. The event has grown in recent years and in 2013 an estimated 25,000 people descended on the small town to indulge in a variety of oyster dishes, listen to live music, browse products from local artists, and have a good time. With so many people consuming oysters many shells are left behind. At the event in 2012 an estimated 100,000 oysters and 10,000 clams were consumed. Five tons of oyster shells were collected and recycled, amounting to 43 percent of the waste stream from the event. These shells, and others collected since, are now being used as cultch in Wellfleet Harbor and are providing habitat for future generations of shellfish.
It is estimated that in the three years since the shell-recycling program began enough habitat has been added to Wellfleet Harbor for 60 million new oysters which is 15 times the annual harvest rate. The oysters also improve the water quality in the harbor by filtering 3 billion gallons of water a day. In 2012 Shellfish Promotion and Tasting (SPAT), the organization behind Oysterfest, and the Town of Wellfleet won the Municipal Innovation Award at the annual Mass Recycle Awards. This innovative program holds promise for the future of oysters in Wellfleet Harbor and beyond.