Jim O'Connell has worked as a Wellfleet oyster farmer since 2004.

Credit: Alexandra Malloy

In Wellfleet, An Oyster Farmer's Life Is Dictated By The Tides

December 12, 2016

Around the bend from Wellfleet Harbor, Jim O’Connell slides out of his white Ford F150 into the emerging sand. He clips his olive hip waders onto his belt as the salty waters seep out into Cape Cod Bay. From the shore, his truck is one of many that dot the curving horizon 400 yards off Indian Neck, the slick sand glass-like in the afternoon sun. O’Connell, along with many others, is there to check his numerous bags of oysters.

It’s a life dictated by the tides.

“I love the water. I’m definitely a water man,” he says, looking out over the series of home-welded racks, the skeletons that support his growing oysters.

O’Connell wasn’t always a Wellfleet man. He was born outside of Boston and later lived in New Jersey before moving to Cape Cod. A graduate of Wellfleet High School, he built his home from scratch, falling in love with the aquaculture-focused town in the process.

In 2004, O’Connell received a call from a friend in the nearby town of Dennis, offering him oysters. The next day he found himself with 125,000 two-millimeter oyster seeds. The first night in open water, three of O’Connell’s five bags floated away from the grant, the leased property where he farms the creatures. Twelve years later, O’Connell’s one of 17 farms off of Indian Neck. In his grant alone he farms roughly 300,000 oysters.

“I do as good as a job that I know how to do,” O’Connell says. “If you’re happy with the number of animals you’re growing, you can make time for your family or other things outside of work."

The state’s aquacultural history dates back to the hunter-gathering traditions of Native Americans. According to the state’s Department of Agricultural Resources, 1970 marked the beginning of commercial aquaculture cultivation. In an economic impact study of the shellfish industry by University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, 19.1 million oysters were sold in the 2013-’14 season. Of those oysters sold, 58 percent were farmed on Cape Cod.

“This is a growing industry,” said Julian Cyr, state senator-elect for Cape Cod and the Islands. Previously, Cyr worked in the state’s Department of Public Health, and working for a time as the director of policy and regulatory affairs for the environmental health division, which looked at the protection of raw foods like oyster. “Several years back this was a $5 to $6 million industry, and its now it’s up to a $14 million industry on Cape Cod and the Islands alone, and growing. So it's really become a place over the last decade where in aquaculture we’ve seen a lot of expansion, a lot of jobs.”

Wellfleet's shellfishing history dates back to the 1600s, according to the town’s history online. Since then, the shellfish industry has been an active and occasionally tempestuous economic marker for the town.  As stated by the town, the harbor, sometimes references as the “jewel” of Wellfleet, “is why people come to Wellfleet whether to work, to play or to live.”

Shellfishing remains a multimillion industry for the town. According to a 2015 report by the Social and Environmental Research Institute, a nonprofit research firm, the town produces approximately 20 percent of the shellfish harvest in the state of Massachusetts, with the harvest of 2014 valued roughly at $4.5 million.

So renowned are the shellfish that Wellfleet OysterFest is dedicated solely to the appreciation of the bivalve. On the Lower Cape, it’s a holiday of sorts. Held every fall since 2001, it is a celebration of the town’s oysters, clams and deep-rooted shellfishing traditions, according to Wellfleet Shellfish Promotion and Tasting (SPAT), a nonprofit devoted to the town’s shellfishing industry. SPAT itself exists to help sustain the town’s unique industry and is in charge of OysterFest. This past year however, the event was marred by a state closure of the town’s shellfish beds. The closure fell on October 13, two days before thousands flocked to Wellfleet for music, art, beer, and, off course, shellfish.

“The whole OysterFest is promoting what I do for a living, what we do for a living,” O’Connell says. Although recuperating from health issues the past two years, he says he normally sells about 12,000 to 17,000 oysters that weekend. “I feel like I have an obligation to go and I enjoy watching people enjoy oysters so much.”

The Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services closed the town’s oyster bed after an outbreak of 75 cases of norovirus, believed to be linked to the consumption of shellfish from the area. With the news of the closure, all shellfish harvested on or after September 26, had to be recalled. The beds remained closed until November 14. Despite the setback, more than 20,000 people visited the town for its premier event.

Days before the reopening, O’Connell flips a few bags a top his racks that rest on the ocean floor. Trudging through in the slowly rising ankle deep water to peer at his recalled crop, the glare of the sun begins to slip slowly downward, putting the many summerhouses behind the storm wall back into shadow. Within half an hour of the low-tide mark, the water is already lapping at his tire rim.

“In this business you have mother nature and yourself,” O’Connell said. “So if you can come to grips with that then it’s physically demanding, and it can be very mentally demanding at times.”

A few miles from O’Connell’s grant, his buyers Alex Hay and Dan Roy sit across from each other in an upstairs office of the Wellfleet Shellfish Company (WSC). Downstairs, the concrete floor of the warehouse is slick with water and marked by the undeniable smell of fish. Groups of employees prep for the delivery of a local fisherman’s mackerel, and another push clams through a pipeline that sorts them by size into brightly colored, knit plastic bags.

Hay is the head of WSC, the wholesale branch of Mac’s Seafood, a local restaurant and fish market group started by Alex and his brother Mac that specializes in seafood, especially that harvested or caught locally. In 2002 the Hays purchased WSC from the original group of growers and founders, including O’Connell. Roy is Hay’s right-hand man, originally starting on the floor, and now the head of sales and purchasing.

Hanging on the wall between the two men, a yellowing posters reads, “Most Lobsters Just Crawl. Ours Can Also Fly.”

“We work with 40 to 50 growers throughout the year,” Hay says. “We may have some very dedicated growers that are very loyal to us. It lends to the fact that everyone still produces their own type of unique product, which is kind of artisanal in a sense.”

The Wellfleet oyster is world famous, featuring a briny finish, deep cut, substantial meat, and a clean shell. The cool waters of the town’s estuaries and high salinity makes the oyster one of the best on the East Coast. According to SPAT, the cold water temperatures slow down the bivalves' metabolism, allowing them to effectively “carbo-load” in the salty waters, creating a sweeter oyster with a clean, sharp flavor.

“The water, the care, the techniques [these] guys have developed over the years,” says Dan Roy. "The perfect oyster has a deep cut, good meat, clean shell.”

Across the table Hay chimes in.

“Basically being able to shuck an oyster and having it not explode is key to the quality and grade of an oyster,” Hay adds.

What makes WSC unique is their ability for wet storage. The white tanks in the warehouse are filled with sea water sourced from Wellfleet Harbor and the combination of UV light and a natural filtration system allows Hay to store fresh, live shellfish until the day they are to be shipped. As noted on their website, “We have the ability to purged sand from our shellfish, extending shelf life and ensuring that our products are fresh as the day they were harvested. Keeping shellfish in the same water where it was harvested produces a superior quality product and continual supply all year, even during the lean months.”

Since the opening of their wholesale venture, the market for oysters has continued to grow, but the market remains a tricky one.

“Oyster sales have continued to grow and they continue to change,” says Hay. “We’ve been producing more oysters but the per piece price has declined in the last five years because we’ve been producing more volume and more product up and down the East Coast. The product we produce in New England is exclusively for the raw market. … There’s no process market so the price is really dictated by demand on the retail level.”

According to the UMass Dartmouth economic impact study, the value of shellfish in the Commonwealth is between $45 to $50 million, with oysters being the most valuable product. Between 2001 and 2010, the value of annual shellfish production increased by nearly $7 million. The study also found that the majority of growers, 58.5 percent, sell to small local wholesalers.

Within such a high quality and saturated market, the competition is stiff. There are 252 farmable acres in the town and 70 grants, says Hay, meaning 70 different growers all working with the same product. As Roy points out, there’s only one spot on a menu for a Wellfleet oyster.

“You’re never just buyer or a seller or a salesman, you’re constantly researching, says Roy. “There are so many variables that go in to what we do here. It’s a big responsibility to have someone’s livelihood in your hands.”

Besides the obvious, a common thread that connects O’Connell to Hay and Roy is that they all hope to foster a cohesive market environment. The adage of think global buy local comes to mind.

“We’ve been working with our farms to get everyone on that collective mindset of producing  a high quality oyster for cheaper,” says Hay. "Unfortunately I have to say, as much as we want to say it’s one big happy community, It’s not. It’s very independent and independent-minded with very little collective thinking.”

As a business WSC works to create this identity in its purchasing as a whole. A video created for the company features many of the families that Hay began working with for their original seafood shack in 1995. As with the filtering nature of oysters, the promotion of this industry has worked to improve the health of the harbor as well as employ the local community.

“I consider myself a professional shellfish farmer, whatever that means,” O’Connell muses. “I’m serious about it, I care about it, and I also speak my mind when I see stuff going on that I don’t feel as though is doing it justice. Mind your own business doesn’t work in this business in Wellfeet, because it's all our business.”

What O’Connell is referring to is the overall quality of the oysters that come out of Wellfleet as well as the preservation of the waters and harbor that yield this multimillion-dollar industry.

“I’ve been in the school of thought that the more nice oysters that come out of Wellfleet, the better for everyone,” O’Connell says. “I don’t want to be the only one in town with nice oysters. That would be crazy, and it wouldn’t look good for Wellfleet as a whole. But some people don’t think that way.”

As detrimental as the closing of OysterFest was initially, it is a reminder that a collective community and work towards a healthy environment and oysters is what matters for the existence of this livelihood. From icing oysters as soon as they are harvested, tumbling and shaking the bivalvues, and paying attention to any threats that may leach into the water supply, it’s all in a day's work.

“I hope we don’t have anymore closures like we had. That’s no good. But I think there’s something to be learned from that,” O’Connell says. “I just like to work, and I don’t want to risk being out of work for two weeks because there’s a vibrio closure, because there’s someone not doing what their supposed to. Its not just you losing work, it could shut down the whole harbor.”

When it comes to this business, attention to detail is key.

A few weeks after the beds reopened, the temperatures have slowly begun to drop throughout Massachusetts and on the Cape. The winter will soon begin to take hold, bringing ice to the harbor and draining it of some of oysters’ favorite foods. O’Connell will begin to move the creatures from their watery home to the damp of his root cellar to wait out the coldest months. The hibernation will last until the first big tide of March, and is yet another step in keeping the animals alive.

The wind chill will soon drop the water temperature. As O’Connell says, it's better to err on the side of caution before the ice begins to form. Within the root cellars he’ll have control of the temperature and humidity until the first big tides in March call the oysters back into their watery home.

With the temperatures dropping, the sunsets O’Connell watches over the harbor daily will begin to grow more and more vibrant, a sight he never ignores.

“I can't walk by a beautiful maple tree that is this golden yellow dropping its leaves. I see all of that,” he says on his relationship with nature. “I always have, and some people don’t, but I do. I’d rather be outside in the rain than indoors almost anytime. So it's kind of perfect for me.”

All he hopes is for more days out on the tidal flats.

“That's it. Just want to wake up tomorrow and keep doing it,” he says. “That’s all.”

This multimedia story was produced as part of WGBH News contributor Dan Kennedy's class in Digital Storytelling and Social Media at Northeastern University.


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