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Shellfishermen Face an Extra Challenge During the Pandemic: Reaching Customers

Courtesy Jack Clancy

Many people have been turning to locally sourced food during the coronavirus outbreak, as a way to avoid grocery stores.


But there is one exception: shellfish.


WCAI’s Sam Houghton reports that oysters and quahogs face a particular challenge when it comes to reaching customers.


Andrew Cummings has been harvesting oysters on his Wellfleet farm for over 20 years. He was optimistic heading into the spring. He had a new wholesaler, new accounts. Prices were good.


“And with the health of the farm right now, I’m on top of the world, but I didn’t plan for a world pandemic.”


Now Cummings is nervous that he could lose his farm. His sales are made through restaurants.


And while he’s not bringing money in, he still has to pay a crew to work the oysters.


“So you have money going out, and that’s okay, because you can recoup it over the summer season. That’s probably not going to happen.”


Cummings is not alone. Some estimates put the loss of the shelfishing market at over 90 percent the last several weeks.


Massachusetts, because of health concerns, doesn’t allow shellfishermen to sell directly to customers.


Cummings sees that overall as a good thing.


“I would have no worries about my product going out, but I have to think about the industry at large and I know the usual suspects will not be taking the care that I will be.”


And for Cummings, sales to his neighbors wouldn’t be nearly enough to make up for the loss of selling wholesale.


The Massachusetts Aquaculture Association shares Cummings’ concerns over food safety when it comes to direct sales. Scott Soares is with the group, and says: If just one harvester sells a bad product, it could damage the entire industry.


“The concern that comes across to the consumer, they read it as someone got sick eating shellfish. And that’s the worst thing that could happen for the industry," Soares said.


Despite those concerns, the Association, is calling on the state to make it easier for shellfishermen to sell directly to customers, they say it would help growers, while giving consumers better access to local food.


In Falmouth, Matt Weeks has harvested wild quahogs for a decade. He favors the proposal, at least for quahogs.


“It’s frustrating because usually we have closures bec of water quality … there’s quahogs out there that are harvestable, you can’t move them.”


Weeks says quahogs aren’t as susceptible to toxins as oysters. Also, Quahogs are more likely to be cooked, rather than eaten raw.


He points out that in Maine, shellfish farmers are able to sell to customers.


“If other states can do it and approve it, and make it work, I don’t see how Massachusetts can’t,” Weeks said.


In the meantime, shellfishermen on the Outer Cape have seen some immediate relief, thanks to a new program. SPAT – the non-profit that sponsors the Wellfleet Oyster Fest – wanted to help families during the pandemic.


“Some households in Wellfleet completely rely on shellfising for their income so it was devastating when all of their supply lines evaporated overnight,” Michele Insley said. She's the executive director of the non-profit.

The new program pays shellfishermen for quahogs and oysters to be supplied to the homeless and others as free food.


SPAT is working with a number of food pantries and kitches around the Cape, including Faith’s Kitchen in Hyannis.


For the shellfishermen, Insley says, the program has been good.


“Within the first hour, we probably had 30 shellfishermen sign up for this program.”


That number’s now over 50 .


Insley says they’ve been able to donate 15,000 shellfish through the program, and pay fishermen at the same time.


The idea, she says, is to help shellfishermen during this turbulent time, so the industry can survive.

Sam Houghton left CAI in February, 2023, to become News Editor at the Martha's Vineyard Times.
He worked at CAI since the summer of 2017. Before that, he worked at the Falmouth Enterprise, where he covered local politics.