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In This Place
The Local Food Report
As we re-imagine our relationships to what we eat, Local Food Report creator Elspeth Hay takes us to the heart of the local food movement to talk with growers, harvesters, processors, cooks, policy makers and visionaries

A COVID-inspired Shellfish Market in Wellfleet Creates Community Connections and Helps the Industry

The pandemic has hit shellfishermen hard. Revenues for oysters in particular are down—as much as 50 percent in 2020—mostly because of restaurant closures. That’s been a challenge for small growers in places like Wellfleet, where oysters are far and away the biggest fishery.

“Unlike other species such as lobster or finfish where fishermen can get a permit to sell direct to the public off the boat, that isn’t allowed under state regulation for shellfish. Especially bivalve shellfish, and those especially that are eaten raw,” Dan McKiernan, Director of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, said.

There’s good reason for this. The regulations help keep consumers safe but in times like this when restaurant sales have dried up they also make something like starting a shellfish farmers market a major challenge—for that to happen every grower would have to become a licensed whole dealer. So this fall the Wellfleet shellfishing community came together to form a sort of hybrid model that helps growers get the retail price of a farmers market but also complies with the regulations. Wellfleet Shellfish Constable Nancy Civetta explains how local dealer Holbrook Oyster has helped make it happen.

“All of the shellfishermen bring their product to Holbrook, Holbrook does all of the reporting and the cataloging and the tracking and all the paperwork, stringent paperwork that needs to be done in order to comply with state and federal regulations.”

Customers shop online ahead of the market for bags of oysters, clams, and scallops from whichever growers they want to support. Then on market day, the growers and the dealer show up together on the Wellfleet Town Pier. Zack Dixon, the general manager for Holbrook Oyster describes how it works.

“We have one guy with a clipboard at the cars as they pull up and another guy inside the truck handing out the shellfish orders as they’re called. What we try to do is to get the harvester who grew the shellfish to deliver it to the trunk of the car so there’s some kind of a connection to the harvester. So they’re there, picking up their own shellfish, and handing it to their customers.”

Basically, Holbrook Oyster is volunteering the regulatory work required to operate the market, and growers are pitching in with labor. The Wellfleet Shellfisherman’s Association has put together a website with profiles for each individual grower, and takes care of tallying orders for Holbrook Oyster. Then on market day, customers from Wellfleet and beyond line up in their cars on the town pier.

“I mean this is about of course getting fresh local shellfish but it’s also about creating those community connections that we’re all really missing,” Shellfish Constable Nancy Civetta said. She added, “and we’re able to provide that in a very COVID safe way because people don’t get out of their cars but you are meeting the person who harvested that shellfish and so it really is about that community connection you feel like you are knowing your neighbors and you’re supporting your neighbors in a time of need.”

Nancy shows up each week at the market with recipe flyers provided by Wellfleet SPAT (Shellfish Promotion and Tasting), walking from car to car and asking people if they’re interested in learning new ways to cook with shellfish, particularly oysters. One of the growers’ favorite winter recipes is for broiled oysters. Here’s Zack Dixon from Holbrook Oyster again.

“The beautiful thing about broiling an oyster is you can put anything on it. You know you can shop for it specifically and get fancy with it or like we did one time the fridge was low on supplies and we just took some green pepper and provolone cheese and it was delicious after it was melted, after it was cooked,” Zack Dixon said.

Zack also recommends topping broiled oysters with herb butter, or basil, or bacon and caramelized onions—which sounds delicious. The Wellfleet Shellfisherman’s Farmers Market currently has about 15 growers and wild harvesters selling scallops, clams, and oysters every Saturday through the winter.

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The Wellfleet Shellfishermen’s Farmers Market runs Saturdays at the bandstand on the Wellfleet Town Marina from noon to 2 p.m. through May 1. You can learn more online at wellfleetshellfishermen.org and updates can be found on their Facebook page.

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Here's a recipe from Wellfleet SPAT for charbroiled oysters that could be adapted to an oven broiler.