Wellfleet: Resurrecting a Reef Helps Sustain a Community

The Conservancy has worked to restore the shellfish reefs upon which Wellfleet's economy was built.

Starting in 2007, in partnership with Mass Audubon, NOAA and the Town of Wellfleet, The Nature Conservancy took part in an oyster reef project focused in part on gaining better understanding of which underwater surface provided the most suitable material onto which oyster seed could settle for the purposes of oyster bed restoration.

The project was the first of its kind: Previously, the state hadn’t permitted similar restoration efforts. While the restoration is no longer active, the partners learned a great deal from it, and since then, the Conservancy has used what it learned to launch an ambitious initiative to restore native shellfish species and their habitat to more than 5,000 acres off Massachusetts. The Wellfleet project was the first step toward this goal.

By Kate Frazer

WELLFLEET, 2009-- Barbara Austin jumps from her truck and greets me with a wide smile. “Hop in,” she says. “And don’t mind all the junk.” It’s low tide: Time to get to work. She drives carefully over the sand, pointing out oystercatchers and sanderlings darting in and out of the receding waves.

Cape Cod’s Wellfleet, Massachusetts was literally built on shellfish. A century ago, wild reefs bustling with life were so huge ships had to navigate around them, but by the 1970s wild harvesting, pollution and disease had chiseled away the last wild reef.

Now, the Conservancy, Mass Audubon, NOAA and the Town of Wellfleet are experimenting with different structures on which oyster seed can stick, with the goal of rebuilding a reef that would bolster local populations of shellfish and provide benefits like clean water and defense against rising seas.

But how will the project benefit the people who depend on Wellfleet’s world famous oysters most? To find out, I spoke with farmers and restaurateurs whose livelihoods depend on the abundance and quality of these tasty little mollusks. You help make lasting community partnerships like this possible when you support our work today.

Barbara Austin: Bivalves in the Family Tree

As we approach, Barbara leaps out to check the sand for a burrowing horseshoe crab. “These guys help me out” she says. “Horseshoe crabs eat the little worms that stunt my clams’ growth by softening the bottom where they grow. This is one of their favorite spots.”

Before us stretch her shellfish flats — a family tree of sorts.

“These are my oysters, those are my son’s oysters, those are my clams, those are my sister’s clams,” she says, waving to various sections of her three acre plot

Barbara was working as a waitress when she put her name on a list for a aquaculture grant from the town — a centuries-old Wellfleet tradition of leasing rights to town residents to plant, grow and take shellfish within a specified area. It took five years, but in 1985 Barbara got her grant. She’s been out here almost every day since.

It takes two to three years, with continuous care, to grow oysters to market size: three inches or more,” says Barbara, tapping an oyster’s fanned edge against a metal measuring ring. “As they get bigger, I sort them by size and transfer them to cages with larger openings. And for 12 weeks in the winter, everything here must be hauled off the flats and the oysters buried so they don’t freeze.”

When I ask Barbara what makes it worth it, she tucks her hands into her chest waders and looks around, her silver oyster necklace gleaming in the sun. “Just look,” she says.

Mac and Alex Hay: Serving More Than a Meal

Down a few miles of winding beach roads, I meet brothers Mac and Alex Hay, the young owners of Mac’s Seafood who depend on a healthy supply of local shellfish for their five restaurants and markets. Like Barbara, they see their jobs as less about making money, and more about preserving a way of life on the Cape.

“During summers in Truro, our grandpa took us fishing for bass and bluefish and showed us how to cut and package them in his basement shop,” says Mac.

“Grandma would only accept the afternoon’s fish,” adds Alex. “The morning’s catch wasn’t fresh enough.”
“We’ve been local and green for 15 years,” Mac jokes. “We keep tabs on fish stocks and know what equipment the fishermen use. Oysters, clams, scallops and groundfish harvested responsibly by people we know — that’s what cements us in the community.”

But shellfish reefs need to be managed with more than just fisheries landings in mind, and Mac and Alex gauge the benefits of the reef’s restoration not just by the numbers of oysters for eaters but for the larger role they play in the ecosystem.

“The reef’s restoration could be huge for the productivity of the harbor and its fish, but also for water quality,” says Alex, who serves on Wellfleet’s wastewater committee. “Oysters filter 60 gallons of water a day. The bay’s health depends on the number of oysters in it. Plus they taste good.”

Cultivating Community

Back on the flats, Barbara kneels in the wet sand and digs up littleneck clams with both hands, tossing the sky blue bivalves into a basket already brimming with a dozen perfect oysters.

“Some snacks for later,” she says. I’ve already slurped my fair share of shellfish at Mac’s, but her instructions to sauté them with garlic and butter until they open have me hungry already.

Still digging, she points to the Conservancy’s oyster restoration site, which is almost visible across the bay.

“It’s not just what the reef will do physically,” she says. “The restoration project helps bridge a gap between scientists, commercial fishermen, conservation organizations and lay people. It has brought a lot of people together who never realized that they have a common bond. And if we all work together, we all benefit.

From Fin to Fork

Read more inspiring stories of how Conservancy projects connect to community efforts to sustain local seafood.

Get Cooking!

Download Mac Hay's recipe for Clams Casino (pdf, 13.9 KB).