Where I live, Cotuit, Massachusetts, was once one of the premier brand names in gourmand circles due to the superiority of the oysters harvested from Cotuit Bay.
The Cotuit Oyster Company, founded in 1857, is still going strong from its shed near Little River, farming oysters over more than 37 acres of grants out in the bay. The Company, arguably the oldest continuous commercial enterprise in the village, has had some hard times over the last 50 years, most, in my opinion, brought on by the decline in water quality brought on by the World War II landing craft that trained here in the 40s to prepare for D-Day out of Camp Can-Do-It; the nitrogen loading of shoreline septic systems, lawn fertilizer and dog poop; and toxic run-off from storm sewers, automobile oil, and other junk.
In 1857, Capt. William Childs returned from a life at sea to the life of an oysterman. His business became one of the biggest on Cape Cod. Oysters then were packed into barrels and carts and transported across the Cape in large wagons to the railroad depot in West Barnstable. From there, they were shipped by rail to Boston, New York and other cities in the northeast.
By 1870, six other oyster companies worked the bottom of Cotuit Bay. In 1894, Childs’ son Samuel decided to go into the business himself. He established his shanty at the present location of the Cotuit Oyster Company.
In 1912, Harry Height, an executive at the Eastman Kodak CO. bought out most of the independent oysterman and formed the Cotuit Oyster Company. In 1923, he sold his right to the Seacoast Oyster Company of New Haven, Conn.
The industry thrived until WWII, when the Army erected Camp Can Do-It above the narrows in North Bay. Landing Craft training for the invasion of France caused havoc with the delicate oyster beds, churning up the bottom and fouling the water with silt. This and the hurricane of 1944 proved disastrous to the industry.
The Seacoast Oyster Company rebuilt their shanties and had the beds producing again by 1955. In 1960, the company turned over the grants to their manager Andy Post. Three Cotuit residents bought the company and incorporated it, renting the property and the name along with the trademark: Cotuits-R-Superior, from the Seacoast Oyster Company. Andy Post operated the business up until 1973 when Mr. Nelson expressed interest in buying the company.
When I was a kid the harbor was still pretty pristine and the bottom was covered with eel grass (zostera marina L.), a crucial habitat for baby clams (known as spat), scallops, and a healthy benthic ecosystem. The eel grass disappeared over the 1970s — as it did across Cape Cod — for a variety of reasons, including a suspected blights, and the bottom has steadily degraded into a mucky mess of algae mats, inedible spider crabs, and a complete loss of the healthy marine life I knew as a kid. There is an excellent page on eelgrass, the factors that contribute to its cycles, and the threats to its survival here.
Underneath it all, still thrives the clams. Specifically the quahog and the steamer. Oysters, wild ones not caged in the Oyster Company’s pens, are rare but findable if one knows where to look.
The story of Waquoit Bay, to the west of Cotuit, is interesting in that the bay also lost most of its eelgrass over the last 50 years, saw a total collapse of its scallop fishery, and has been the object of an intense ecological survey which resulted in the area being designation a National Marine Estuary project.
The single most important action that the government could take to restore coastal water quality, in my uninformed opinion, would be to build a comprehensive wastewater treatment facility and get every home within a mile of the water off of in-ground septic systems and into a true sewer system. That single action would take away the nitrogen loading that is spawning algae blooms which in turn block sunlight from reaching the bottom where the eel grass grows. It won’t be enough though. Motorboats stir up a lot of sediment and have exploded in numbers the past twenty years as the Cape has become saturated with second homes, moorings and docks.
Anyway, I have a 5 gallon bucket filled with steamers on the deck, ready for shucking and deep frying into fried clams tonight.