A reader of Mark Kurlansky’s excellent history of the New York oyster fishery knows the hardshelled bivalve (Crassostrea virginica) was an important piece of 19th century cuisine and commerce during the earliest years of the nation’s history. Vast “reefs” blanketed the shores and bottoms of the bays and inlets from New Jersey through the southern New England coastline, offering a plentifully cheap protein source that was the mainstay of most American diets.
Those reefs were once so extensive and played such an important role in the health of the estuarine systems that one writer, Paul Greenberg bemoaned their absence in the New York Times as a contributing factor to the devastation wreaked by Superstorm Sandy. A frightening 85% of the world’s oyster reefs have vanished since the 1800s. Oysters’ role as a stabilizer influence, but most encouragingly as a very effective water filtration system, makes them not only a delicacy but a necessity in the rebuilding of a sick coastal embayment. Greenberg wrote:
“Just as corals protect tropical islands, these oyster beds created undulation and contour on the harbor bottom that broke up wave action before it could pound the shore with its full force. Beds closer to shore clarified the water through their assiduous filtration (a single oyster can filter as much as 50 gallons of water a day); this allowed marsh grasses to grow, which in turn held the shores together with their extensive root structure.”
Yesterday I took an old friend and his wife for a brief oystering expedition. The boat had been parked in the yard for last week’s three-day northeaster. I pulled out handfuls of maple leaves from the bilge. Returned the gas tanks, and launched her back into the bay on the morning tide. Being sunny, a veritable Indian Summer day* with no wind, sparkling sunshine, and a light haze on the horizon covering the beaches of Popponesset and beyond, it was a good day to take a break from the raking and the housework and get on the water. My friend is working on a photojournalism project about oystering, and she has been filming the various sources for the clams: fish markets, the Cotuit Oyster Company, and the town of Barnstable’s annual oyster season where the Department of Natural Resources lays out its crop of cultivated oysters on the bottom around a couple local beaches and turns loose the wadered permit holders to perform what Cousin Peter and I deride as “shopping” and not “clamming.”
Peter and I discovered a clutch of wild oysters in a never-to-be-disclosed location about ten years ago, and have been careful not to over-harvest from there, making one or two visits during the fall and winter months to pick up a dozen or so for the table. Reluctantly I took my friend and wife out yesterday in the name of journalism, imploring them to maintain some secrecy as the oysters are very tenuous and scarce compared to the wild abundance of oysters around the flats of Wellfleet’s Lieutenant Island. Put another way, when I was a kid, and the harbor was healthy, we never collected oysters. Steamers and quahogs were it. Oysters were nowhere to be seen (or we weren’t looking in the right places) and could only be bought from Dick Nelson at the oyster company (always with a reminder not to do something stupid like cook with them, since Cotuit’s are to be savored raw, on the half-shell, with only a squeeze of lemon juice if you must.)
I took along the dog (see the canine below in the dinghy and the halloween costume) as she is manic about “go-ride-boat” and beach walks. I dug out and pinned my shellfish license to my Kettleer’s cap, pessimistically brought along my leaky waders, Ribb rake and wire basket, and met my friends at the town dock on the afternoon’s low tide. It was an extraordinarily low one that exposed an extra rung of slippery ladder, but we boarded safely and put-putted across the deserted harbor, all boats gine but a few doughty fishermen’s, the field of white and blue-striped mooring balls replaced with winter sticks, giving the place the appearance of a military cemetery in Normandy. The channel cans were gone, prudently pulled by the harbormaster in advance of Sandy and the northeaster, so I was navigating by the seat of my pants, assisted by the completely clear water that revealed some of the dead, dead bottom below us.
As we motored away from the dock we talked about the recent kerfuffle raised by some of the town’s shellfish activists who donate their time and backs to relaying bushels of quahogs from “dirty” areas high in the tidal rivers to cleaner spots lower in the bays where recreational clammers get can get their limit without fear or picking up some nasty sickness. A crew of local commercial clammers have been flouting the laws and exercising their native-American aboriginal riparian rights to shellfish on any day of the week in any water of their choosing without a license. They allegedly wiped out the volunteers’ efforts to manually repopulate one or two local clean beds. I’d seen the Indian clammers in question working off of Lowell’s Point during winter beach walks this past winter. Their pickup truck had bumper stickers pledging their allegiance to the Wampanoag Nation, but I thought little of it until a family member active in the Barnstable Association of Recreational Shellfishermen ranted about their depredations over dinner a few weeks back. Now a big sign forbidding commercial shellfishing adds to the over-signification of the Cotuit waterfront (another rant for another day) but I doubt it will do much to deter the Indian clammers.
I am of a mixed mind when it comes to aboriginal fishing rights as I am solidly pro-Wampanoag to the point that I am sort of pissed off by the whole “kettle and a hoe” thing that defines Cotuit’s local waterhole, baseball team, and an ugly sign across the street in the park (yet another rant for another day). The connection between Wampanoag culture and shellfish is organically intertwined, with ancient “middens” or shell piles still to be found along the pine bluffs and beaches of the Cape’s harbors. Wampum, the woven currency of the tribes, is made from the purple part of a quahog shell; and the tribes used to move their encampments between an inland winter camp up near Hamblin’s Pond (according to local historian Jim Gould) and summer coastal camps generally picked based on proximity to shellfish. It has been often said that the bravest man in the world was the first man to dare to eat an oyster, and doubtlessly that man was some long passed Wamp who watched a gull drop one from a great height onto a boulder to crack it open and then sagely wondered what morsel lay inside that could be eaten. Anyway, more on the Indian clamming issue later, I am not that ardent a shell-fisherman to contribute my time to the relays and in fact, will use this post to make a controversial contrarian statement in favor of encouraging the comeback of our wild stock as a harbinger of healthy waters, rather than promote more aquaculture and its veneer of health and well being.
Back to the hunt for the wild oyster. We anchored, we went to the beach where they have been found in the past, and lo and behold, despite my pre-expedition pessimism that we would be lucky to get one or two, we found an abundance tucked on the verge of the beach grass along the rockweed and the horse mussels, sticking up plain as day in their glued embrace to the allegedly inedible mussels. Pictures were taken, video videoed, and within half an hour my friend had his fill, and we had ample opportunity to marvel as the health of the wild oysters.
Our theory is these are refugees from the Oyster Company’s owner Chris Gargiulo’s cages of cultivated oysters laid on the bottom of Cotuit Bay in the company’s grants , arguably the oldest brand name in American clams, a holdover from the days when the bilious gourmand Diamond Jim Brady would tuck into three dozen Cotuits at Rector’s in belle epoque Manhattan before settling in for a full meal. I still feel a pang of homesick pride whenever I meet a friend for a bite and a drink at Grand Central’s Oyster Bar and see Cotuits on the menu. The Oyster Company represents all that is good and all that is lost from Old Cotuit, and no one is more devoted to the bay than Chris.
And, I like to think thanks to his seeding efforts, some microscopic spat** have escapes from the cages on the floor of the harbor and make their way on the currents to the mussel beds, where they glue themselves on and flourish. Oysters are unique clams in that they can live exposed to the air and do not need to be submerged all the time. Tropical oysters festoon mangrove roots, wild Cotuit oysters like the very verge between grass and water — submerged half the time and exposed the rest.
The foodie fad that has gives us “locavores” would put a premium on these wild clams. The fact that Cotuit’s wild oysters are thriving — there must be ten times the abundance there was when Cousin Pete and I first discovered their existence — is good news of a sort in a time of very bad news over the bad quality of the coastal estuaries. I continue to maintain that change and action to restore the bays to their former perfection are doomed unless those who remember what we’ve lost are able to share that picture of what could be to the new wave of residents and washashores who look out at the pretty vistas and see nothing but twinkling waves and picturesque sailboats. These oysters are there, they are visible. They aren’t under a foot of sand, masked by algae blooms or turbid waters churned up by weekend propeller parades, they are right on the water’s edge, waiting to be picked up, volunteering their siphons and gills to filtering the mess we’ve managed to make over the last 50 years. And I have no idea what the place looked like before the Army trashed North Bay with Camp Candoit in World War II. I imagine the shoreline was a very very different place 100 years ago.
The clam activists are on the forefront of the outrage of what is now called our “beautiful dirty waters.” They were able to put in place a ban on private piers (with the extraordinary backing of Cotuit’s former town councilor Rick Barry). They wade the muddy waters, they tote the bushels and lobby for the equipment and budgets to keep the clams going strong. I propose they also push for wildness — and use the presence of healthy, wild shellfish as a sort of litmus test for their efforts. Want to “vista prune” your bluff so your starter castle can have a water view? Then you better be able to prove a healthy intertidal zone with oysters that test out pure and clean. Need to truck in a couple barges of boulders to build up a groin or some riprap to keep the next superstorm from eating away at your Chemlawn? How are those wild oysters doing? Need to drive some toxic “pressure-treated ” wood into the sand to form a tidy bulkhead? Not so fast.
I took water samples for the Three Bays Preservation Society during the summer months (I was Test Station #19), driving them to the County Lab in Barnstable Village. I do so happily, but something tells me that seeing an oyster peeking out of the mussels and rock weed at Ropes Beach would say more about the health of the harbor than a parts-per-million bacteria test.
*: “Indian Summer” is technically any day when the temperature reaches 70 degrees following the occurrence of a killing frost.
**: “Spat” is the oysterman’s term for oyster spawn. Oysters grow incredibly quickly and achieve maturity in one year.