OUTER CAPE PORTRAIT / On the Flats
NANCY CIVETTA / SHELLFISH CONSTABLE / WELLFLEET
In early July, it’s quiet on Wellfleet’s shellfish farms. Even as restaurants begin to open more fully across the Commonwealth and country, demand for product is down, and the outlook for local harvesters and pickers seems uncertain. In mid-May, Nancy Civetta sat down to reflect on how the pandemic has affected Wellfleet’s shellfish community and on the “positivity” she sees on the flats. Here’s Nancy in her words:
The winter of 2019 - 2020 never really happened. For the first time in many years, we got no ice. So farmers were able to get their animals out of their pits and back onto the flats fairly early. The mild weather definitely put people in a good mood. It was easier to go to work when it's not frigid and buried in ice.
In the middle of March is when the pandemic really hit our shores. Governor Baker issued a stay at home order. Just from one day to the next, all of the markets dried up, and people had no place to sell. Spring can be a very good time to make some sales, as markets typically start to pick up. And it evaporated. So it really put a crush on local shell fishermen in a way that I don't think we've ever experienced before. People felt it immediately, because if you can't make a sale, you can't make a paycheck. From one minute to the next, there was just no harvesting. And it was bleak for a number of weeks.
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They say necessity is the mother of invention, and very quickly this little community of Wellfleet, as always, really rolled up its shirtsleeves and got down to the business of being creative. The first thing that happened is that Wellfleet shellfish Promotion and Tasting, Wellfleet SPAT, the nonprofit that produces the annual oyster festival, began an initiative to purchase, at a very good price, oysters and clams from growers and wild harvesters. And then they donated it to local food banks, food pantries, elder care facilities. The shellfish that comes right from Wellfleet Harbor ended up on the dinner plates of people in need throughout Cape Cod.
Even though they are independent-minded, shell fishermen love to brainstorm together and come up with ideas. You see this raw ingenuity as you drive around on the flats and watch people at work. No two people do things the same. You can look out and see a bunch of racks and bags with oysters in them, but it doesn't mean that it's happening in the exact same manner. And in fact, it doesn't. There's such a wide diversity of people -- fathers and daughters, couples, friends -- that run these farms. There's some people who run bigger farms, but there's just the beauty of the family farm and the small business.
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Wellfleet and shell fishing have been synonymous since 400 years ago when the bay was discovered (by Europeans), and it was just oysters, oysters everywhere. In addition to having the most farms of any other town in the Commonwealth by almost double, we also are number one for the wild oyster fishery.
And the one thing about Wellfleet Harbor that makes it very, very different from other places is that we have natural reproduction of oysters. We have spawning, we have perfect habitat. The shellfish department works hard to create nursery habitat for juvenile oysters to settle on.
Shell fishing is the number one industry for the town year round. It employs 15% of the population, and it's the lifeblood. It’s what makes this community tick. It’s what makes us successful and who we are. I just really pray that when markets come back, that the Wellfleet name -- the world-renowned recognition that the Wellfleet oyster brand name has -- will be the first thing people think of, because competition will be quite tough.
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I've been on the job now (as Wellfleet Constable) for two and a half years. I think I'll probably be a student until the day I retire, and I still won't have learned it all. I love going out and having conversations with people, whether on a farm or in the wild. Everybody has something to share. And I certainly have something to learn from everyone, from people who have decades of experience out there and from people who are just starting out, because they see things with fresh eyes.