An Inside Look at an Oysterless OysterFest

For the first time in 16 years, this year at the Wellfleet OysterFest, there were no shucking stalls, there were no coolers of ice, there were no oysters.

So, where were the oysters? Working to fight off a contamination in the habor that was linked back to the Wellfleet varietal.

“The oyster is not here today because it is doing its work,” said Nancy O’Connell, founding board member of Wellfleet SPAT. “We need to be respectful of the process of the environment. The most respectful thing we can do is to accept that the oyster is where it needs to be and to trust the innate sense of nature.”

O'Connell noted that, "The oyster is an ecologic engineer that works around the clock filtering water; constantly at work to
O'Connell noted that, "The oyster is an ecologic engineer that works around the clock filtering water; constantly at work to help keep Wellfleet Harbor clean."

As I headed out for the weekend, some people asked, ‘Why are you still going to the event when the main attraction won’t be there?’ Sitting in the back of the car on my way to Wellfleet, I thought the same thing, until I pulled up the Cape Cod Times and read that: “The 14 raw bars, serving 125,000 oysters worth a quarter of a million dollars to shellfishermen, will not be participating this year.”

A quarter of a million dollars. This was no longer about disappointed attendees that were missing out on some of the best oysters on the market, it was about shellfishermen and all they lost—which is why the festival was founded in the first place.

The festival was started by Wellfleet Shellfish Promotion and Tasting, or SPAT, as a way to help shellfishermen during an already difficult sales period. One of the local fishermen explained that the winter is a slow season, which means, typically fishermen use this event to put money away to get them through the winter. This year, that didn’t happen, which meant a double hit for these fishermen, as they enter their slowest season.

“While the 'Fest is about our famous oysters and shellfishing—it is moreover about Wellfleet as a community,” said O’Connell. “So, some of us felt the mission to increase understanding of our environment and harbors was supported by having this event happen.”

Only one of the 14 oyster bars that were supposed to be shucking up over 100,000 oysters set up shop in the middle of the plaza—Pirate Shellfish. Adorned in mermaid and merman gear, the vendors represented the characters and spirits of the fishermen who usually attend, while also offering a spot for the fishermen who did attend, to meet up, enjoy the day and keep their spirits alive.

Pirate Shellfish kept a fishermen presence at this year's event as the lone stall for education, donation and entertainment.
Pirate Shellfish kept a fishermen presence at this year's event as the lone stall for education, donation and entertainment.

“Aside from missing the raw bars, what I think was missing is the [fishermen’s] colorful character. They’re sprinkled all around the ‘Fest and they are quite entertaining at their booths. They let you in on their world this weekend and it’s not a traditional lifestyle. So, it was sad not to have their energy and their spirit around.”

The announcement that raw oysters would not be served at this year’s ‘Fest came a day before the festivities kicked off after a reported 75 cases of the norovirus all traced back to Wellfleet oysters, which had been served at weddings and events leading up to the weekend.

“There are some things that if the clam or oyster gets, it kills them, but this isn’t like that,” said O’Connell on the speculations of how the oysters contracted the virus. “It could be sewage or someone dumping into the harbor, and that’s obviously not okay and we would hopefully learn from that, but, it’s not going to be a shell fishermen who did something stupid on his own bed.”

The norovirus is a gastrointestinal illness that causes vomiting, diarrhea and stomach pain that cannot be treated with medicine. Therefore, the Division of Marine Fisheries instilled the recall on Thursday, which included oysters harvested on, or after, September 26, and SPAT made the final call against selling any raw fish at this year’s event to prevent additional cases of the illness.

“Originally, we discussed having raw clams or oysters from open waters, and then we decided that since the product in question was moved through these facilities too, we didn’t feel that it was good enough to share with the public health.”

The decision sparked a flurry of ferocious emails to SPAT members, mostly out-of-towners who planned vacations around the festival and saw it as an inconvenience.

“This isn’t just a vacation hit to them, it’s a hit to the shellfishermen and the locals who are really hurt by this,” said O’Connell’s daughter, Chloe. As a child who grew up watching her parents involved in the shellfishing community, she recognized the original frustration of attendees but brings the message full circle, that this is a festival to support the local community, while also allowing outsiders into a vibrant and thriving, small-town event.

"They didn’t all just stay home and feel badly for themselves, they put on the fest anyway and know the oysters will be back
"They didn’t all just stay home and feel badly for themselves, they put on the fest anyway and know the oysters will be back next year," said O'Connell on the shellfishermen who kept spirits high in the shuck off.

Although the recall put an initial damper on the event, 10,000 people still showed up over the two-day festival, compared to the 15,000 to 20,000 expected. Nancy O’Connell described how this reflected the community’s support and respect for the fishermen, the festival and the fundraiser. “The people who were there, were there for the right reasons and knew they weren’t going to have oysters but still showed.”

And even though the star of the show was very absent, oyster-lovers could still get their fix with grilled and fried oysters, while listening to live bands, watching the shuck off and wandering through the 90 booths of arts, crafts and stalls of seafood favorites, including clam chowder, lobster rolls and fish tacos; all in the air of good weather and high spirits.

“That impact wasn’t how we wanted it to happen but it had some good in it to have people really understand [the importance of aquaculture],” said O’Connell.

Four days into a 21 day closure on harvesting, buying and selling oysters, there’s still much unknown surrounding the explanation behind the infection, as well as what’s in store for the immediate future with the oysters and their fishermen.

“The oyster has an uncanny ability to survive, and at the same time heal, the environmental ecosystems from the ravages of storms, predators and humankind, while working tirelessly for clean waters,” said O’Connell, reminding us all of the importance of nature and our role in the ecosystem. “The oysters work hard to help the environment and the ecosystem, so, we all need to do that too.”

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