Oyster Season on Cape Cod

November is the height of oyster season on Cape Cod, where aquaculture workers are harvesting the shellfish for Thanksgiving stuffing and holiday parties. Susan Keese from Vermont Public Radio reports.

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Now we'll move on to the food. Years before the pilgrims, a Frenchman explored Cape Cod and christened Wellfleet Bay `Oyster Point.' Wellfleet is still famous for its oysters, but for years, they've been hard to come by unless you lived in New England, which may be changing. Susan Keese of Vermont Public Radio reports.

SUSAN KEESE reporting:

Barbara Austin(ph) drives her pickup down the beach onto the rippled flats exposed by the receding tide. She passes her clam beds and heads for the deeper water where her oysters are laid out on nets.

(Soundbite of vehicle door slamming)

KEESE: She and her helper get to work quickly scooping oysters off the still-submerged netting where they've been growing since last spring. The beds are only accessible for a few hours at low tide. Austin wants to make the most of this last really big low tide before Thanksgiving.

Ms. BARBARA AUSTIN (Oyster Farmer): Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's are traditionally really big oyster-eating holidays, you know, the traditional oyster stuffing and oysters on the half-shell.

KEESE: Austin works a three-acre grant she leases from the town. The grants are a centuries-old Wellfleet custom that's been making a comeback. That's a good thing for the locals in this pricey seasonal economy.

Ms. AUSTIN: We see there about 250 people right now that are making their income off these beds. It's really an important thing for our little town.

KEESE: Austin surveys the other shellfish farmers silhouetted against the orange-gray November sky.

Ms. AUSTIN: We've got a father-and-son team, Randy and Chad. Down a little further, you've got Jimmy O'Connell(ph).

KEESE: A dozen of these neighbors have formed a wholesale co-op to market their product on a wider scale.

Ms. AUSTIN: How you doing?

KEESE: Dick Krause(ph) is a member. He's also part owner of an aquaculture hatchery that's helping to restore oyster cultivation to Wellfleet after decades of decline.

Mr. DICK KRAUSE (Co-op Member): By the early 1800s, they had already taken all the oysters out of the harbor, and they were all gone. So they started bringing up seed from Connecticut. And then when they ran out of seed there, they started bringing up seed from Delaware, Chesapeake Bay, and then they grow them here, pretty much like what we do now, but now all the seed comes from hatcheries.

KEESE: The importation of juvenile oyster seed opened the door to imported diseases. Starting in the '50s, pathogens ravaged oyster beds up and down the Eastern seaboard. Krause says the diseases caused the oysters to die just as they reached maturity, at about two or three years old.

Mr. KRAUSE: So it's only been in the last few years, we've figured out how to grow an oyster in basically a year and a half to market size.

KEESE: Austin says it's Wellfleet's chilly water that makes these oysters special, along with its dramatic tides that sweep in nutrients twice daily.

Ms. AUSTIN: See what a nice oyster that makes? It's a big, thick, round-bottomed shell.

KEESE: A shell that yields a sweet, briny oyster. That's the famous Wellfleet taste.

Ms. AUSTIN: Oh, yeah.

KEESE: For NPR News, I'm Susan Keese.

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