This year’s OysterFest may have lacked oysters, but it didn’t lack spirit.
WELLFLEET – This year’s OysterFest may have lacked oysters, but it didn’t lack spirit.
“It’s not just about eating oysters,” said Eastham resident Theresa Hanlon, as she stood among an energetic crowd watching the famous OysterFest shuck-off Sunday afternoon. “The real meaning of the festival is about the community.”
On Friday, the state Division of Marine Fisheries confirmed that a norovirus sickened over 75 people who ate Wellfleet oysters a week ago and banned the sale of raw shellfish at OysterFest.
About 17,000 people attended the event over the weekend, said Michele Insley, executive director of Wellfleet SPAT, the organizer of OysterFest, down from last year’s attendance of 20,000 to 25,000. And while the festival generally raises about $100,000 for SPAT, Insley estimated revenue was down about 25 percent this year. The total amount raised wasn’t available by the Times deadline.
For Hanlon, it was more important than ever to attend this year and show support for the shellfishermen.
“They’re the heart and soul of Cape Cod,” she said.
On top of banning the sale of raw shellfish at the festival, the state also enacted a recall on the product back to Sept. 26 and ordered shellfish farms to shut down for a minimum of 21 days or until the state can confirm the product is clean.
Local aquaculturists not only missed out on a prosperous weekend, but are facing at least three weeks without work, said Clint Austin, owner of Pirate Shellfish, a shellfish farm in South Wellfleet.
“It’s a tough time of year, and this has made it a little tougher,” said Austin, who plans to work landscaping jobs to get through the next three weeks.
Pirate Shellfish usually operates a raw bar at OysterFest that sells about 14,000 oysters and makes about $20,000 over the weekend, said Stevie McLellan, a shellfisherman with the company. This year, McLellan and Austin set up a tent where they handed out stickers and collected donations.
McLellan said he didn’t know what he was going to do to make it through the next three weeks without work.
“Hopefully I win some money today,” he said before heading to the stage to compete in the oyster shuck-off. Event organizers doubled the prize money for first-, second- and third-place winners to $2,000, $1,000 and $500.
Stephen Boreen, of Newport, Rhode Island, won the event, but said he would donate part of his $2,000 prize to help the Wellfleet oystermen. Connor Cahill and Calen Bricault, both of Wellfleet, finished second and third. Barnstable oysters were used for the competition and were disposed of afterward, Insley said.
Besides raising the dollar amount on the prizes, event organizers also raised nearly $4,000 for a Shellfishermen Relief Fund, Insley said. Staff and board members of SPAT are working to figure out how to use the relief money to best help local aquaculturists, she said.
There are 250 to 300 commercial shellfishermen in Wellfleet between wild harvesters and farmers, according to Andrew Koch, shellfish constable in Wellfleet. The shellfishing industry is the second largest industry in town, second to tourism, and it’s the responsibility of the community to take care of those who contribute so much to Wellfleet, Insley said.
“I went to bed one night picturing Main Street without any raw bars, it was so sad,” she said. “(The shellfishermen) are our lifeblood. They’re like our heart.”
For some, the news that Wellfleet oysters couldn’t be sold at the annual festival where 125,000 are usually consumed was a shocking blow.
“It was almost like there was a death in town,” said Mac Hay, owner of Mac’s Seafood, from the stage where the shuck-off was held.
Vendors could still sell seafood, as long as it was cooked and not from Wellfleet, Insley said.
Nancy and Dan Normandeau, of Waitsfield, Vermont, said they didn’t know about the raw shellfish ban until they arrived in Wellfleet, but found plenty to enjoy about the festival anyway. They tried quahog balls and lobster mac and cheese, and said they’d come back next year for the famous Wellfleet oysters.
“I felt really bad for the fishermen,” Nancy Normandeau said. “I think it’s just tragic.”
Solidarity with the shellfishermen was a common sentiment at the festival and overshadowed any disappointment in the lack of oysters, Insley said.
“The whole event has this feeling of camaraderie and love,” she said, adding that she hoped it helped to lift the shellfishermen’s spirits, too. “I would hope that they would know that people really value what they do.”