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A Tide of Uncertainty: Shellfish Farming in Wellfleet

keith harmon snow | MA, United States

James Rose works his oyster grant on a warm sunny afternoon in late September 2019. James "Jimmy" Rose runs the family business, Rose Shellfish Company, and he's been working the same flat on Mayo beach since 1988."My name's Jim Rose. I been here for 38 years, maybe 39, leasing this grant right here. I been fishing since I was old enough to walk. My parents used to give me the [oyster] juice when I was six months old, because I couldn't chew yet, but they'd eat the oyster and give me the juice and this is what I ended up doing because of that, I'd say. My grandfather was a shellfisherman his whole life and my family all went down here on the flats when we were grow'in up. It was a way of life: that's how we ate. We live in a beautiful spot here, Wellfleet, Cape Cod, Massachusetts."

Shellfish farming has always been rough, unpredictable, uncertain. Challenged by the wild ocean, by extreme weather and changing climate, oyster and hard-shell clam farmers—due to COVID-19—have now suffered a near total collapse of markets and distribution networks. 

This exhibit showcases some oyster and hard-shell clam farmers of Wellfleet, Massachusetts, whom I photographed in the fall of 2019.  While much has changed—under the 2020 COVID scare—the demands of planting, maintaining and harvesting for sucessful shellfish farm have never been greater.

This is a rough business, with a bright warm sunny side. Shelfish farmers are a back-to-nature kind of people; work can be hard, frustrating and cold, and it can be a warm sunshiny sunset and sunrise wonderful experience close to nature. It is unpredictable, with impacts and issues of weather, temperature, salinity, predation, contamination and, especially, the tides. There is also great variety in how shellfish—hard-shell clams or oysters—are farmed. 

This portrait of life immediately before COVID-19 is a testament to what many shellfish consumers took for granted. What is the future?

I began this project one sunny summer day when I was out with my son (6) on the beach. I walked over to see what these guys who drove their vehicles down onto the beach at low tide were doing, and that's when I met Jim Rose—the first oyster farmer I spoke with.

There was something special about Jim Rose that really touched my soul, and as I began to meet other oyster and clam farmers I realized it was something they all seemed to have in common. Some kind of true grit, a wild affiliation with the wild sea.

I suppose this is an ongoing long term project, though it remains to be seen what affect the tragic COVID-19 scare will have on the lives and industry of these people, and their beloved Cape Cod seashore. At present, the industry has collapsed, and middle-and large-sized farms—and farmers—are struggling to survive like never before.

keith harmon snow, 28 April 2020

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