The Three Hundred

When I bought my commercial shellfishing license towards the end of the May 31 deadline, the number of my license caught my attention. It was low. In years past, if I waited this late to fork over the $200 to the town, the number was close to six hundred. Instead this year, it was about half of that.

Monomoy SteamersIt shouldn't be too surprising. With the proliferation of aquaculture in neighboring towns and the region, as well as the discovery of a large bed of ocean quahogs in Nantucket Sound, the price of littlenecks clams has fallen from over 20 cents a piece to below ten. Often, four hours or less of work could bring close to a hundred dollars in the summer. Not a bad way to supplement income from other work, and pay the high cost of living in Chatham.

Digging steamers was even better during the times of peak demand in the summer. But I knew things changed last summer when I took Sofie out to the northwest tip of Monomoy. We pulled up to an old haunt of mine, and I took out my rake to show my five year-old how easy it was to dig up dinner. I looked all around. Couldn't find one siphon hole, indicating the softshell clam in the sand below.

What I did find in abundance, once incoming tide washed over the flats, were dozens of sand crabs. So many so that I had to put on my surf shoes, because I was stepping on so many in my bare feet. The upside of this was Sofie discovered snorkeling. Fun, but not filling -- to either the stomach or the wallet.

I'm not blaming the crabs, and I'm not blaming overfishing. Steamers are wild and like all wildlife, they have cycles. Moreover, the dynamics of Monomoy are not the same as they were half a dozen years ago. When South Beach connected to Monomoy, it closed a rich source of nutrients straight from the open Atlantic that washed over the Common Flats twice a day.The same cycle that closed that door created a protected area within the old Southway, east of Morris Island and west of South Beach, where eel grass is thriving and expanding. Because of the very limited building surrounding this inlet, the amount of nitrogen leaching from septic systems is small. That's a terrific environment for scallops to thrive. Someday. Or so I tell myself as I buy another clamming license.

But that's someday. Right now, what steamers are out there are fetching the same prices they did in the early 1990s. How much has housing gone up since then? To qualify for a commercial license, you must have already been a resident of Chatham for over a year, so the argument "If you can't afford to live in Chatham, move to Harwich" doesn't work.

Quahaugger with rake

For those who aren't familiar, Chatham has the most overeducated fishing fleet in the world. Plenty of those who work the shore with rakes have college and professional degrees. Politically, they have been mostly independents and Republicans, with significantly fewer Democrats. Digging steamers is fine for younger people with strong backs, while those who scratch for quahogs tend to be older. Most tend to be male, but there are plenty of women clammers, and I know more than one who was working the flats into her third trimester of pregnancy (must have had something to do with better balance, extra back muscles, combined with the knowledge that they'd soon have to give this up for a while). So by and large, these are just regular people, pretty smart, who are willing to toil to exhaustion for the right price.

But now with the cost of fill up a boat with gas, well, a gallon costs a gallon whether it goes in a car or elsewhere. Materials for boats, like fiberglass resin, have shot up along with all other commodity prices. Faced with stagnant or falling prices for product, and increasing costs for maintenance and ongoing expenses, hundreds of sole proprietors who are in the business of shellfishing in Chatham have made the decision to forgo the profession altogether this year.

For the first time in 14 years, I almost did myself. But anyone who goes out to fish must be, at heart, an optimist. Besides, there's very little in this world as shockingly beautiful as cruising into Stage Harbor just before sunrise, with the moon still up as you turn into the channel out to Nantucket Sound. There's no better commute or workplace.

So after buying the license, I struggled to get the outboard fixed, the boat patched and repainted up and down, and finally launched last week. In this hostile climate for the business of shellfishing, I may not even make back this year's investment. Three hundred clammers likewise have stayed in, while an equal number have chosen to be in other parts of the workforce.

Let's hope we can retain these intelligent, hardworking people. Everything has a cycle; ecosystems and industries. We need to get off the sidelines and develop a new local economy so residents can earn enough money to afford to remain here. Otherwise, we'll go out one day looking to get a load of clams and discover instead the place is overrun with a bunch of ill-tempered crabs.

This week's featured op-ed at The Cape Cod Chronicle.

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