And now for the final piece of this four-part installment, which was actually the initial motivation for this Cape-themed series. Prior to my arrival in Massachusetts, I’d been in touch with the President of the Wellfleet Shellfishermen’s Association, in order to get a better idea of the industry and the community in Wellfleet. I cannot thank her enough for her overall kindness as well as her openness when it came to discussing what the group was working toward. Nor can I thank the entire group adequately for letting me slide into their meetings, events, farms, and boats throughout my two months on the Cape.
First, a bit about the group. The Wellfleet Shellfishermen’s Association (WSA) organized earlier this year, in large part as a response to a statewide shellfish initiative. I won’t use this blog to debate the merits of the initiative, but you can find out more about the initiative as well as the WSA by following the links below this post (and embedded in this sentence). You can also follow the WSA on Facebook to get info about WSA happenings as well as stories about Cape history and fisheries in general.
In short, many Wellfleetians saw certain aspects of the initiative and the nature of its development as a threat to the current approach to shellfisheries management in Wellfleet — you’ll recall from an earlier post in this series, that in Massachusetts, shellfisheries are managed at the municipal or town level. For those who formed the WSA, the initiative and several associated proposed policy changes were tantamount to threatening local heritage, culture, and livelihoods. This is echoed in their mission:
“Our mission is to protect the character and tradition of Wellfleet’s Historic Shellfish Industry by supporting the long term viability of our wild harvesters and independent aquaculture farmers. We were founded in February 2019 to serve as a fisheries advocacy association, working with our local, state, and federal agencies in order to insure the implementation of policies that best serve our members and our community. We are committed to keeping the shellfishermen of Wellfleet independent.”
-Wellfleet Shellfishermen’s Association
The WSA is comprised of shellfishermen and others who support them. (Note: shellfisherman is a term used to identify both men AND women involved in shellfisheries.) It is a consistently growing group with most of its members from Wellfleet, but also includes members from throughout the Cape with similar interests. As the organization developed, it became clear that towns beyond Wellfleet shared shellfisheries concerns and the need arose for a regional group. To unite the towns across the Outer Cape, the WSA helped create the Outer Cape Shellfishermen’s Collaborative, which includes members from Provincetown to Chatham.
During my second week on the Cape, I had the opportunity to sit in on a WSA meeting and introduce myself and my research. Whether or not they realized it, what struck me most about the meeting was how candid everyone was, even with an “outsider” and, maybe even worse, an “academic” in the room. I use those terms in quotes because, in some situations, such designations can really impact the ability to connect and build trust. Even at that very first meeting, my presence didn’t seem to affect the overall flow and feeling of the meeting. No one appeared to be treading lightly or censoring themselves because I was in the room. When I say this, I don’t mean that people were speaking crassly or anything like that, but that everyone spoke frankly about the pressing challenges. I learned over my time there that this really is the Wellfleet way – brutal honesty (and I say that with an appreciative smile, just in case that’s not translated through in text). And in this honesty, there was also warmth, concern, and passion for the issues at hand.
During my stay on the Cape, I had the opportunity to meet with many WSA members and see firsthand how community pride pervaded their day-to-day. I also had the chance to present my research and talk about how some of what was going on with the initiative compared to situations in other states that I’ve worked in. I helped (okay, more observed than helped) with float-making for the 4th of July parade. I interviewed and worked with a number of WSA members on their boats and farms. Throughout all of these meetings, events, activities, and conversations I saw spirited voices regularly replaced with friendly hugs and handshakes. I saw teamwork and the recognition of a common goal, supported by a collaborative effort in a community typically known for its sense of independence.
Wellfleet is a unique community, even among its neighbors along Cape Cod. Its residents, including those who make up the WSA, recognize this special character and take pride in it, continuing efforts to sustain it. I’m grateful to have had the chance to be a part of that community, even if for a short time in my student/anthropologist role.
- Massachusetts Shellfish Initiative: http://www.massshellfishinitiative.org/
- Wellfleet Shellfishermen’s Association
- August 2019 article about ‘Cutler Bill’ and WSA. Gallagher, Tery. (2019). Wellfleet shellfishermen organize to defeat Cutler Bill. The Provincetown Independent. Accessed 9/14/2019 from https://provincetownindependent.org/2019/wellfleet-shellfishermen-organize-to-defeat-cutler-bill
- February 2019 article about MSI in Wellfleet. Ward, Katy. (2019). Wellfleet shellfishermen grill MSI panel members. Wicked Local. Accessed 9/14/2019 from https://wellfleet.wickedlocal.com/news/20190228/wellfleet-shellfishermen-grill-msi-panel-members.