WELLFLEET – The enormous crowd at day 1 of the Wellfleet Oyster Festival didn’t seem to mind that, for one year, the name was only two-thirds correct. It was in Wellfleet. And there was a festival.
As for the famous fresh succulent Wellfleet oysters that are reason for the festival?
“Instead of our old slogan, ‘Shuck Yeah,’ this year it’s ‘Aw Shucks,’” said Michele Insley, executive director of Wellfleet SPAT (Shellfish Promotion And Testing Inc.), the producer of the Wellfleet Oyster Fest, which is now in its 16th year.
State officials believe a norovirus caused 75 people who ate local oysters to become ill. That prompted the state to close all shellfish beds in Wellfleet just two days before the festival was to begin. Shellfishing in Wellfleet will be closed a minimum of 21 days, said Insley.
“Instead of our old slogan, ‘Shuck Yeah,’ this year it’s ‘Aw Shucks,’” – Michele Insley, executive director of SPAT
“It’s life, you have to roll with it,” said Mac Hay, board president of SPAT.
Wellfleet assistant harbor master David Rheault, explained the closing this way, “The thing is, you can’t control Mother Nature.”
According to board member Jodi Birchall, the board faced a quick decision when the state closed the shellfish beds due to public health concerns.
Insley said her first reaction to the news of the closing was, “Oh my God, can we even have a festival? We went into our situation room, if you will. The whole community depends on this event.”
The options, said Birchall, were no festival, a festival with no food, a festival with no shellfish, or, as they decided, a festival in which shellfish had to be cooked. None of the shellfish was from Wellfleet.
Hay said, “Oysters have always been the central component of this festival. It’s about the shellfishing community at large, but it’s also an amazing street festival.”
On Saturday, on what may have been one of the nicest blue sky days in any October ever, the crowd seemed every bit as large as in previous years.
As Nancy Civetta, producer of the shuck off contest said, “there’s still cooked oysters, fried oysters and oyster stew using product that is not from Wellfleet.” The on-stage shuck off contest featured Barnstable oysters from Cape Cod Bay, which are safe, she said.
In the morning, as Zoe Lewis and then The Daggers took the stage and wowed the crowd with their music, the lines to the many stands in and outside of the food tent were long and getting longer. The beer tent, also, seemed to be doing as well as ever.
The rest of the festival, away from the music, into the other streets and then the family area, was also just as packed as previous years. “I think anybody who is here is showing the love,” said Civetta.
As Mike and Jen Campbell of Norfolk walked to a table carrying a plate of grilled oysters, Mike said the pivot to cooked food was “creative,” and Jen said, “It’s still a great festival.”
Luis and Jenna Moran of South Boston had been planning on coming to the festival for six months. “The oysters, that was the big draw,” said Jenna. They were disappointed with the news, but said they planned to have fun anyway.
Casey Sanderson, working a booth for ARTichoke, was wearing and selling, “Aw Shucks, No Oystahs?” shirts. “It was a limited run,” she said. “They’re almost gone.”
And while having no raw oysters was something that everyone, as Hay said, rolled with, the festival took on special meaning this year.
“The community is pulling together,” said Sanderson.
This seemed true of both for those from Wellfleet and all the visitors donating money to those who have lost significant income.
Insley said the 90 different growers in town “harvest a lot of the product that’s been growing out all year.”
Birchall said the closure, especially right before the festival, is “a huge financial hit” for the many people in the small year-round community of Wellfleet who are involved in the shellfish industry.
“These are young families,” she said. “This is their only income. It’s the biggest money-making opportunity of the year.”
Hay put these numbers on it. “Last year at the festival we sold 120,000 oysters at $2 an oyster. That’s a lot of money that isn’t going to these fisherman.”
Hay estimated that one third of the year-round population of Wellfleet is affected.
Thus, the 2016 Wellfleet Oyster Fest took on a different meaning this year. And the community rallied.
Marusya Chavchavadze said she was in a local market talking to a new cashier who described what families, some with small children, are going through. So she and Lisa McLanahan Engel started the Shellfishing Relief Fund and set up a table up at the festival to raise money specifically for those affected by this event.
Insley said of the two women, “They just showed up and did it on their own. It brings home to people what this is all about.”
“Wellfleet is nothing without the shellfish industry,” said Chavchavadze. “I’m grateful to be able to live here.” And she added that “a lot of people are coming up and giving generously to the relief fund.”
SPAT, which began in 2002, according to its website has a mission to support “a local college scholarship program, community grant awards and initiatives to support Wellfleet’s shellfishing and aquaculture industries.”
The quick financial reaction by SPAT was to double the prize of the shucking contest to $2,000, said Civetta.
The board will also consider other options, said Birchall.
And while having no fresh Wellfleet oysters at the Wellfleet Oyster Fest is not particularly ideal, Insley put a positive spin on it. “This is a great opportunity to learn what this event is really for,” she said.
“It’s more meaningful this year,” said Civetta.
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