CHATHAM – The closure of restaurants locally and around the state because of the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the town's $2.5 million commercial shellfishing industry, throwing dozens of residents out of work.
In an effort that's about as grassroots as it gets, several local groups are scratching together a program that aims to get clam chowder onto the dinner tables of local families and some dollars into the pockets of at least a few shellfishers. “Chowder for Chatham” has come together due to the diligence of several residents working with shellfishermen, a local fish market and a local resident.
“It's a small-scale project,” said Shareen Davis, who along with being chairman of selectmen is also a founder of the Chatham Harvesters, a fishermen's cooperative. “We're just doing baby steps.”
Because of stringent health regulations, shellfishermen can't sell their products directly to the public. They need to go through a properly licensed and inspected brick-and-mortar processor which has the facilities and processes in place to track the catch and keep it at the proper temperature. Most stopped buying fresh shellfish when the state shut down restaurants. Buying now is on a “very, very sporadic basis,” said shellfish advisory committee chairman Jamie Bassett. “Not enough to earn a living.”
“It was a hard stop for these guys,” said Luther Bates, a fisherman and Chatham Harvesters director.
Selectmen have discussed ways the town can help out those put out of work by the pandemic. After speaking with Shellfish Constable Rene Gagne, Davis said she began brainstorming with Monomoy Community Services Director Theresa Malone and members of the Chatham Harvesters coop. Supported by donations from members of the community, MCS has been working with the Hangar B Eatery at Chatham Airport to provide free meals to local families who are having a hard time making ends meet. Somehow getting these families shellfish seemed like a great idea; it would provide a fresh, local source of protein and provide a few shellfishers with at least a small source of income.
“It just seemed like a really good idea to sort of close that loop,” said Hangar B owner Tracy Shields.
But to close that loop, a licensed shellfish buyer was needed. Davis called Chatham residents Scott and Linda Kelley who own George's Place Fish Market in Harwich to serve as the permitted “foundation” for the program.
“I jumped on it right away,” said Linda Kelley, the market's office manager. “It's a wonderful thing to do for the community and a win-win all around.”
The market is currently not open, but is buying quahogs from a few shellfishers and turning them around to Hangar B, where they're shucked by head chef Jodheyrydh Rodriguez and his brother Diogenes.
“It's labor intensive, especially since we're getting the clams whole,” Shields said. It's also a messy job that the small restaurant would usually not have the space for, but since it's limited to take-out only, it's doable.
Through MCS, families can get the chowder free of charge. The first 20 gallons went to local families; Shields is now also offering it for sale to her regular customers, with the proceeds going back into the MCS food program.
“It's been selling a lot faster than I anticipated,” she said. “We're just going to keep cranking it out.”
Davis said the pilot program could be expanded to other restaurants. “This is an idea of people becoming more entrepreneurial,” she said.
“I like the small model,” said Kelley, “because you can build from there” and tailor the details to the individual situation. “It's kind of what we have to do, to create something new,” given the circumstances, she said. Right now they're working with just a couple of shellfishermen, “but hopefully that will change,” she said, adding that the Chatham Council on Aging put in an order for the chowder this week.
“Once you open up that box, there's a lot of possibilities,” she said. “It could benefit a lot of people down the road.”
Gagne said while recreational shellfishing seems to have picked up, the commercial catch dropped to almost nothing after mid-March; the total estimated value of the month's catch was the lowest of the year. Last year's total commercial catch had an estimated value of more than $2.5 million, $1.6 million of which was quahogs.
“This is the time of year people start coming out, activity around the shore starts to increase, so the timing is not good,” Gagne said. Even international markets are shut down; razor clams, for instance, are sold mostly overseas and brought in more than $150,000 last year, but the market is “gone,” she said.
The Chatham Harvesters are working on similar programs, said Bates, including linking up a dayboat scalloper with the Red Nun Restaurant.
“I think the need is going to become amplified in the next couple of months,” he said. Whether the program can be expanded to include fin fish remains to be seen; fishermen can more easily get permits to sell their catch straight off the boat, and several local boat operators already have them. There's not a lot of fishing going on right now, but once the season gets going it may be necessary to have local outlets for products, he said.
The Chatham Shellfish Company, which operates out of Oyster River and is a licensed wholesale and retail outlet, is selling its oysters and mussels via mail order to benefit fisheries and restaurant workers impacted by the pandemic. Visit chathamoysters.com for details.