Can You Dig It? Shellfishing Popularity Soars During Pandemic

By: Kat Szmit

Topics: Shellfishing , Pleasant Bay , Recreation

A snowy egret looks eagerly at people shellfishing in Chatham, possibly hoping for a tasty treat. Kat Szmit Photo

People typically flock to the beaches on the Fourth of July, and this year was no different, save for the destination. While many people simply wanted a beach day, a surprising number wanted to get their hands dirty and possibly score some dinner in the process. How? Shellfishing.

According to area shellfish constables, the recreational activity has seen a sharp uptick in popularity this season, which could be attributed to the pandemic.

“We sell approximately 400 recreational permits a year in Harwich,” said Natural Resources Director Heinz Proft, adding that the permits are good from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31 annually. “We’re now in July and we’re at 345. We’re on pace to break that 400 easily.”

Proft said that on July 4 at the Pleasant Bay flats, roughly a half dozen people would typically come out, depending upon tides. That morning, he had 25 people looking to get digging.

“That’s good news, Proft said. “But what’s difficult is that they’re all looking to get their limit. Everybody else is here, as well as all the people that came in March, April, May. The flats have been heavily shellfished.”

Proft said that when Harwich entered into shelter in place as the COVID-19 pandemic gained momentum, permit sales shifted from in-person to online, with sales taking off at what Proft called a record clip. He attributed it to the fact that people were either working remotely or not working due to a shutdown and wanted to find a way to stay busy.

“It’s the idea of being outdoors,” he said. “It’s being rewarded immediately for something they’re doing, and they’re able to eat what they get. Many people that I’ve come across have nostalgic stories of when their grandfather taught them to shellfish when they were young. Now they have nieces, nephews, or children they’re passing it on to. We want people to be out there with the younger generation.”

Renee Gagne, Chatham's shellfish constable, said things were similar for her.

“It was amazing how many rec harvesters came out in the cold in March, April, and into May,” Gagne said. “That’s when we really noticed the uptick, most notably at the Morris Island Road causeway – the town's only area designated specifically for recreational shellfishing – but also other locations as well. People were really articulating that they were finding it their sanctuary, their place where they could just get away from the madness.”

The concern, particularly in Harwich where open shellfishing areas are limited, is diminished quantity. Proft runs the town's shellfish nursery, raising quahog and oyster spat that gets planted in commercial and recreational shellfish areas during the off-season, though that spat takes time to grow and mature into viable shellfish. To check that quahogs and other shellfish meet size requirements, most people use a metal guide. If a quahog can pass through, it gets put back.

“It just means that maybe this fall I plant a little more than I usually do in Pleasant Bay, but in the end there’s never enough,” Proft said.

Though Chatham has a few more open areas, Gagne said the early increase in numbers brought some worry.

“There was additional pressure at a time of year when we don’t see that pressure,” Gagne said. “It’s a very heavily propagated area. We really needed to just cross our fingers that it held out. Right now, it’s holding out. People have been doing very well and consistently well in certain locations.

The two governing factors in shellfishing are weather and tide. For obvious reasons (access to the mud flats), low tide is the ideal time for shellfishing, and good weather is simply a bonus.

“I do have my deputies count the number of permits they check, but it could be anywhere from one to five people on a permit,” Gagne said. “You could probably have 75 to 100 people out there on a busy, beautiful, weekend, mid-tide day.”

Both Proft and Gagne celebrate that shellfishing allows social distancing and being outdoors, as well as some physical activity when it comes to raking.

“I play a small role in this story, but it’s an important one, something I take pride in,” Proft said. “Year after year you really get to know these people. Many of the shellfishermen know me by name. The stories are a little longer than what’s in your bucket.”

“For me it’s the solitude and the connection with nature,” said Gagne. “It’s a place where people could social distance, get outside, and get some food.”

For shellfish constables, the job involves a bit more than checking permits and limits. Proft noted that the shellfish regulations are lengthy and involve sustainability, quantity of shellfish taken, size restrictions, population dynamics, and water quality issues, to name a few. To keep track of the popularity of the activity year-by-year, Proft said people are surveyed as to how many times they venture out.

“The average person goes out about eight times per year,” said Proft. “That means for someone going out once, there are others going out 20 times.”

In Harwich, obtaining a permit is fairly inexpensive, $65 for a non-resident permit, $25 for a resident, with further discounts for seniors age 65 and older, all individual. Day permits are also available for $25. Anyone age 16 or older must have a permit. In Chatham there are resident family ($35), non-resident family ($100), senior resident ($15), and commercial permits, valid from June 1 to May 30. Right now, permits are only available through the mail.

Proft encourages new shellfishers, but cautions that it’ll take time to see results.

“Don’t have high expectations to fill the bucket the first time out,” he said. “It takes practice. Sometimes people are disheartened when they’re not getting as much to begin with. Have general expectations of having some fun and getting out there, maybe meeting other shellfishermen.”

That said, you’ll likely delight in putting more than a few quahogs in your bucket, even if it’s your first time out.

“Just about everywhere you go,” Gagne said, “you’ll be able to find something.”

What: Local shellfishing. Where: Designated areas in each town as detailed by shellfish constables; check each town's shellfish department web page; When: low tide. If you go: Wear shoes that can get wet (to protect your feet from sharp shells), sunscreen, drinking water, and your shellfishing gear, available at local shops. Permits must be visible.