Stewards of the Sea: Female Conservationists in the Shellfisheries of New England
Hundreds of years ago, oyster reefs protected the shores of Massachusetts. These reefs were dynamic and plentiful. Built of pH-balancing shells, the bivalve reefs protected the shores from erosion caused by harsh New England weather, filtered the ocean water, and served as food for the First Nations people indigenous to the area. Although the days of wild oyster abundance are long gone, these shellfish never lost their purpose as protectors of the land and feeders of its people.
Though far removed from its idyllic prehistoric heyday, the oyster is nonetheless experiencing a resurgence. A quick Instagram search of #oysters yields heavily filtered photos of shallow dishes of shucked oysters on the half shell. Oysters top raw-bar menus throughout Boston. They decorate chalkboards outside of bars advertising “buck a shuck” deals. Beyond the social feeds and city sidewalks, 1,107 acres of land were devoted to marine aquaculture with a revenue of $18.2 million from over seventeen oyster-producing communities, according to 2015 data from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. From fine-dining establishments to dive bars, the oyster is back and signifying the changing tide of social, political, and ecological climates.
These hinged, double-shelled bivalve organisms have a soft invertebrate body. They breathe through gills, similarly to fish. Oysters thrive in the cool seas of New England, where they are less susceptible to diseases such as MSX and Dermo, two killers that are becoming steadily more common due to warming waters. Change is occurring quickly in the marine aquaculture world. Not only are rising water temperatures altering how we fish and cultivate shellfish, but the subversion of traditional gender roles is eroding the salty face of the shellfish industry. Swept away are the days of the salty male fisherman who worked in relative isolation, as the romanticized stereotype goes. A new tide of fishermen is washing in: female fishermen, shellfish farmers, and fisher folks. Young, brave, unapologetic, and intolerant of bullshit, they’re working in marine aquaculture—the intersection of recreational, commercial, and restorative shellfishing. Collectively, female shellfish farmers are advocating for the seas and challenging industry traditions.
Elizabeth Lewis is a shellfish technician from Duxbury, Massachusetts. Leading a team of environmentalist-farmers, she is involved in running a municipal propagation program for the town of Barnstable. Barnstable’s program takes the pressure off the wild oyster population in order to “put food in people’s bellies” and contribute to the health of the overall ecosystem. Liz speaks passionately about shellfish size and their capacity to profoundly improve the ocean. “Did you know that quahogs can sieve thirty gallons of water a day, and oysters can filtrate up to forty gallons of water per day?” she gushed as she passed me a glass jar of dead shellfish seed. In Barnstable, they grow about 2.5 million quahogs and 600,000 oysters every year—altogether more than 3 million seawater filters.
Seeing these numbers consolidated is staggering. It made me question what I thought I knew about the shellfish industry, from how hugely it impacts our daily lives to who’s a part of the industry. Many people still associate fishing and farming with men. As Liz said, “Even when you’re looking for waders, they have all these different men’s waders. Yeah, we can fit into men’s, but your feet fit a little differently. If you buy a pair of men’s waders, the waist gets bigger with the shoe size, which is weird. I have smaller feet, so the waist is really tiny, and I can’t fit in a pair of waders! And the women’s waders are super short.”
Liz’s observations about professionally necessary clothing is poignant. The absence of a range of women’s waders underscores the perception that women do not wear waders or that women in the industry are short.
Out in the field, Liz faces another hurdle: gender bias in the community. Part of her job as a local shellfish technician is checking catches to ensure that recreational and commercial fisher folks are abiding by the rules, like icing their catches and harvesting appropriately sized mollusks. Some of the old salts will say things like “good girl”: once, in response to a female speaking up, someone said, “Oh, someone should give her a spanking.” Although most of the time, the bias is disguised as compliments such as one man telling a woman’s boss, “You’re working with such beautiful women today.” Liz knows that the more benign comments are just old salts trying to be nice. Fortunately, the frequency of these comments is quickly diminishing thanks to Liz’s team of strong and open women who are willing to take a risk and work hard. From hiring physically smaller seasonals who “just want to give it a shot” and watching them develop strength to match the rest to owning the title of “Quahog Queen,” Liz is shaking up both oyster trays and community expectations.
One day, Renee Gagne and I cruise her regular route through Chatham, to the propagation tanks, the fishing piers, the designated recreational clamming area, a few beaches, and a couple stops in between to check some catches. Renee is the shellfish constable of Chatham, Massachusetts. This quintessential Cape Cod town has a year-round population of 6,000 and direct access to the North Atlantic. In short, it’s the perfect space for a thriving fishing village. After years of shucking scallops, fishing cod offshore, and digging clams, Renee finally landed her first “real job” at the age of fifty as the constable. As a young woman, she said, “The idea that you could actually make a living off of natural resources, as your own person, being self-employed—I got hooked immediately.” This catch shaped the rest of her life.
She bought her first boat from the funds she earned from the Monomoy Island clamming boom in the late 1980s, went to graduate school for marine affairs at the University of Rhode Island, and later bought her house, all off of clam money. Her life has been shaped by shellfish. The ocean has given her so much, and through her work she gives back to the ocean.
Her commitment to Chatham has given her insights into the community and its changing demographics. She has noticed that less women are going offshore fishing, although she couldn’t say why. She has also seen the town try to oust generations of fishermen in an effort to clean up the fishermen’s image in town. She has seen fishing families sell their generations-old homes and move to Maine. She’s shucked scallops with the best of them. She has contributed to building an upwelled in Chatham Harbor to nurse clam and oyster hatchlings that replenish the farmed stores as part of Chatham’s municipal propagation project.
Propagation in Chatham begins in an upweller. Renee and Rachel Hutchinson, the propagation specialist, are a two-woman crew and the only year-round staff at the helm of this program. We entered the upweller, a huge cavernous building at the edge of the downtown pier. Two million baby quahogs and 150,000 oyster hatchlings swirl around in plastic mesh bags as Chatham Harbor water runs through the translucent white tubs and back out to sea. The purpose of an upweller is to eliminate competition for food, have constantly flowing cool water to maintain optimal health, and to protect these babies from predators. After the shellfish leave the upweller, the team transfers them to the sediment in tidal zones and under nets for a couple of years. Then Renee and Rachel distribute them throughout the area well before they are of harvestable size so that they can “do their own breeding, their own thing in their natural environment.” The purpose of all of this is to create a sustainable fishery. Walking through the upweller with her, I couldn’t help but feel like Renee is the local shellfishing matriarch.
Both Chatham and Barnstable actively promote the restoration of the ocean’s shellfish population through propagation programs, educational programming, and ecological advocacy, but their reach only extends to their town borders. The Massachusetts Oyster Project is a nonprofit organization that operates an upweller on the North Shore and promotes education and advocacy in all five coastal zones of Massachusetts. The volunteer-run organization harnesses the cultural, economic, and ecological strengths of the oyster to improve the environment. I had the opportunity to chat with Jennifer Filiault, president of the Massachusetts Oyster Project, about the benefits of oystering and the layered realities of identifying as a shellfish farmer.
Jen spoke to the big picture of oystering. As Liz and Renee mentioned, the ecological benefits of oyster restoration are limitless, but their programs are limited to areas that already have thriving oyster populations that local community members and municipal governments take pride in.
Throughout the Cape, opening day of oysters, usually in the late spring, draws crowds of hundreds of people with police oversight. Cape culture supports shellfishing, and local groups take advantage of this regional pride—to the point that Massachusetts is considering a bill that would dub the oyster as the state mascot. Yet the Massachusetts Oyster Project reaches beyond town lines to advocate for oyster restoration in unorthodox areas, like Boston Harbor and the North Shore. On the North Shore, where the Massachusetts Oyster Project upweller is, locals are protective of clamming culture. “They’re clam diggers up there, not oyster people,” Jen said. People are threatened by the introduction of diversity and new methodology. Restoring oyster beds where they are not “supposed” to be seems a fitting analogy for women in the fishing industry.
According to data collected in 2008 by the United Nations, women are estimated to comprise thirty percent of fishing and fish farming jobs globally. Nearly one-third of the industry is female, but you’d never know it. Social norms often dictate outsiders’ perspectives of who is a fisherman, and these gender stereotypes are pervasive inside the industry too. In Jen’s case, she is constantly asking herself, “Do I need to prove myself time and time again because I am young and new or because I am a woman?” and “Is all of this just because I’m being sensitive?”
The combination of being new, young, and female in the shellfishing business is tough, especially in communities with pervasive fishing traditions like the North Shore, a spot famous for its fishing heritage. When Jen went to a meeting in Gloucester, she presented the Massachusetts Oyster Project’s mission to the mostly male board and was immediately reprimanded and dismissed for using the term “restoration,” unpopular in the North Shore area. Her saving grace was that the colleague who connected her with the Gloucester Shellfish Advisory Board is a well-known man in the community and holds a prominent position at a fisheries museum nearby. He’s an insider. She’s an outsider. She may be an outsider from the Cape with an understanding of how tough fishing is. But she is as outside of the typical traditional fisherman role as a person could be. A young, environmentally passionate, and college-educated woman who wants to shake up town traditions is indicative of layers of identity that challenge the norm.
The women shifting the tides of the Massachusetts shellfishing establishment are challenging and innovative. They act from vocation, and the reverence they have for the sea and its shellfish informs their conservation actions. Yes, they suit up in men’s waders and lift trays with the guys. They strap themselves to their boats and face the waves. They step into a leadership role and face down dated traditions in historic communities. But they do more than that. These women, all shellfish farmers, are stewards of the sea. Salty and fearless, they meet the realities of the industry head-on. Half their hatchery will die, in a good year. Money will be tight—no, really tight—some years. They’ll grapple with the harshness of privilege outed and idealism interrupted. Conversely, half their hatchery could live and go on to restore the sea. Weaving and knitting could become their secondary source of income and another way to connect with the earth. Their dreams could become reality. The mysteries of the tiny oyster evoke a wonder. It’s a wonder that keeps them coming back, roughing up trays, shaking up identity politics, day after day.
Originally published in Comestible Issue 6