Shellfish wardens are a hardy, committed lot and won’t let you dig if you don’t have your license displayed. Even on that frigid November morning in West Barnstable, a cheerful young shellfish warden carefully checked through our entire wire basket to make sure all the oysters were big enough. Shellfish that are too small will be dumped quickly back into the water for another season’s harvesting.
When you get your license, you can usually get easy-to-read maps that will show you where you can—and can’t—shellfish. Sadly there are rivers, coves, and beaches on the Cape where you can’t dig because of pollution.
The Wampanoag Indians so valued the Cape’s then abundant shellfish that they used it as a form of currency. When the Mayflower arrived in Provincetown in 1620, the English settlers found enormous piles of discarded shells along the beaches. Called “middens” by the Colonists, the shells were burned for their lime.
Today, recreational shellfishing is a strictly regulated pleasure. Every town has a schedule of specific days when shellfishing is allowed. In Barnstable’s towns, you can dig on Wednesdays, Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays. You are only allowed to take a single 10-quart wire basket per week.
These regulations allow for the regeneration of the species. “These minimum sizes have been determined to enable the shell stock to be able to reproduce before being harvested,” reads a flyer from Barnstable’s Marine and Environmental Affairs office at 1189 Phinney’s Lane in Centerville. “[This will] ensure that they can produce their progeny to advance the next generation—a shellfish population needs to spawn before the adult broodstock is stripped from an area.” Spawning on the Cape usually takes place in June and July. The clams spawn when they are 2 years old.
There are a few other things about shellfishing you should know before heading out to dig. As a child, I used to dig for quahogs with my feet in Mount Hope Bay. When we moved to the Cape year-round and I went shellfishing for the first time, I took one of Barnstable’s helpful shellfishing classes at Osterville’s Bridge Street Landing to get the lay of the land.
The instructor recommended wearing old sneakers or rubber boots. Shunning her advice, I happily waded in to West Bay barefoot and dug up a bucket of tender, succulent little necks to bring to a cookout. The next day my feet and ankles erupted with small itchy bumps—the itch was as bad as poison ivy and lasted for several days.
This is called “Shellfisherman’s Itch” and it’s caused by a nasty little parasite. It’s said you can avoid this discomfort by drying your feet off quickly when you are done clamming. Not everyone is susceptible to it, but believe me, don’t take the chance. The other reason to keep your feet covered is that shellfish cuts can get infected very easily. When I go digging now, I always wear old sneakers or my rubber boots . . . and socks as well.
There is a very helpful nonprofit organization called the Barnstable Association for Recreational Shellfishing (BARS), which can be of great assistance to recreational shellfishermen. Their mission is to advocate for good water quality, promote and assist shellfish propagation and education, and share techniques and resources like shellfish recipes etc. The group meets on the first Tuesday of every month at 7 p.m. in the West Barnstable Community Building on Route 149, West Barnstable. Dues are $20 a year. For information, visit shellfishing.org.
In addition to adult classes, the town of Barnstable also holds children’s clamming classes at the end of June. For information on these classes, call 508-790-6272.
Those are the basic ABCs of shellfishing. Winter, spring, summer, or fall on Cape Cod, shellfishing is a timeless pleasure. It will bring nourishment to your body—and your soul—especially when you share the fruits of your labor with grateful family members and friends.
Susan Dewey is the associate publisher and editor of Cape Cod LIFE Publications. She has been known to slurp down a dozen oysters on the half shell quicker than you can say Wampanoag.
LOCAL SHELLFISHING SUPPLY SHOPS
Cape Cod Fishermen’s Supply
67 Depot Road, Chatham
15 Cove Road (near Rotary), Orleans
Land’s End Marine Supply
337 Commercial Street, Provincetown
R.A. Ribb Company, Inc.
Riverview Bait & Tackle
1273 Route 28, South Yarmouth
Sunrise Bait & Tackle
431 Route 28, Harwichport
Eastman’s Sport & Tackle
783 South Main Street, Falmouth
Red Top Sporting Goods, Inc.
265 Main Street
Canal Bait & Tackle
101 Cranberry Highway,
Shirley’s True Value Hardware
74 State Road, Vineyard Haven