WELLFLEET — Last weekend was all beer, brine, and bright smiles as crowds of locals and out-of-towners gathered on Main Street to celebrate this town’s small but mighty delicacy.
This year’s OysterFest, organized by the local bivalve promoters formerly known as SPAT, now the Wellfleet Oyster Alliance (WOA), brought almost 20,000 oyster lovers together on Oct. 14 and 15 to slurp mollusks and celebrate an industry in which Wellfleet stars as one of the most prolific producers in the country.
More than 100,000 Wellfleets were shucked at seven raw bars, “which is really what it’s all about,” said WOA President Nancy O’Connell. And the weekend’s festivities culminated in a moment of kismet when an Eastham native beat out competitors from across the U.S. and Canada in this year’s shucking contest.
Ben Morgan, 23, topped the charts with a final adjusted shucking time of 3 minutes, 9 seconds, defeating Canada’s second-place champion, Adam Todd, and Chad Egeland from Portland, Maine, who finished in third place.
Twenty-five competitors from across the Cape, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Canada joined the competition this year, O’Connell said. The WOA had “amplified the competition,” as she put it, by recruiting champion shuckers from all points, so when Morgan took the crown, “you couldn’t have written a better script,” she said.
Morgan has been competing in the OysterFest Shuck Off since he was 16. He is the head shucker at Native Cape Cod Seafood in Provincetown, where he has worked since 2010, he said. He has won the shucking competition at the Boston Seafood Festival twice, in 2021 and 2022.
Last year, Morgan took second prize at OysterFest, and in 2021 he squeezed into third place, but he was still shocked this year when he came out victorious.
“I was not expecting to get first at all,” he said, but, he added, “It felt amazing.”
This year, WOA doubled the cash prizes, with the first prize upped to $3,000, second to $1,500, and third to $500.
Morgan said he plans on spending his prize on a new set of tires and on his dog. “I’m really thankful to take home the prize to be able to spoil my amazing dog,” he said.
On Sunday, WOA auctioned off some unusual items: a 16-pound lobster and a 16-and-a-half-ounce oyster. The money raised will support scholarships for graduates of Nauset Regional High School.
“This year was wild because the bidding went crazy high,” said O’Connell. Bette Warner and Amy Carol went in on the lobster with a bid of $1,500, which was matched by Matt Frazier for a total of $3,000. And the big oyster went to Deborah Kassiotis, who won it with a bid of $350.
Warner opted to release the 16-pound lobster back into the wild, but the oyster was swiftly shucked by Morgan and slurped down by the winner’s son.
To date, WOA has made awards totaling $740,000 between the high school scholarship program, community grants, and pandemic relief efforts, according to the nonprofit’s website.
Signs beside the stage said, “WOA. We’re not SPAT anymore.” SPAT, the acronym for the organization’s original name, Wellfleet Shellfish Promotion and Tasting, was a wink at the word for oyster larvae. But it always required a lot of explaining. O’Connell said the name change better reflects the nonprofit’s mission: “We promote not only consumption, but understanding and preservation of the environment,” she said.
Wellfleet was first in the state for the value of its shellfish landings in 2022, with more than $9.5 million earned by local shellfishermen, according to Shellfish Constable Nancy Civetta.
Shellfishing is the number-one year-round industry in Wellfleet, with roughly 10 percent of the resident population, or more than 300 people, involved. In 2022, more than 10 million oysters were farmed and more than 2 million wild oysters were harvested, said Civetta.
“The beauty and the impact of the Wellfleet OysterFest,” Civetta said, is in how it connects people “directly to the farmers who harvest the oysters, clams, and other seafood they are eating.”
“The thing that strikes me every time I’m on the stage, looking out at this parking lot of thousands of people, is that everybody is smiling,” said volunteer Jim Gilbert. “It’s a beautiful day in October, they’ve got a glass of wine or a couple of beers in them and a plate of oysters, and they are just delighted.”