CLINT AUSTIN / OYSTER FARMER / WELLFLEET
Up in Blackfish Creek, Clint Austin’s shellfish farm looks like other aquaculture grants in Wellfleet. During the season, you see bags of oysters strapped to rebar racks set out in tidy rows. But there’s something different about Clint’s farm. For years, he has been hauling shell to build a massive reef, abundant with oysters for picking year-round. The reef, Clint says, is one of his biggest accomplishments. Here’s Clint in his own words.
My mother, Barbara, has been shellfishing for her entire adult life, basically. From almost the moment I was born, she was dragging me around out there on the tide in a little fish tote, almost like a sled.
My mother’s farm is on Indian Neck Beach. All through my high school years and through the time I was at college, I continued coming home and working with her. Caleb Potter used to work with Barbara’s neighbor, Richard Blakely, and at times on early morning tides he would call us the “arguing Austins” because I would want to do things one way. And it was Barbara’s farm, and she wanted things to be done the way she wanted them to be done. We generally were a good team, though. We got along well enough, I would say, to get the job done.
In 2008, I finally branched off and got my own farm around the corner in Blackfish Creek. It was a little bit scary getting going at first without having the protection and the watchful eye of my mother, who taught me everything. But it was a great feeling to get established and have my own scene going on.
I was one of the first among my age group to be granted a shellfish farm. And now seven or eight of my close neighbors [on the flats] are friends I grew up with, who have young families. A lot of ’em have two or three kids, and that’s how they feed the kids and pay the bills. It’s great to see them every day and go out there and work in a beautiful office. You can’t really beat that. So that’s why I do it.
I grow oysters with a rack-and-bag system, as well as bottom cages. I had a lot of gear that was already established for that growing technique from my years on my mother’s farm. But I also really wanted and liked the idea of having an oyster reef that would be something I could work, even in the wintertime.
I’m not the only person with a reef. There are a couple smaller ones established. There was a reef that inspired my reef, because I saw that it could actually work. There was a guy in the ’60s named Elton Atwood, and he had a reef I would see in the channel every day. And for years and years, he brought shell and built it up, and it became a big mound.
Oysters, when they first spawn, are swimming in the water column and seeking a suitable habitat. Their first choice would be a natural oyster reef, so they would attach onto other oysters, but their second choice would be any type of shell they can find on the bottom. Putting shell out is called cultching, and it goes back in Wellfleet hundreds of years. Before we had oyster hatcheries to be able to buy seed, oystering would be completely reliant upon wild oysters spawning and attaching to a substrate, such as shell.
When I first started the farm, I was also working for a company in New Bedford picking up sea clams and sea scallops from Provincetown. I would get up at four in the morning and then drive all the sea clams and sea scallops up to New Bedford. They had a sea clam processing plant, and they had all the leftover shell. And I started telling them my idea about wanting to have a reef. And they’re like, “Hey, we have tons of these vats out back of shell. Every time you go back, you could bring a few vats of shell. If you want ’em, have ’em.”
Once I started to establish the reef, I seeded it with oysters, and then I just continued to build up more and more shell. I’ll take a load of shell (now from Wellfleet Shellfish Company) at least once or twice a week to continue building up the outer edges of the reef. There must be hundreds of thousands of pounds of shell that I’ve put out there.
I just continue building the reef. The center is slightly depressed, and it has the remnants of all the seeded oysters as well as the broken-up fragments of the shell. I put the fresh stuff on the outside, and the reef’s formed almost the shape of a human eye. I still have that technique going on with the reef building, and I still do the grow-out in the cages with the rack-and-bag system. It just kind of works together. I’ve been harvesting off the reef now for 8 or 10 years.
I turned 40 this year. Yeah, it’s hard for me to say. I didn’t think I’d ever say that. I don’t feel it, but I am 40 now. I have two boys, 8 and 12, and they both show an interest in shellfishing. They don’t want to necessarily go out there and work too hard, but they enjoy being on the farm. I would definitely love to imagine a third generation of Wellfleet oyster fishermen and farmers. That would be very, very cool to me.
An oyster reef, if I build it correctly and continue adding to it, even if I stopped, it would theoretically continue on for generations. I joke with my [shellfish grant] neighbor that I’m building an oyster reef for the kids, so when I die, they’ve got something to come out here and work on, something to remember me by.