Weeks after shellfishing ban is lifted, Wellfleet worries remain

Jason Weisman at work on Duck Creek.
Jason Weisman at work on Duck Creek. Thomas Farragher/Globe Staff

WELLFLEET — A soft rain falls just before sunrise and Jason Weisman is at work on Duck Creek armed with a knife and a bushel basket, scouring the muddy shoreline for food that supports his young family, still asleep in their beds miles down the road.

He’s cooked in kitchens in the North End and Allston. He’s worked on lobster boats. He’s studied painting and has a keen appreciation for art. And now, at his feet, he recognizes the artistry before him.

“It sparkles like a diamond when the light hits it just right,’’ he tells me, holding a freshly harvested oyster, the shellfish that has become his passion and livelihood.


He’s got his eyes on the water and on the horizon, preferring to look ahead and forget about the economic calamity from which he is just emerging — a month-long shellfishing ban that has staggered him and his town.

The trouble in mid-October started this way: One bride got sick. Then a second bride fell ill. Presently, town health officials were deluged with reports about scores of wedding guests and restaurant patrons suffering unpleasant and telltale symptoms: diarrhea, nausea, vomiting. The common thread? Raw oysters.

Norovirus had come to Wellfleet, whose namesake oyster is a sought-after delicacy on menus around the world.

“I really didn’t know what to do,’’ Weisman said later on Thursday morning at his home as his wife, Elisabeth Salén, fed their newly born second child.

“This is the second-greatest source of income in the town next to tourism. There was nothing to do but sit and worry. I was like, ‘Elisabeth, how are we going to take care of these guys?’ We can’t make any money selling our oysters.’’

Now, more than two weeks after the shellfishing ban was lifted, that worry has yet to ebb. State and local officials calculate an economic impact measured in millions, in the tearful eyes of fishing families already living on the edge, and amid fear that the town’s carefully cultivated namesake brand has been stained.


“The most important thing to get across is that the oysters are perfectly safe to consume,’’ said Hillary Greenberg-Lemos, the town’s health inspector.

If they could, Weisman and Salén would place those words in big neon letters atop tall buildings. The life they’re building here depends on it.

Theirs is a love-at-first-sight story between a young man from Franklin and a Swedish-born woman who fell in love, got engaged in a Winnebago camper, and now toil side by side at low tide in Wellfleet Harbor.

The rhythms of their lives are dictated by their two little boys – Leif, 2½, and Loki, 1 month – and the daily tidal chart. They run a raw bar business called Slurp-Us, selling what they harvest at events from Provincetown to Yarmouth.

Now, they are leaning on each other again, trying to figure out what’s next after the norovirus robbed a third of their yearly income – a $20,000 kick in the stomach.

“Everything felt so foggy,’’ Elisabeth told me. “What’s going on? I was just in shock. Things had been going so well. We felt the wind in our sails. And then it just died.’’

Bills mounted. Credit cards were maxed out. And then something happened that is not uncommon in small towns bound together by history and common cause. Help arrived. Good deeds were done. Reliable friends displayed their reliability.


A package of Pampers appeared on their porch. So did bundles of carefully chosen groceries. A local mechanic offered a much needed $1,500 vehicle. Pay me when you can, he said. Church groups and local nonprofits tossed out urgently needed lifelines.

“It’s beautiful,’’ Jason said. “It really restores your faith in people.’’

And in one another. Jason recalls a scary incident from his life as a young single man, living alone on a sailboat. The craft was heated by a small canister of propane, which suddenly exploded, singeing his eyebrows.

“That’s just how it was when I met Elisabeth,’’ he said. “Boom! She was drop-dead gorgeous.’’

Holding her baby, Salén showed me the ring finger of her left hand. In the place of a wedding ring, there’s a small and elegant band-shaped tattoo. It has nine dots, signifying their wedding date: Sept. 9, 2009 – 9/9/09.

“We do have each other,’’ Elisabeth told Jason. “We do have this family. We do live in this beautiful place. We’ll figure this out.’’

They are the words of a glass-half-full optimist, a woman who believes that – after this financial storm – her young family will weather anything.

Want to toast that spirit? They’ve got a suggestion: Have some oysters with your champagne this season.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.