Tucked into a corner of my favorite phylum, Mollusca, is a class of creatures known as gastropods. Their name describes their two major body features, stomach and foot, and their main activity, crawling around the sea floor and devouring everything in their path.
In the Peconic Bay, two members of this class are actively harvested: the knobby whelk and the channeled whelk. It is now the sixth largest fishery in New York, with over $10 million landed annually. Baymen set traps in two seasons of the year, early spring and early fall. Then the whelk will “pot,” that is, march into the trap and wait to be gathered.
When they mate in July and August, whelks do not pot. “Would you eat if you only got laid one time a year?” asks Greenport bayman Joe Angevine.
The whelk trap is a model of simplicity: a five-sided cube generally of wooden slats weighted down with bricks. The top, open side has a band of twine inset one inch from the edge. The whelks can climb up the rough wooden sides, smelling the bait nailed down in the middle of the trap. The best bait is horseshoe crab, but its harvest is now limited, so anything that rots will suffice.
The whelks cannot escape from that seemingly open cube; the one-inch barrier of string overwhelms their capacity. They may have a stomach and a foot, but they were endowed with very little brain. Oddly, 90 percent of this crop is shipped to China. Not only do the Chinese like the firm meats, but like the Bahamians and Italians, they associate conch and whelk with improved sexual performance. Indeed, every bayman I have ever spoken to about whelk remarks on the size of the whelks’ reproductive organs. Although there is a smattering of Internet lore on the topic, Professor Stephen Tettlebach of LIU-Post says he “knows of no scientific proof for the rumor. However, if enough people believe it, it can have a placebo effect.”
“Until the ’80s,” says Pete Wentzel, the bay’s largest harvester and buyer of whelk, “we just trapped enough for the Greek and Italian markets. Then the Asian interest drove up demand.” Wholesale prices in the last 10 years have risen from 50 cents a pound in the shell to $3.
Considered a pest because of their voracious consumption of clams and oysters, whelk have no size or number trapping limits imposed on them by the DEC (Department of Environmental Conservation). Whelks become sexually mature when they reach seven inches in length, yet any size may be caught and sold, a situation that bodes ill for the future of the fishery, according to Wentzel (shown below). It may be the only wild animal allowed to be harvested without a limit. The DEC has stopped issuing permits for the harvest of whelks, but those baymen with a prized permit may trap all they can. According to Tettlebach, the “fishery shows the two classic signs of overfishing: smaller average size of catch and decline in catch per unit of effort.” Rare that a bayman calls for more regulation—most are a little right of Attila the Hun. Yet, Wentzel claims the DEC has been cowed by the up-island baymen, who, when the lobster fishery died in the Sound, began overfishing whelk. “They have the attitude that we’ll catch them all and move onto the next thing. Well, there is no next thing.” This rich underwater stampede, this march of the humble whelk, which begins every year around Easter when the first green shoots of hay-grass break through the beach along the intertidal zone, may be threatened by their reputation for beating the baymen and the weekend clammers to the Peconic’s famous harvest of tasty bivalves.
Many Peconic beachcombers have seen the whelks’ elegant shells washed up at high tide or cracked open at road ends where seagulls drop them to open them up. Native Americans used the spiraling inner whorl to make wampum.
I became acquainted with the animal my first year oystering. Baymen set their traps just outside my oyster boundaries, and we would exchange oysters for whelk. For years I poached them in saltwater and sliced the meat thin, sautéing them with olive oil, butter, garlic and hot peppers. When clients of mine from the city, chefs who cook fish far better than I, visited, I often fed them this oyster predator. Its texture and taste excite their palates. After talking to Pete Wentzel, I tried steaming them then sautéing them; the whelk meat becomes as tender as mushrooms.
This beautiful, delicate tasting creature is not sold in any restaurant in the North Fork, nor, as far as I know, on the South Fork either. At Eataly, in the Flatiron, Dave Pasternak slices them paper thin on the prosciutto machine and serves them in salad. The most adventurous method of preparation belongs to Carmen Quagliata, chef at the Union Square Café.
“If you crack the shell open with a hammer and slice them just right,” he told me as I dropped off a couple bags of oysters one morning at 6 a.m., “they will march right off the plate.”