With frigid temperatures blanketing the South Shore, the fishing season seems far off. One Duxbury native, however, is jumping feet first into shell fishing off the coast of Africa this January.
Michelle Wong is on her second week in a five-week trip to Zanzibar, Tanzania, where she is working with the Island Creek Oysters Foundation to develop a shellfish hatchery that will provide a sustainable source of income for the local people.
“Ever since I started working for ICO I really wanted to go to Zanzibar to work on the project,” she said. “I thought it sounded like the coolest thing on the planet.”
A senior ecogastronomy and hospitality management double major at University of New Hampshire, and a long time friend of Island Creek Oysters, Wong met “the guys” at Island Creek Oysters while working at Snug Harbor Fish Market. After five years working at the market, she applied to Island Creek and was hired. “I wanted to try something new, but still fishy and fun,” she said.
The Island Creek Oyster Foundation is currently funding the development of a shellfish hatchery on Zanzibar. Scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution have been working for three years to establish a shellfish hatchery that will provide a controllable and steady supply of seed, or baby shellfish, to be raised by the women in Menai Bay.
“The hope of the project is for the villagers to be able to produce an economically and environmentally sustainable source of protein and income,” Wong said.
A senior in college, Wong is required to do a capstone project that fits into her major in order to graduate. With a little bit of good timing and a strong proposal, she convinced the foundation and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution to let her spend five weeks on the island. During her internship, Wong’s responsibilities include analyzing the market demand for shellfish at high-end resorts in the area, establishing relationships with chefs on the island and writing a blog for the foundation.
“I saw the capstone project as an opportunity to get over there,” she said. “It’s been an incredible gift.”
Skip Bennett founded the Island Creek Oysters after a parasite wiped out his clam farm in Duxbury Bay in 1995. He decided to establish an oyster farm, which quickly became a point of pride for residents.
Island Creek Oysters have become very popular across the country; they have been featured at the White House and in seafood restaurants in Boston and New York. The quickest growing aspect of the company is the ecommerce site, where customers can order oysters online and they are delivered the next day.
“We often say Cape Cod Bay is the Napa Valley of oysters and Duxbury is the most well-regarded place among that broader region,” Chris Sherman, ICOF vice president of marketing, said.
With the rapid success of oyster beach parties at Duxbury Beach, Island Creek Oysters decided to create the Island Creek Oyster Foundation, a non-profit organization that helps communities create a sustainable protein source, Sherman said.
The Zanzibar project is the second funded by ICOF that aims to provide a sustainable source of protein for communities that do not currently have an income or reliable source of food. The first project, run by Valentin Abe and the Caribbean Harvest Foundation, aims to establish tilapia farms in Haiti.
Wong said she feels lucky to have the opportunity to work on the project. Life in Zanzibar moves a lot slower, she said, and she has learned a lot about the strong Islamic culture on the island.
“The farm has so much potential and I hope my role here can somehow contribute to the project’s success,” she said. “I have never been to a place like Zanzibar before in my life; it’s definitely given me a changed perspective.”
Looking forward to graduation, Wong said she loves food, traveling and working with people and hopes to find a career that will let her combine all three.
“What I love so much about working with Island Creek is that they are able to combine great food, sustainable agriculture, education, traveling and philanthropy,” she said. “And they make it fun. That’s the most important thing.”
Wong said her favorite part about her experience so far is meeting the local people and learning about their culture.
“Everyone is so friendly, generous and welcoming that you find yourself feeling very comfortable and at ease, despite how drastically different it is from home,” she said.