On most summer days, the Barn Hill town landing here bustles with clam diggers who have poured in from Nantucket Sound to hawk the day's catch.
But since a toxic algae bloom known as "red tide" closed down shellfish beds from Maine to Martha's Vineyard - including the entire Chatham shellfishery - only empty skiffs bob in the soft waves of an inlet. On a recent morning, a lone clam digger stood in the parking lot, looking out at the fog.
"Any news?" he asked the town's shellfish constable, Stuart Moore.
"It seems it's getting worse," Mr. Moore told Mike Peltier, who has been clamming commercially for 10 years. "You looking for something to do?"
"Yeah, but I'd rather go clamming.... We looking at six weeks?"
Says Moore: "That's the magic question."
New England is facing its largest red tide in decades. The naturally occurring algae, called Alexandrium, contaminates clams, oysters, and other mollusks that filter seawater for nutrients and can cause illness in humans who consume the shellfish.
While the blooms happen almost every year in various parts of the country, those from the Gulf of Maine have historically drifted to sea before hitting Cape Cod and areas farther south. But experts say that two nor'easters in May helped to bring the tide closer to home. So even as tourists flood in for clambakes and fun on the beach, local fishermen are scrambling to set up emergency meetings, and restaurateurs are searching for ways to import the "local" favorites.
"This is a new experience for Chatham," says Moore, who monitors 63 miles of coastline. He says when he first heard about the toxicity levels last week, he thought, "Oh, boy. This is not good. This is not good. I've always said to myself, 'This is the last thing I'd want to deal with.' "
What's more, some 35 percent of the nation's shellfish comes from the coast between Maine and Connecticut - and the red tide has driven up prices nationwide by about 10 to 15 percent, according to Ted Testaverde, owner of the Fresh Lobster Co. in Gloucester, Mass., who supplies fresh seafood through mail order.
Visitors to Chatham's quaint town center could be forgiven for underestimating these ramifications of the sea. But beyond the stately homes of summer residents are hundreds who depend on shell fishing to pay the bills. Some 500 commercial permits are handed out annually, representing some $5 million in wholesale value.
Many shell fishers, who say they can earn from $150 to $300 a day this time of year, are scrambling. This week a group of them met to explore how to tap federal relief funds and get town and state representatives involved. Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, in fact, Thursday declared a state of emergency - the first time Massachusetts has done so because of red tide. This means the state can seek federal disaster aid for the shellfish industry.
Shell fishers say the timing of the algae bloom could not be worse - not just because demand is reaching its peak, but because college students depend on digging for summer jobs. Shannon Eldredge, a lifelong digger who hosted the meeting at her family's home, just graduated from college - paid for by scholarship, loans, and summers working on the flats.
While fishermen in other communities may be accustomed to toxin-related closures, Chatham is known as a pristine system that rarely shuts down. "We don't have a Plan B," says year-round shell fisher Peter Schimmel.
Some are turning to carpentry or painting homes. Many are taking up other types of fishing. But Moore, who has been a fisherman for 30 years, says that with stricter regulations on the offshore fishery, "it's not as much of an option as it used to be."
Scientists don't know when the red tide will ebb but expect that at least another month could pass before life for clam diggers, restaurateurs, and hungry tourists returns to normal. "Our problem [in estimating] is that ... [the red tide is] going farther than we've ever seen," says Don Anderson, senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod. One long-term impact, he continues, could be the bloom's cysts dropped in the region, potentially leading to future outbreaks.
This red tide differs from those of Florida, where the air often smells and the water turns red. In the Northeast, the term can be misleading, says Dr. Anderson - and potentially dangerous: New Englanders tend to say, "Well, the water isn't red, therefore it's got to be safe."
But toxin levels reported in parts of Chatham are such that eating just a fraction of a plateful of contaminated clams could be fatal - though Anderson emphasizes that no restaurants are allowed to serve contaminated food, that it is safe to swim, and that other seafood like lobster is not affected.
Still, restaurants are battling fear and facing a dwindling supply of shellfish. At the Chatham Squire, a seafood restaurant in Chatham's center, manager Ned Webster says he'll have to import some shellfish from waters farther north, including those in Canada, which will drive up costs. And even then, steamers - their specialty - will be missing. "We wouldn't bring those down from anywhere else," he says.
Even with fewer fish in their bellies, many here are trying to take the news in stride. Mr. Webster says he received a call from a woman in Albany, N.Y., planning a summer vacation. She wanted to know if it was safe to swim at the beach - or even visit the summer haven. He said yes.
At Larry's P.X. restaurant, where shell fishers congregate at dawn most days, humor is easing the wait. As cashier Sheryl Proctor explained that residents, at least, are not worried about contamination, a waitress piped in: "They all ask about the Red Tide [dish]. They think it's a special."
To which a customer added: "Yeah, the special Red Tide roll."