Bay Scallops Get Another Chance In Niantic River

A cold November rain pelted river warden Bert Sexton Friday as he steadied a Carolina skiff loaded with young scallops in the Niantic River's wind-riffed waters.

From the bow, Pat Kelly pitched Sexton a crab he'd plucked from a bin full of bivalves.

“Green crab,” Sexton said with scorn for the shellfish enemy that, among shell-fishermen, is universally hated. He placed his thumb on the crab's thin shell and crushed it.

Kelly, of Waterford, and Eric Kanter, of East Lyme, who serve on the Waterford/East Lyme Shellfish Commission, had traveled back and forth with Sexton three times that rainy day from a dock under the Niantic River Bridge. They were there to scatter more than 50,000 scallops donated by the Mohegan tribe in three areas upriver.

On this last trip, Kelly and Kanter hunkered down over the plastic bins and repeatedly heaved gloved palms full of scallops the size of quarters into the water.

Twenty minutes later the last of the mollusks had slipped through their fingers and floated down toward the shallow riverbed. There, crops of eelgrass would provide refuge long enough for the young ones to grow and spawn next July. And then, the scallops so long absent here might not only survive, but also thrive again.

Or not.

In the last decade of the 20th century, the scallops that made the Niantic River famous have all but disappeared.

Five years ago, shellfish commissioners purchased 28,000 tiny scallop seedlings, known as spat, and sheltered them in handmade protective cages in the river. About half grew to maturity and spawned but the offspring died, and with them, hopes for resurgence.

This past summer, Capt. John Wadsworth, who owns a shellfishing company and sport fishing center in the Mago Point section of Waterford, built and installed 100-foot-square pens in the river to keep predators away from young scallops. That experiment is still under way, Kelly and Kanter said.

The reduced scallop population is sometimes blamed on lack of eelgrass, which filters the water and helps hide shellfish from predators like green crabs and starfish.

Nobody seems to know why scallops have died off here, but Kanter says the reason doesn't matter. He told the story Sunday of two boats with leaks: One owner ripped his boat apart, trying to find the source of the problem; the second owner simply caulked the entire boat, knowing any leak would be contained.

“I think sometimes we spend too much time trying to pinpoint the cause of a problem,” Kanter said. “It's not an exact science. Is the problem really eelgrass? Is it really predators? It's something we don't know.”

Scallops have not been completely eradicated here, commissioners said, but there are so few that the commission no longer issues shellfishing permits for them. And without permit sales, commissioners have no money to fund more experiments. Neither the state nor federal governments helps pay for their efforts, they said.

Recently, the Mohegan tribe, which began seeding shellfish beds in Stonington, and Groton and East Lyme in 2001, offered the commission 10-month-old scallops they have been raising in a Stonington hatchery. Timothy Rollins, who heads the tribe's 10-member aquaculture team, and marine biologist Luning Sun turned the shellfish over to Kelly and Kanter Friday morning. Two Waterford public works employees helped bring them to the dock at Mago Point.

Kelly and Kanter took charge of the tribe's gift of free scallops, which they said may have a decent chance of surviving.

Unlike the seedlings used last time, these young scallops are a few months short of adulthood. And with winter coming on and less recreational activity on the river, there should be fewer predators and cleaner water, Kelly and Kanter said.

A new sewer system proposed for the Pine Grove neighborhood on the East Lyme side of the river, and future sewer development, are also likely to cut down on the amount of chemicals finding their way through tributaries and into the river, Kanter said. Chemicals from pesticides and septic tanks increase the nitrogen load in the water, causing algae to bloom and block sunlight from the eelgrass beds, he said.

Scallops live and die in a period of about two years. Kelly estimates that about half of the scallops stocked Friday might survive the winter. If those adults spawn successfully in July, they could be harvested in the fall while the new generation grows.

Originally from Maryland, Kelly is chief executive officer of a credit union in Manchester and has been a commissioner for 33 years. Staying close to the marine environment reminds him of home, he said.

Kanter, who runs a Norwich firm that offers investment advice, calls the region here “paradise.” He wants it to flourish.

“You've got the Connecticut River, the Niantic River, the Thames River, the Mystic River and the Pawcatuck River, just between Old Saybrook and Watch Hill,” he said. “Within 10 to 15 miles are so many lakes and ponds... You've got all this beautiful stuff right here.”
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