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Groton - Calling it "one of our top priorities," state Department of Agriculture Commissioner Steven K. Reviczky said the state maintains a solid commitment to a blossoming aquaculture industry in the state.
But local oystermen say progress is hampered by a lack of communication and sluggishness of the agency to respond to their plans for growth.
Members of the Noank Aquaculture Cooperative met Thursday with Reviczky, Bureau of Aquaculture Director David Carey, State Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, and a contingent of town councilors and shellfish commission members to hash out some ongoing issues.
The meeting, which included members of the co-op's Southhold, N.Y., hatchery, was held at the Noank shellfish hatchery, the headquarters for shellfishermen who seed 6 million oysters in the nearby waters every year, said Jim Markow, president of the co-op. It takes about two years from seed for an oyster to get to the market size of 3 inches.
"I think we do a really good job with the product we grow. We want to be able to do more," Markow told state officials. "You want to grow this industry, but we remain constrained."
The oystermen have asked for permission to open up more waters in the winter to allow harvesting of oysters closer to shore, especially during foul weather. They say water quality is stellar because of the lack of boat traffic. The idea was first proposed in 2009.
"We have a huge potential winter market we want to take advantage of," said co-op member Steve Plant.
The oystermen are also hoping for permission to use tanks supplied with fresh saltwater for short-term a storage of harvested oysters when the forecast calls for heavy rains. Shellfish harvesting is barred after heavy rains due to rises in bacteria levels associated with discharges of sewage plants.
That idea was talked about in 2007, made progress in 2009, but stalled with long delays in getting permits from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, Markow said.
Markow said he now has the equipment and the DEEP permit, but awaits permission from the agriculture department for what would be the first of its kind in the state.
Carey acknowledged delays in water testing due to a lack of personnel, specifically an additional employee at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration certified lab where the water is tested.
But Carey said permission to farm closer inland goes beyond water testing. He said the locals waters are greatly affected by local sewage treatment plants, and more testing needs to be done at the pollution sources - monitoring that needs to take place after rain.
He also said the wet storage of oysters needs to be built and inspected before the state signs off on it.
Maynard called it "utterly unacceptable" that testing could take so long and offered that if the agriculture department couldn't do it, perhaps there were other agencies that could.
"I think we can acknowledge the process is taking longer than anyone wants it to take," he said.
Maynard said if needed, he would introduce legislation to add an extra lab technician to expedite water quality testing. He also asked agricultural officials to help oystermen by providing timelines for work and a clear outline of what needs to be done.
Consumers want to buy local, Reviczky said, and Markow's Mystic Oysters is a prime example of how the industry can flourish if given the opportunity. He added that his department also has "an absolute responsibility to public health and safety," which is the reason for the testing.