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Popular river beds still off limits, frustrating area shellfishing enthusiasts

By Judy Benson

Publication: The Day

Published August 05. 2014 4:00AM

Two of the region's most popular areas for recreational shellfishing have been closed for weeks, disappointing vacationers and residents who are missing their prime chance to pursue a favorite summertime hobby.

Shellfish beds in the Poquonnock River off Bluff Point State Park in Groton have been closed since May 1, while the beds in the Niantic River in East Lyme and Waterford have been closed since the July 4 weekend. Both areas are among the region's most frequently visited shellfishing areas, with ample parking and relatively easy access to the beds.

"We are eager to get back open again," Peter Harris, chairman of the Waterford-East Lyme Shellfish Commission, said Monday. The commission oversees clamming areas in the Niantic River, which Harris hopes will reopen before summer ends.

The Niantic River beds have been closed since heavy rainfall over the July 4 weekend caused water quality samples and then shellfish meat samples to fail public health tests for bacteria levels. In the most recent round of testing, meat samples passed but a single water sample from the Saunders Point area of East Lyme had elevated bacteria levels.

"All it takes is one sample" to keep the area closed, said Lew Bull, salesman at Hillyer's Tackle Shop in Waterford, which sells most of the clamming permits for the Niantic River. A shellfisherman himself, Bull said he's had to explain repeatedly this summer to those coming to the store for permits that authorities are "erring on the side of caution" by keeping the beds closed. Some are going to other shellfishing areas such as Jordan Cove in Waterford, while others are opting to forgo harvesting steamers and hardshell clams this summer until the river reopens, he said.

Richard Chmiel, shellfish warden for the Niantic River, said that since he became warden in 2008 there has never been such a prolonged closure not tied to repeated heavy rains.

Ledge Light Health District has agreed to investigate the Saunders Point area, which is not served by municipal sewers, to find the source of the pollution problem there, said Stephen Mansfield, deputy director of health for Ledge Light. The agency will coordinate its investigation with the state Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Aquaculture, he said. The work, expected to begin in about a week, is likely to involve shoreline surveys and a review of any historical problems in the area, he added. It is not clear at this point whether the problem is a single source or multiple ones.

In Groton, the Bureau of Aquaculture required the Poquonnock River and Mumford Cove beds closed on May 1 due to inadequacies in the town shellfish commission's testing program, said David Carey, director of the aquaculture bureau. As "conditional" areas for shellfishing, the Poquonnock River and Mumford Cove must meet rigorous testing protocols. Five times during the year, after a quarter inch of rain falls, they have to collect water samples within four days of the rainfall. The water also must be tested after a rainfall of one inch or more.

"It's a huge amount of work for these recreational programs," Carey said. "The good thing is that we don't have people getting sick. But we can't be complacent."

The Groton Shellfish Commission is working to collect the additional samples to meet the state's requirements, said Edward Martin, commission chairman. But there have been some logistical difficulties for him and the other volunteer commissioners and the part-time wardens to be able to collect the samples at the right times and then transport them to the state lab in Milford within 24 hours, he said.

To make up for the loss of the Poquonnock River beds this summer, the commission seeded beds off Esker Point, which have remained open, Martin said. Although signs about the closure have been posted in the Poquonnock River beds, town shellfish wardens are still patroling the area to make sure people aren't harvesting clams there. About 1,500 clamming permits are sold annually in the town, he said.

"We have to patrol the area whether we're open or not," said Martin. "A lot of people are mad."

Due to the closures in East Lyme, Waterford and Groton, the shellfish beds in Stonington have been a little busier this summer, said Don Murphy, chairman of the town's shellfish commission. The Stonington beds were closed for about a week after the heavy rains on the July 4 weekend, but have remained open since then, he said.

j.benson@theday.com

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