Plan aims to help state's shellfish industry grow

Server Jan Kocur, left, with University Catering of UConn Dining Services, holds a tray while Peter Fraboni, right, of the Earthplace Harbor Watch Program in Westport, helps himself to a stuffed quahog clam during the Connecticut Shellfish Initiative hosted by Connecticut Sea Grant at the Branford House on the UConn Avery Point campus in Groton, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016.  Nancy Balcom, center, of Sea Grant looks on.  (Dana Jensen/The Day)
Server Jan Kocur, left, with University Catering of UConn Dining Services, holds a tray while Peter Fraboni, right, of the Earthplace Harbor Watch Program in Westport, helps himself to a stuffed quahog clam during the Connecticut Shellfish Initiative hosted by Connecticut Sea Grant at the Branford House on the UConn Avery Point campus in Groton, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016. Nancy Balcom, center, of Sea Grant looks on. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

Groton — More growing, harvesting and eating of shellfish from Connecticut waters would benefit the state’s economy, culture and marine environment, creating new jobs, new sources of high-quality local food and cleaner water.

Motivated by that belief, Connecticut Sea Grant has been working with federal, state and private groups over the past three years to create a blueprint for how to nurture and grow the industry. On Thursday, the plan was introduced to a group of about 50 local and state officials, commercial shellfishermen and others at an event at the Avery Point campus of the University of Connecticut, where Sea Grant is based.

“This is the launch of the Connecticut Shellfish Initiative,” said Sylvain De Guise, director of Connecticut Sea Grant, as guests finished snacking on raw clams and oysters, two kinds of clam chowder and other shellfish-themed appetizers, all from local sources. “Tonight you’re going to learn something about shellfish, using all your senses.”

Already, commercial shellfish beds in 14 coastal towns generate $30 million in revenue annually, employing 300 people in 45 shellfish companies, some of whom are diversifying into kelp farming, said Tessa Getchis, aquaculture extension specialist at Sea Grant.

With input from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Shellfish Initiative, Connecticut shellfishermen, regulators, scientists, recreational shellfishing representatives and others, the plan for increasing appreciation for local shellfish and fostering growth of commercial shellfishing emerged with 35 recommendations. The recommendations fall under five categories:

• Increasing public awareness and support

• Promoting aquaculture and shellfisheries development

• Meeting the challenges of shellfish in a changing environment and climate

• Streamlining regulations and management

• Communicating the vision plan to a wider audience.

“The next step will be to develop specific strategies” to carry out the plan, Getchis said. “This fall, we’ll form committees to develop the why and the how and the how much.”

Along with the shellfish-themed foods, the event also featured an exhibit of shellfish-themed art and educational displays about the nutritional and economic benefits of shellfishing, among other topics.

Among speakers at the event was James Bloom, co-owner of Norm Bloom and Son oyster company in Norwalk. He told how his grandfather began harvesting oysters in the 1940s, then fell on hard times in the 1950s when water pollution and severe storms destroyed the beds. Ultimately, the company was revived by his father, Norm, who switched to harvesting hard clams while he rehabilitated the oyster beds.

“By the 1970s, the oyster industry was back in full swing,” James Bloom said. “Over the past 20 years, we’ve grown into a business with 60 employees and three boats. I, like my father and grandfather, have a love for shellfishing and Long Island Sound.”

Shellfishing, he said, “remains one of the only fisheries that is sustainable and robust.”

Another shellfish grower, Sally McGee, told how her experience raising oysters in the Mystic River has deepened her appreciation for the value of clean water. McGee, owner of Sixpenny Oysters in Noank, is also the Northeast marine program director for the Nature Conservancy. She sells her oysters to a local restaurant.

“Being an oyster farmer has taught me how dependent oysters are on good water to thrive, and the importance of upgrading our septic systems and making sure fertilizers are used wisely,” she said.

Alison Savona, member of the Fairfield Shellfish Commission, described how her group has been working to interest residents in recreational shellfishing, sponsoring community clam-digging events that have taught 225 people per year how to rake the mollusks out of the beds at Sasco Hill Beach.

“It’s led to an increase in our recreational permit sales,” she said. “I think we’ve got many people hooked. It’s pretty cool to go down to the shore and catch a little of your dinner.”

j.benson@theday.com

A guest picks up a raw oyster from the Noank Aquaculture Cooperative during the Connecticut Shellfish Initiative hosted by Connecticut Sea Grant at the Branford House on the UConn Avery Point campus in Groton, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016. (Dana Jensen/The Day)
A guest picks up a raw oyster from the Noank Aquaculture Cooperative during the Connecticut Shellfish Initiative hosted by Connecticut Sea Grant at the Branford House on the UConn Avery Point campus in Groton, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

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