Commercial shellfish proposals face history of neighbor opposition
Shellfishing has long held a place in coastal Connecticut history. Harvesters of clams, scallops and oysters have leased access to state and municipal waterways for centuries, and the first laws in the state regulating oyster collection date back to the 18th century in places like Groton and Stonington.
In recent years, a four-member shellfish farming co-op and the support of the UConn-based Connecticut Sea Grant have led to some growth in the industry locally: Several new companies farming oysters and clams have emerged in the Thames River, Noank and Stonington in the past five years, and shellfishing is a growing $30 million industry in the state.
But in addition to the challenges that pollution, weather changes and regulatory hurdles can pose for shellfish farmers trying to turn a profit, the farmers of 2017 also face a human challenge: waterfront property owners unprepared to accept them in their backyards.
Tim Londregan, whose application to use property in the Niantic River off Mago Point in Waterford to raise scallops and oysters is moving through the state and federal regulatory processes, said he expected some questions about his plan.
Londregan, 26, has helped run a Stonington shellfish hatchery and a farm in the Niantic Bay for a little over a year and worked on a Fishers Island shellfish farm for three years. He hopes to move immature oysters and scallops into a 6.4-acre area on the bottom of the Niantic River, letting them grow to a larger size in 15-inch-tall metal racks in the river before moving some back out to the bay to grow to market size.
When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers mailed a public notice of his plan to some property owners along the Waterford side of the river, a few said it was the first they had heard of it and took a critical stance.
The deal Londregan made with the Waterford-East Lyme Shellfish Commission is being questioned by Waterford's town attorney, another complication that has affected public perception of the project.
Online and at subsequent meetings of the Shellfish Commission, neighbors have contested that the project would be unsightly, unhealthy for the river, smelly, dangerous for boaters and bad for their property values.
"I'm not surprised that there's opposition," Londregan said. "I'm surprised by the ... degree to which the opposition has accused this project of having a negative environmental impact or being an (improper) use of public trust land."
Trying to change minds
Earlier this month, more than 100 Stonington residents came to a meeting at Town Hall armed with attorneys to oppose an application for a commercial oyster farming operation in Quiambaug Cove.
That town's Shellfish Commission canceled the meeting because the crowd had exceeded fire code regulations, but the attendees made it clear they believed Dana Lewis' plan to harvest eastern oyster seed on the bottom of the cove would decrease property values and infringe on boaters' access to the cove.
Londregan thinks that while shellfish historically have been a Niantic River product — he has seen commercial permits for oyster cultivation in the river dating back to 1908 — people have lost touch with the legacy of commercial shellfishing in Connecticut.
"They've forgotten the roots," he said.
His arguments that a commercial operation would help clean the water and maybe bring back the scallop population that has all but disappeared from the river in the last two decades have resonated with some, but fallen on deaf ears for others.
"I respect the opinions and the concerns of the public," said Peter Harris, chairman of the Waterford-East Lyme Shellfish Commission, which granted Londregan the deal last year that would allow him to grow shellfish in the river. "I think if they learned more about the project and its benefits, I think some of those individuals would change their mind."
Changing approaches and technology could be unfamiliar to neighbors who have not grown accustomed to having their watery backyards, once centers of the state's commercial shellfishing industry, used for that purpose.
"The methodology is always changing and evolving as growth occurs," said David Carey, director of the state Bureau of Aquaculture. "There is no one way to do it, that's for sure."
The opposition has echoed across years of proposals to hatch, grow and farm shellfish in local waterways, including everything from small operations meant to generate a small profit to a $10 million proposal by the Mohegan tribe to grow oysters in seven locations around New London and Stonington.
One effort to cultivate shellfish in the Niantic River, led by Waterford resident Allan Jacques, failed to generate support in the 1990s because of neighbors' efforts to block it, he has said.
The Mohegan venture, which former project director Paul Maugle says later failed for operational reasons, prompted protests from Stonington residents in the early 2000s.
People who attended town meetings while the tribe's application in Stonington was pending called the proposal "a desecration of what we know and love in this village" and "a horrible idea."
"People don't want to see people work, they want to see the sun set over the bay," Maugle said. "They don't want to see some guy out there sweating."
Tessa Getchis, an aquaculture specialist with the Connecticut Sea Grant and the UConn Extension Program, has worked as an advisor to local shellfish farmers, and has led Sea Grant's outreach and education efforts around shellfishing.
"All along the Connecticut coast, oyster harvesting and cultivation has been here for hundreds of years," she said. "What we're really seeing now is a renaissance."
She said while people who live near the site of a proposed commercial shellfishing operations can have any number of reasons to oppose it, some change their minds once they learn more.
While it's not Getchis' role to convince people that a shellfish farm in their backyard would be a good thing, she does her best to explain the science, telling them things like how much water an oyster can filter in a day — more than 50 gallons — and other ways that more shellfish can benefit the health of a river or cove.
"I've heard from people very concerned about what it will look like," she said. "They don't know that aquaculture is already here."
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