Noank Shellfish Cooperative, sidelined by Irene, back selling oysters

Groton - Oysters from the Noank Shellfish Cooperative are finally being delivered to restaurants and markets again.

On Monday, after being shut for a month by state shellfish regulators, the cooperative received permission to start selling oysters harvested from its beds again. James Markow, president of the 10-person cooperative, estimates the group lost about $40,000 to $50,000 in sales for the month and isn't sure how much of that it will be able to recoup with new sales. Not being able to sell his product for the Labor Day weekend was particularly hard, he said.

"It was painful," he said Thursday. "But we'll survive. We're back in business now."

Sales locally typically peak in the summer months and drop after Labor Day, Markow said. After that, sales shift toward markets that supply Manhattan restaurants and other New York City outlets.

Heavy rains before and following Tropical Storm Irene forced the closure. Since the storm, runoff and silt flowing into the Connecticut River, the main source of fresh water for Long Island Sound, led the Aquaculture Division of the state Department of Agriculture to keep the beds closed until it was confident the shellfish were not at risk of bacteria contamination. The storm also damaged one of the co-op's docks and some of the beds, but losses were limited, Markow said.

"It could have been a lot worse," he said.

David Carey, head of the Aquaculture Division, said Thursday that some shellfish beds in Fairfield County and other parts of the state are still closed.

"Our goal is to get everything open as soon as we can," he said. "But we had a bunch of conditions we're not used to having."

His office, along with Connecticut SeaGrant, has been working on trying to obtain some assistance for the state's shellfishermen to help with their losses, he said.

On Thursday, an announcement came from the state's Senate delegation signaling that it may be easier to obtain help for the state's shellfishermen for future storm losses.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, both Democrats, introduced the Shellfish Equity Act. It would add shellfish to the list of crops eligible to be covered by disaster relief programs administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Under current rules, they are not eligible.

The state's shellfish industry supports an estimated 300 jobs and generates $30 million in sales annually, Blumenthal's office said in a news release.

"Our shellfish industry - severely damaged by Irene - deserves and needs the assistance that all other farmers receive, so they can recover and rebuild," Blumenthal said. "This measure would treat shellfish farmers on par with other agriculture producers, and ensure that they have the same eligibility for emergency aid."

Lieberman noted that the state's shellfishing industry has long played an important part in the state's economy.

"It is heartbreaking that their crops were hit so hard by Hurricane Irene," he said. "We will work with our colleagues to enact this legislation as soon as possible."

If approved, shellfishermen would become eligible for two USDA disaster relief programs, the Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program and Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honey Bees & Farm-raised Fish program.

j.benson@theday.com

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