Lease approval could bring oysters back to Ledyard

Ledyard — The oyster beds off Gales Ferry could soon be producing naturally-set oysters for the first time since the 1990s, after the Planning and Zoning Commission Thursday unanimously recommended a lease with the Aeros Cultured Oyster Company to harvest in four locations in the Thames River.

While most might not see the potential in the stretch of the Thames north of the Groton line, Jim Markow is part of the river's history: he worked for Captain Lawrence Malloy, owner of L.H. Malloy & Sons, in the 1970s when Malloy worked on the riverbed.

Malloy held an informal lease with the town going back to 1928, and the beds had been farmed since the 1880s.

Markow returned to Thames with some hatchery seed a few years ago on shellfish beds he leases on the Waterford side and saw "a sign" of oysters naturally setting on the shellfish beds.

Since last summer, he has been meeting with the Land Use/Planning/Public Works Committee to develop a lease for the about a hundred acres of the river to bring "old-fashioned" oystering back to the river with the Aeros Cultured Oyster Company, which includes partner Norm Bloom of Copps Island Oysters and President of the company Karen Rivara.

The four locations include sections of the riverbed near Mill Cove, the Harvard Boathouse, Clark Cove and Stoddard Hill.

Oysters grown in the Thames River in recent history have all been farmed or "cultured" oysters; meaning they are grown in a hatchery at the Noank Aquaculture Cooperative in tanks called conicals from the larval stage at a carefully maintained temperature until they develop shells.

From there, they can be moved into cages into the bay.

The process of producing seed oysters is "very labor intensive," according to Groton Shellfish Commissioner Richard Sherman.

By contrast, producing naturally-set oysters is more hands-off, but a riskier business, said Markow. Heaps of dried oyster shell are deposited in the areas of the river, and naturally-occurring oyster spawn latch on to bits of shell and grow.

"Some years you get it and some years you don't," Markow said of the natural set.

He added that the unpredictability leads many oyster farmers to rely on hatcheries, but natural sets are more common by companies harvesting large numbers of oysters, like operations in New Haven and Norwalk.

After the oysters have grown to a size of about two inches, they must be dislodged and brought by boat into the Long Island Sound for depuration, where they grow for at least six months or longer until they reach market size.

"It's a real gamble for us: we're going to start out not really aggressive next year, to see if we get any set on it," he said. "If we start seeing something happening, we can increase it."

Unpredictable as they may be, conditions have greatly improved since the late 1990s, and now is a good time for naturally set oysters, said David H. Carey, director of the state Bureau of Aquaculture & Laboratory Services.

"Any area that historically produced oysters, now we're seeing very good recruiting," Carey said.

He explained that in 1998 there was a large die-off of Connecticut's oysters due to oyster parasites MSX and Dermo.

The Thames had a low population of oysters to begin with, and the small population that survived took a much longer time to rebound than oyster populations in Norwalk or New Haven.

Since the sites haven't been maintained in decades, there is a considerable amount of work involved cleaning the patches and removing the shell. 

The Town Council must also approve the lease. But as one of the last people who worked the oyster beds, Markow said it's worth a shot.

"I hope we can make this work and bring the river back to life again," Markow said. "I would feel pretty good that I've done some good. We've got oysters growing in the Mystic River that hadn't been in 50 years (so) we've got a track record."

n.lynch@theday.com

Twitter: @_nathanlynch

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