Shellfish farm in Niantic River? Not so fast
Waterford — A businessman is moving forward with plans to raise scallops and oysters in the Niantic River off the coast of Waterford’s Mago Point, an enterprise he says could bring the once-famous Niantic Bay scallop back to restaurant tables across New England.
But local legal requirements and some public opposition could slow the project down.
Tim Londregan, 26, has helped run a Stonington shellfish hatchery and a farm in the Niantic Bay for a little over a year after graduating from college and working on a Fishers Island shellfish farm for three years.
He sells market-sized shellfish to restaurants across the region, including Lillian’s in Niantic and S&P Oyster Co. in Mystic, and, with his brother and some support from his former boss at the Fishers Island farm, hopes to add a 6.4-acre area on the bottom of the Niantic River to the business.
If he gets permission from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Londregan said he hopes to be moving immature oysters and scallops into the Niantic River by spring, 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.
The Waterford-East Lyme Shellfish Commission, which is made up of Waterford and East Lyme residents, has granted Londregan a license giving him access to six acres of the bottom of the river for one year to experiment with growing the oysters and scallops there.
The Army Corps of Engineers, which regulates building in all U.S. waterways, is considering Londregan’s application for a permit to run the shellfishing operation in the river. The Corps sent a public notice Aug. 1 to businesses and residents along the Waterford side of the river on Mago Point, alerting them to the details of the permit.
But the neighbors who received that notice, and some Waterford officials, say the Army Corps notice is the first they've heard of the project, and they want to know more.
Robin Lineberger, who owns a summer home on the river near Mago Point, said Thursday he has requested the Army Corps host a public meeting so neighbors and local business owners can get answers to questions about whether the shellfish racks will be visible and whether the plan is economically viable.
“All of this is on the hypothesis it works,” Lineberger said. “We’re all for shellfishing, we just have to do it right.”
Waterford's town attorney, Robert Avena, said he has begun to investigate the terms of the agreement between Londregan and the Waterford-East Lyme Shellfish Commission. Waterford First Selectman Daniel Steward said the deal was made without needed approval from the three-member Board of Selectmen and may not be legal.
Meanwhile, Lineberger and others who own property on both sides of the Niantic River are submitting comments to the Army Corps of Engineers as part of the Corps’ open commenting period that closes Aug. 29. They are requesting more information about the visual and olfactory effects of the project, saying a visual shellfish operation could affect tourism to the river and may not be economically viable.
Londregan agreed Thursday that the operation may impact boaters’ movement around the river, but argued the project would have a net positive benefit to the river and the shellfish population and the river’s ecology.
Formerly a staple of the southeastern Connecticut seafood harvest, Niantic River scallops are now comparatively rare.
The diminished population led the Waterford-East Lyme Shellfish Commission to decide for several years not to open the recreational scallop season.
Populations have been up slightly in the last few years, but Londregan said growing his own scallops and oysters in the river will improve the water quality. The shellfish naturally filter the water, eating the phytoplankton, or micro algae, which clarifies it.
He also plans to allow juvenile scallops to spawn in the river, which could replenish the natural population there as well as rebuilding a product that once was Niantic’s most well-known export.
“It’s a shame that Niantic doesn’t have a product that’s Niantic’s product,” Londregan said, pointing out the scallop on the East Lyme town seal and the word “agriculture” on the town seal for Waterford.
In the last couple decades, others have tried to start commercial shellfishing operations in the river, only to meet regulatory obstacles and resistance from nearby residents.
A year ago, Londregan built a small barge on the river, at the southwestern corner of the rhombus-shaped area that his license with the shellfish commission covers. Paint on the side reads "Niantic Bay Shellfish Farm," and Londregan and his brother have begun collecting piles of seed oysters and the metal racks.
It’s from that wooden platform that he hopes to start lowering racks of oysters and scallops into the water, as long as the recent opposition from the neighbors on each side of the river or skepticism from Waterford officials doesn’t get in his way.