Shellfish aquaculture has many benefits

Humankind went from being hunter-gatherers on land to agriculturists several thousand years ago. We are still mainly hunter-gatherers at sea. This reality has caused overfishing with many major fisheries depleted.

We need to go from hunter-gathering at sea to aquaculture. Many forms of sustainable aquaculture already exist, such as fish and shrimp farming, and shellfish cultivation. In our area oyster growing produces sustainable shellfish with many producers in Western Long Island Sound.

In recent years, the Eastern Sound has attracted shellfish growers with operations in Mystic and Niantic Bay. There are myriad benefits to shellfish aquaculture including fresh, local, renewable, sources of protein.

Our local waters, while productive, are beset by numerous problems. Industrial discharge, stormwater run-off, and non-point source pollution degrade the marine environment. Land based run-off adds excess nitrogen, which as a fertilizer promotes algae blooms. In the process of decomposition, oxygen is depleted causing hypoxia. Very little marine life can live in waters with low levels of oxygen.

The Western Sound generally is more susceptible to hypoxia. Here in the Eastern Sound our communities are less urbanized and the Sound has more mixing of ocean waters.

There was hypoxia in the upper Niantic River a few years ago, however, accompanied by fish kills and malodorous conditions. Shellfish are great filter feeders. An adult oyster can filter as much as 50 gallons a day of water. They remove nitrogen as part of the process.

In upper Narragansett Bay, for example — where shellfishing is prohibited due to the proximity of Providence’s industrialized zones — the 750 million hard-shelled clams (quahogs) filter a large percentage of the water on a daily basis. The spawn the clams produce help to replenish the lower bay’s harvested shellfish.

The Niantic River historically has had large harvests of bay scallops (argopectin irradians). In recent years, the population has been scarce. Most bay scallops consumed in the U.S. now come from overseas.

If we are to regain local shellfish in harvestable quantities, we need aquaculture to help us. Mystic and Niantic oysters are now available in local restaurants. Wouldn’t it be nice to add scallops, hard and soft shell clams to the mix?

Waters have been cleaned up a bit, with more eelgrass beds east of the Connecticut River. Eelgrass is indicative of cleaner water and provides a refuge for juvenile marine species. Bay scallops attach themselves to eelgrass stalks to escape predation until they’re large enough to survive on the bottom.

Aquaculture projects can be a win, win, win for the area.

  • They provide fresh, sustainable sources of local shellfish.
  • They improve water quality.
  • And the larvae produce the next generation in surrounding areas. Most shellfish commissions require a payment in kind of adult shellfish to be broadcast enhancing recreational beds.

Some characterize aquaculture projects as large, dirty, noisy, odor-producing nuisances. They are none of that. They generally encompass an area of cages and floats with regulatory buoys on the perimeter.

A waterman may be seen in a skiff tending the enclosure.

Connecticut has recently lost some prominent businesses and jobs. Our state and local communities should promote aquaculture for the economic benefits as well the environmental and quality of life advantages.

Those concerned with rapid depletion of pelagic fisheries or importation of fish and shellfish from other countries, some with lax environmental standards, should support aquaculture in local waters. We certainly can debate the size and placement of gear in our waters, but there should be no debate as to the benefits of properly managed and well maintained aquaculture projects.

For those who want to learn more, we are lucky to have an excellent resource in our backyard — Connecticut Sea Grant at the University of Connecticut at Avery Point. You can visit their website at to learn more about shellfish aquaculture.

Eric Kanter is a member of the Waterford/East Lyme Shellfish Commission. He lives on the Niantic River.




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