Oyster companies propose restoring Thames Street pier

Groton — Two oyster companies are proposing to restore a pier and vacant property at Thames Street as a spot to stage their boats for their Thames River operations and safely store vessels during storms.

Norm Bloom and Son and Aeros Cultured Oysters, both members of the Noank Aquaculture Cooperative and working to make shellfish beds in the Thames River productive again, are partnering on the plan for the vacant site at 107 Thames St. at the bottom of Broad Street. The site once served as a boatyard with a marine railway for hauling boats and a wooden pier, according to the application filed with the city.

The city's Planning and Zoning Commission last month approved a site plan and special permit, and the companies now are seeking additional approvals, including from the state for the pier restoration.

The plan is to rebuild the existing wooden pier for up to four vessels, and then up to six vessels, once fire safety equipment is installed, said Lauren Gauthier, special projects manager for Norm Bloom and Son, which owns the land parcel. The dock would save time and fuel for boats — which now start out in Noank — as they travel to shellfish beds in the Thames River as far as the northernmost boundary of Ledyard, she said.   

In an effort to help generate growth in the Thames River, five "set tanks" would be installed on each end of the waterfront property. In the tanks, oyster larvae would settle on a piece of shell and grow out until they aren't as susceptible to predation and then could be planted on shellfish beds in the river, Gauthier said.

The project comes as the aquaculture industry is increasing at a rapid pace in the state and waterfront access is extremely hard to come by, Gauthier said.

"We’re very grateful that the City of Groton wants to keep the waterfront as a water-dependent use and wants to support a working waterfront," said Gauthier, adding that the parcel is a perfect addition, especially given all the work they're doing in the Thames River. 

"It really serves as a great staging site for our boats, and as we’re growing the hatchery part of the business, it gives us a lot of flexibility in being able to try out different grow-out experiments here on site, especially since oysters can be very sensitive to their environment," she said. "If we want to do some sort of hatchery-raised or aquacultured oyster in the Thames, it’s best to have them tempered to the Thames River itself ... the temperature, the salinity and the nutrient content that’s coming out of the river naturally."

Members of the co-op have been working closely with the state, Sea Grant and the federal government to upgrade the water quality classifications in the Thames River to make it a viable spot for growing oysters and are continuing that work now, she said.

Jim Markow, president of Aeros Cultured Oyster Company, said companies have been making a lot of effort over the past few years in trying to get the long-fallow Thames River beds, in areas north of the Naval Submarine Base and up to the northern boundary of Ledyard, productive again.

"We’re having some success and, like any of this, it takes a long time," he said.

He said there were no oysters in the river years ago, but then they put in hatchery oysters and slowly started to make headway in the natural production. As they get the boats working more, they can get more riverbed developed and make the river more productive, but he noted that it will take a lot of time since the river has long been fallow.

Markow, who worked with Capt. Lawrence Malloy on the river in the 1970s and has seen how productive the Thames can be, said it's important to keep trying.

"It just needs that opportunity and commitment to make it happen," he said.

Markow said the Thames Street site is easily a million-dollar project that will take work and time, but the hope, if all goes to plan, will be to dock boats there every day of the week and keep the river grounds productive and grow the industry. He said staging the boats in the City of Groton, rather than starting out from Noank to go to the Thames River, would save about three hours a day in travel time and about 150 gallons of fuel a week.

The site is slated to include retaining walls, a driveway into an open crushed-stone work yard landscaped with plants, and two parking spaces on the upper area and four on the lower level for no more than a four-person cab pickup truck. Gauthier said the companies will not be moving product through the site.

The gated site will feature a public information sign on the stone wall to inform passersby on Thames Street about aquaculture.

"I think it's great to have another business in the city and another business on Thames Street. It shows that Thames Street is economically viable," said City Mayor Keith Hedrick, adding that the water dependent-use is another element the city is seeking for economic development in that area.

On the heels of National Oyster Day earlier this month, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., visited the Noank Aquaculture Cooperative on Friday to call attention to the importance of oysters to Connecticut aquaculture and the state's agriculture in general. He noted the state's history in growing oysters and asked questions about the growing process during a tour of the hatchery.

"This oyster aquaculture is really key to our future in Connecticut," Blumenthal said after the tour. "It really is a sweet spot for growing really nutritious food that is natural to these waters and these folks are enhancing the product in a very natural, but scientific way."

k.drelich@theday.com

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