Two efforts underway to reseed Niantic river with shellfish

East Lyme — The Waterford-East Lyme Shellfish Commission and Niantic shellfish farmer Tim Londregan dispersed more than 20,000 juvenile scallops into the river last week, marking the second shellfish seeding initiative in the river in recent months.

According to both Londregan — who owns the Niantic Bay Shellfish Farm — and shellfish commission Chairman Peter Harris, the project is an effort to replenish and restore the river’s once-abundant scallop population alongside another recent seeding initiative for oysters.

The oyster project, sponsored by Rescue Our River, an advocacy group formed in recent years to oppose industrial shellfish farming on the river and preserve “its quality of life," took place in November. It dispersed more than 100,000 juvenile oysters in the river with the hope of establishing a self-sustaining population and creating recreational oystering opportunities for the general public.

"These sort of projects are not something we do every year, but I think there was some strong public support for the oyster initiative and that fed into Londregan’s scallop initiative,” said Harris. “I think the commission believed both these projects were well supported by the public."

The oysters were placed in a part of the river near Sandy Point that features the harder river bottom conducive for oysters, while Londregan’s scallops were placed off parts of East Lyme’s Pine Grove neighborhood where scallops can hide in eel grass to avoid predators.

Though the Niantic River is better known for its recreational clamming and scalloping opportunities, Harris said, the possibility of bolstering its oyster population for recreational purposes was an exciting prospect for the commission as well as the surrounding community, as it will offer more opportunities to connect with the river. Londregan’s project, meanwhile, could potentially restore what was once a bountiful river scallop population that has  been historically important to the identity of Niantic. The scallop is the East Lyme symbol.

Londregan’s project was also especially appealing, Harris said, in the wake of this year's low scallop season yield — the first scallop season the river has seen in four years and which ended last Wednesday.

According to East Lyme resident Lewis Bull, a former lobsterman and current employee of Hillyer’s Tackle Shop on the river in Waterford, there were about 500 scallops available for harvest this year, based on his estimates after talking with scallopers. Years ago, he said, there were typically 50,000 or 60,000 available during a good season.

The drop in scallop populations over the last three decades has sparked several theories, none of which can be confirmed, according to Harris and Bull. Meanwhile they said the native oyster populations have always remained low and inspired less recreational activity compared to clams and scallops.

The shellfish commission financed the $3,000 scallop project and purchased the scallops from Londregan, the only commercial scallop provider in the state, Harris said, while Rescue Our River financed its $10,000 oyster project in part through a GoFundMe donation page and through its members.

Londregan grew the scallops at his hatchery in Stonington over the last year after the commission allowed him to collect about 100 scallops to use as stock to grow the more than 20,000 that were placed in the river last week. Harris has said that Londregan, who has been the subject of a recent cease-and-desist order with East Lyme claiming he is in violation of its zoning regulations, has received all necessary permits from the state Bureau of Aquaculture under the Department of Agriculture to collect, hatch, grow and sell the scallops.

The oysters were grown in a Noank-based shellfish hatchery owned by shellfisher Jim Markow, who also owns Mystic Oysters and is president of Noank Aquaculture Cooperative, before being placed in the river.

This isn’t the first time the shellfish commission has attempted seeding initiatives to bolster clam, oyster and scallop populations, Harris said, but in years past, scallop seeding initiatives, in particular, have failed. He said that's because scallops are far more temperamental to changing environments than oysters, and often don't survive. Markow added he has attempted several scallop-seeding initiatives in Groton, Mystic and Stonington with no success.

Markow said he believes the oysters he recently placed in the river are likely to survive until they are ready for harvest this fall because of their size, as well as the low number of predators, such as crabs and starfish, in the river right now.

Londregan said he too is confident his scallops will weather the coming months because of their larger size, which ranges from three-fourths of an inch to two inches. 

“I wasn’t going to sell (the commission) something if I wasn’t confident in their survivability from predators,” Londregan said. “I’m not guaranteeing against other natural events such a fresh water, spills, or other factors. But we did everything in our power to make this a viable project.”

"My whole philosophy has always been that the working waterfront in Niantic is known for its shellfish," Londregan continued. "We've degraded the river by all the development, the lack of certain precautions, the construction of the railroad. ... So I don't want to see that natural resource gone forever. Scalloping, clamming, oystering are the heart and essence of Niantic."

m.biekert@theday.com

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