As more beds open along eastern shoreline, shellfish industry better poised to grow

Local shellfishermen and experts say the opening and upgrading of several shellfish beds along the eastern shoreline is cause for celebration, with the industry now in a better position to flourish and surrounding waters steadily become healthier.

In recent months, the state’s Bureau of Aquaculture has announced several new and expanded shellfishing areas along the region’s shoreline from Madison to Stonington, including a new area in Clinton, two upgraded areas in Madison and a re-opened seasonal area in Groton’s Mumford Cove. A pair of commercial shellfishing areas in the Niantic Bay and lower Mystic River also have been upgraded, greatly aiding the shellfishermen who rely on those beds.

More recreational areas are planned in East Lyme, Stonington and possibly Old Saybrook, pending water quality tests, while Old Lyme has expressed interest in opening a new recreational area off its shores in what’s otherwise been restricted waters for years due to septic issues.

“The big picture is that we are now working more closely with the Bureau of Aquaculture than we ever have before, and it’s a very cooperative arrangement right now,” Stonington Shellfish Commission Chairman Don Murphy said. And because of that, “recreational and commercial shellfishing are becoming powerful forces in improving water quality.”

But getting to this point has been no easy task, said Alissa Dragan, a Bureau of Aquaculture environmental analyst. Dragan has worked closely with the local commissions, wardens, shellfishermen and researchers in the area over the last four years to help upgrade or open new beds, thereby expanding and supporting shellfishing throughout eastern parts of the state.

In order to open or upgrade an area, the bureau must conduct extensive land surveys, requiring Dragan to physically inspect the town’s shorelines, ensuring hazardous storm runoff or septic leaks are not flowing into the water, while collecting and analyzing years' worth of data proving healthy water quality. Miss too many months of testing, and a shellfishing area will be downgraded or closed.

“The problem with the ordinance is that it is very protective of public health and once you make a downward change, it's very labor intensive to go back up,” Dragan said, explaining that the bureau must comply with strict federal ordinances on water health needed for safe shellfish consumption, outlined in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s National Shellfish Sanitation Program.

Unlike in the western side of the state, where the shellfishing industry is more concentrated, the bureau also hasn't had enough staff to conduct water tests on the eastern end of the state, and has relied on local shellfish wardens — paid by town commissions through revenue from recreation permit fees — to collect dozens of water samples from their shellfishing areas every month. The dozens of samples are then transported to the state’s lab in Milford for testing and analyzing.

Without collaboration between all the parties, the process of consistently collecting water samples quickly could become muddled, as was the case in 2014, when angst between the bureau and shellfish commissions unclear about regulations hindered the local industry, according to Day archives.

That has since turned around, as the bureau and its analysts have made efforts to hire more analysts and lab staff — keeping labs open on Sundays — and foster better lines of communication, Dragan and others told The Day.

Those relationships, in large part, also were fostered through efforts of Connecticut Sea Grant, which helped form the Connecticut Shellfish Initiative, connecting industry leaders to achieve goals.

“Connecticut Sea Grant brought people together to basically identify what were the challenges and opportunities for all things shellfish in the state,” Tessa Getchis, an aquaculture extension specialist at Connecticut Sea Grant, said in an interview.

“Those improved relationships helped to make things happen,” she said, detailing that in 2017, the 14 coastal towns with shellfishing areas — now 15 with the recent addition of the Clinton bed — generated nearly $30 million in revenue annually, employing hundreds of people throughout dozens of companies, some of whom are diversifying into kelp farming.

And according to a 2017 study done by the Department of Agriculture and the University of Connecticut, aquaculture makes up about 5% of the state’s total agriculture sales.

“Recreational shellfishing is important to the local economy,” she said, as permit sales alone generate more than $100,000 annually throughout the 15 towns, generating “a multiplier effect to the local economy” of more than $2 million.

An interdependent collaboration

All shellfishing beds are closed after certain amounts of rainfall, due to the potential that pollution from runoff could contaminate the shellfish. But beds can be upgraded, or have higher rainfall limits, if testing proves water quality remains stable even after heavier rain.

Locally, such upgrades would not have been possible without the shellfish wardens who conduct the needed water testing.

East Lyme/Waterford Shellfish Warden Rich Chmiel has collected water samples from more than 20 sites throughout the Niantic Bay and river every month for the last three years, which was paramount in upgrading bay beds.

The beds, which are open year-round to both recreational and commercial shellfish harvesters, now may remain open through a 3-inch rainfall. Previously, they were set to close after a 1-inch rainfall.

Raising a limit often takes years of consistent testing, as was the case here. But now that the limit has been raised, Niantic Bay Shellfish Farm owner Tim Londregan said that change will significantly aid his operations.

“As a business trying to ship shellfish and make money, you have to really be in a 3-inch proof area to have consistency,” Londregan said, explaining that with the 1-inch rain cap, his beds were forced to close eight to 15 weeks in a year. “If you’re closed for five weeks in the summer, it’s not good. I can’t say its cost me too many clients — maybe one or two, but it's really just lost income.”

With the 3-inch rainfall cap, he said he expects his beds to be closed only two to three weeks this year; last year saw only two rainfalls exceeding more than 3 inches.

In the case of a newly upgraded bed in the lower Mystic River, where shellfishermen from the Noank Shellfishing Cooperative lay their oysters to grow over 70 acres of river bottom, collaboration there also was vital.

The lower river bed originally was classified as a relay area, where shellfish could grow but had to be moved out to the Long Island Sound before harvesting. But it recently was upgraded to a seasonal area, allowing for direct harvesting there in the winter.

That change took a decade of work, including a significant filtration upgrade at a riverside sewage treatment plant in 2015, as well as years of water testing proving that discharge from the plant was free of bacteria.

Jim Markow, president of the Noank Aquaculture Cooperative and owner of Aeros Cultured Oyster Company, which grows the Mystic brand oysters in that portion of the river, said Thursday morning after stepping off his boat that work is safer and more efficient for harvesters now because those beds can be directly harvested in the winter.

“What it does for us is that it gives us an opportunity to work in the winter where we don’t have to jeopardize ourselves as much being out in the rougher water out in the Sound, so this definitely helps us a lot,” Markow said. “It gives us more opportunity to work with the towns, too.”

Describing the town’s shellfish commission, the shellfishing industry and state regulators as interdependent, Markow said one entity can’t survive without the others — a system that’s now been made even stronger with increased communication and collaboration in recent years.

As part of that cycle, commercial shellfishermen often make efforts to expand recreational areas to aid local shellfish commissions. Starting in April, Markow said the cooperative will help transplant native clams to both Groton and Stonington recreational beds to boost shellfishing activity there for the community.

In January, Londregan made a similar effort when he sold and dispersed more than 20,000 scallops grown in his hatchery into the Niantic River.

“Having a robust recreational program is very important,” Markow said, because commissions “will sell permits and the permits then pay for the wardens and boats to do water testing.”

“So we try any way we can to help them,” he continued. “Without them being in a position to help us, if we didn’t have the recreation programs, it would basically shut the commercial land down.”

Markow said this cycle between shellfish farmers and local commissions also relies entirely on clean water to maintain itself.

“Water quality must be good in order to eat shellfish,” said Murphy, the Stonington Shellfish Commission chairman. “The commercial folks are obviously in this for the profit, but because their business depends on clean water, they depend on documenting that clean water through the shellfish commission, who then relay pollution issues to towns, who then must resolve those contamination issues.”

Shellfish themselves keep the water clean, but it’s the industry that makes the push for clean water, he said.

“It’s a real big success story,” Markow said. “It’s a cause and effect. ... Now we have a good brand of shellfish here, people eat our oysters all over the country and we ship everywhere. We have a good product and we are producing something that basically cleans the water and continues to help the overall quality of life here.”

m.biekert@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects that shellfish farmer Tim Londregan sold more than 20,000 scallops to the Waterford-East Lyme Shellfish Commission.

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