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Recreational shellfish beds change location in Niantic River

Known for its recreational shellfishing areas, the Niantic River is a prime spot in the region for both vacationers and residents alike to search for their own clams to bake and grill each summer.

But those planning to dig for their dose of summer shellfish in the river’s beds will need to do so in a new spot after the state’s Bureau of Aquaculture changed the boundaries of recreational shellfishing areas this month.

That’s because boats have been mooring more often in areas typically open to shellfish seekers year-round, said Alissa Dragan, a Bureau of Aquaculture environmental analyst. More specifically, she said there has been more boating activity in the area off Sandy Point, further sparking the need for the change.

Because recreational boating and mooring can raise the risk of water contamination, making shellfish unsafe to eat, federal regulations dictate that recreational beds be located a certain distance away from marina, mooring and boating areas.

“I don’t know if the overall number of boats have increased, but their location has changed and the activity has changed,” Dragan said by phone last week. “And you can’t have that near open shellfishing area." She said she surveyed the river, counted boats and mapped their locations over recent months before determining the seasonal and year-round bed boundaries needed to change.

Previously, the river had been split in two main recreational shellfishing areas, with an area encompassing the northern half of the river and open to shellfishing year-round, while a “conditionally approved seasonal” area encompassed the southern half of the river and was only open to recreational shellfishers during colder months.

Now, the bureau has dictated that a new recreational clamming area in the middle of the river will be open during summer months, while two areas to the north and south of the river will be open only during colder months, eliminating some areas previously open during the summer.

The changes essentially relocate the boundaries of the river’s summertime recreational area southward to the middle of the river and will encompass shoreline off Pine Grove and extending from Wood Street to 9th Avenue in Waterford.

The new boundaries will eliminate summertime shellfishing areas off Sandy Point, as well as areas off Quarry Dock Road in East Lyme and shoreline extending north of 5th Avenue in Waterford. Those eliminated areas still can be utilized during colder months, Dragan said, and the overall acreage of summer-month beds has not been significantly changed.

“I know people are pretty passionate about clamming and some are upset about how much (boating) activity there has been in the river around those beds. For others, it will be a change to get used to,” Dragan said. “They will just have to check their map, check their signs and there should be beach access points in those areas.”

She added that she “suspects” there will be more clams to find in the new area.

Dragan said she has been in close communication with the Waterford-East Lyme Shellfish Commission, which oversees shellfishing in the river, throughout the process. WELSCO Chairman Peter Harris said by phone last week the commission is now putting up new demarcation signs and printing new maps to inform residents of the changes.

Outlets, such as Hillyer's Tackle Shop in Waterford, which sell seasonal and day clamming permits, also will provide notification of the exact changes, Harris said. Clamming permits also may be purchased at East Lyme and Waterford town halls.

Dragan and Harris said that despite changed boundary lines, they believe recreational shellfishers will get more time to dig for their clams this summer after the bureau also recently raised the rainfall cap for river beds from 1 inch to 1½ inches after years of collecting and analyzing water quality data in the river. The Niantic Bay's rain cap also was raised earlier this year from 1 inch to 3 inches.

“An inch and a half is a significant amount of rain,” Harris said. “So we (those beds) will not be closed nearly as much as we were in the past. It helps us out because the more days we can stay open, the more people can go clamming and the more permits they can purchase. So that is very good news.”

m.biekert@theday.com

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