Oyster company begins effort to revive long-dormant Thames shellfish beds
Jimmy Bloom rose before 2 a.m. Friday morning, starting up his 60-ton shell boat the "Jeanne Christine," named after his grandmother, to meet a favorable tide and make the seven-hour trip from New Haven to New London.
"It's sixteen-hour days," he said of his work week when the oysters begin to spawn. "I've got my energy drinks ... we mentally prepare, we know it has to get done."
It's a good job, crew member Dave Lindenberger said, "if you're not afraid of manual labor, getting cold and getting hungry."
Bloom arrived with crew member Julio Jiménez and met Lindenberger and Noank Aquaculture Collective President Jim Markow on New London State Pier.
They set up in the Thames River to begin pouring shell on the riverbed in the first attempt in years to grow oysters in the river beds along Waterford and Ledyard.
The Aeros Cultured Oyster Co., which holds the leases, is a partnership between Markow, Norm Bloom — Jimmy Bloom's father — and Karen Rivara. Markow worked to secure the riverbed along the Ledyard side of the river, receiving approval earlier this year.
The beds have sat vacant since the late 1990s, though they were continually harvested since the late 1800s, he said. Markow himself worked with former Capt. Lawrence Malloy in the 1970s. Two years ago, he saw that the beds on the Waterford side began to show signs of life.
"Conditions in the river improved dramatically over the past few years," Markow said. He had been looking into rebuilding the beds for years.
However, years of neglect had left the beds clogged with sediment, almost uninhabitable for oysters looking for a surface to attach to, and the investment involved in rehabilitating them is significant, Markow said.
After working out the lease on the Ledyard side with the help of the town's Land Use, Planning and Public Works Committee, the company secured a spot at State Pier and spent "a lot of time" pulling garbage off the beds. This year, they decided to give it a try.
The boat brought 7,000 bushels — about 400,000 pounds — of dried and cleaned oyster shell from New Haven in a heap in the center, causing the boat to sit low in the water.
In a hatchery, oyster larvae are grown, carefully maintained and monitored at precise temperatures. In contrast, naturally set oysters attach themselves to bits of shell and grow naturally. Aeros does both.
"A lot of oyster companies went out of business (because) they didn't have a diversified source of seed," Markow said.
The goal is to spread a layer of the shells, called "culch," along a 7-acre swath of the river between Bartlett Cove and Long Cove. In the coming months, if all goes well, tiny oyster larvae that grow naturally in the Thames River will latch onto the shell and begin feeding.
Once oysters reach a certain size, they'll be dredged and moved to Pine Island and after that to Ram Island, where they'll stay until they're ready for market.
They'll use the same boat to suck up all the shell remaining on the bed, leave it out to dry in the sun for a year, and start the process again — regardless of whether they get a set.
"We're just skating over the bottom right now," Markow said, looking at the depth finder, which varied between 2 or 3 feet from the bottom as the boat circled around the beds. "We couldn't do this at low tide."
A high-powered pump in the boat pulled water up from the estuary and through a nozzle on either side of the ship. Crew members Jiménez and Lindenberger worked methodically and as symmetrically as possible, so as not to upset the boat, washing heaps of the shell, little by little, off either side of the mound and over the sideboard.
"You have to go to the corners and get the angle (right)," Jiménez said.
They hoped to achieve a roughly 2-inch layer along the bottom.
The natural-set oyster method allows them to produce many more oysters for a lot less cost. Naturally set oysters can grow in many places — Markow said when they dug up shell around the Thames River beds, they found oysters set around the edges of a discarded dinner plate, "like it was ready to be presented."
In other spots they've found oysters growing on car tires and on basically "every hard, smooth surface," Bloom said.
However, there's substantially more risk involved in trying to farm naturally set oysters, Bloom said.
Setting the shell during the two-week window is critical, according to Bloom. Too early and algae or sediment could cover the shell. Too late and the spawn could be finished. Storms and hurricanes are of particular concern, causing damage to the beds and lowering the salinity of the water that the oysters need to survive.
"It's kind of like going to the casino, but there's a lot more work involved," Markow said.
"It's our casino," Bloom added.
They'll know in early September whether the set has been successful, when the spat has reached the size of a pencil point. If so, they'll be ready for market after about two and a half to three years.
If this works, this will allow the company to increase the volume and meet their increasing demand for oysters. For this year, the shell was brought from New Haven, but Markow hopes in future years they'll be able to recycle the shell and store it locally, add a shucking plant and freeze some.
But after his yearslong effort to get the beds started, he's pleased with the results.
"There's a lot of people saying: 'I'm gonna,' (but) it's something to see it done."
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