Shellfish proposals sign of healthier waterways

If you live next door to a town park, you might sometimes share your neighborhood with vendors who sell their produce at a farmer’s market, young soccer players and families cheering them on, or community gardeners who rent plots to grow tomatoes and green beans. These groups must all get permission from the town to use the public space, agree to follow the rules for what they can and can’t do and may pay a fee for the privilege.

Shellfish farmers using a public waterway for their crop are a lot like those park users. They go through the process of getting permission, agree to any restrictions, and pay to use space in the shared waterway. The well-established system in place for vetting, revising and approving aquaculture projects is strictly governed by federal, state and local authorities, with opportunities for public input along the way. A form of aquaculture that dates back centuries, shellfish farming is as much a part of Connecticut’s cultural and historic identity as apple orchards and town greens, and the state’s $30 million annual shellfish harvest a point of pride for our maritime economy.

Lately, these permitting processes have been getting tested by shellfish farming proposals in the Niantic River and in Quiambaug Cove in Stonington. That’s a good thing. Decisions are not being made hastily or capriciously, but with proper deliberation and a fair airing of different viewpoints.

But it’s also a good thing that these proposals are being made at all. Think back to the 1980s, when dead zones in part of Long Island Sound launched a movement to upgrade the sewage treatment plants emptying into the estuary. The investment has paid off. As water quality has improved, marine life has rebounded, including the clams, oysters, mussels and scallops in demand by residents who enjoy recreational shellfishing that in turn supports tackle shops and marinas.

Cleaner marine waters have also benefitted the commercial farmers who supply the increasing demand from restaurants and fish markets. Any waterway clean enough to support shellfish is further enhanced as the shellfish filter the excessive nitrogen from over-fertilized lawns and gardens along the shoreline and beyond. Basically, if you live on a tidal waterway, bivalves are good neighbors, and so are the farmers who plant the shellfish seed and tend their crop. Their livelihoods depend on it.

While the particulars of the two local proposals are attracting much attention, there’s also a big-picture context to consider. From the Chesapeake Bay to New York Harbor to coastal New England, shellfish aquaculture and shellfish bed restoration is in a decades-long revival, thanks in part to the work of groups such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center lab in Milford and Sea Grant programs in Connecticut and other coastal states.

In the Chesapeake and New York Harbor, major oyster reef restoration projects are providing an antidote to decades of pollution. Natural shellfish beds, previously choked off by development of roads and railways, are being re-established to restore ecosystem function. Shellfish − those low-on-the-food-chain creatures some anthropologists believe provided a key source of easily accessible protein that spurred brain development in early man − still offers services to benefit the well-being of humans in their economies and environments where they live, work and play. Plus they’re nutritious.

And for any who doubt whether shellfish and shellfish farms would be a desirable part of your community, check out the menu of the legendary Grand Central Oyster Bar Restaurant in New York City. Among its menu of more than 200 kinds of oysters, you’ll find those hailing from some of the toniest towns on the East Coast, where real estate prices are if anything enhanced by the association with a delicacy grown in their local waters. You can order oysters from Watch Hill or Block Island, R.I. Perhaps you’d prefer the offerings from Fishers Island, N.Y., or the Mystic River here in Connecticut. How about oysters from Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket, or perhaps Wellfleet on Cape Cod? Maybe one day, Niantic River and Quiambaug Cove oysters will join this storied list, alongside all those other exclusive seaside enclaves.

Judy Benson is the communications coordinator for Connecticut Sea Grant and the former health and environment reporter for The Day. Tessa Getchis is Sea Grant’s aquaculture extension specialist. Connecticut Sea Grant is based at the University of Connecticut’s Avery Point campus in Groton.




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