Oyster 'Farming' May Help Chesapeake

October 09, 1994|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun Staff Writer

NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- Weathered sticks peek like day-old whiskers out of the murky harbor here, not far offshore from the fuel tank farms, aging factories and highways that line the waterfront.

Easy to mistake for debris, the sticks actually mark the boundaries of dozens of private shellfish beds, where acres of oysters are cultivated on the harbor bottom.

From waters at the western end of Long Island Sound, Connecticut's shellfish "farmers" last year produced 800,000 bushels of oysters -- more than 10 times what Maryland and Virginia watermen took from the Chesapeake Bay.

While Maryland watermen expect slim pickings again when their oyster season opens Thursday, their counterparts in Connecticut expect another bumper crop.

The contrasts are jarring. Since the mid-1980s, microscopic parasites have sharply cut Chesapeake oyster harvests, once the largest in the nation. Yet Connecticut's take has soared since 1987, when it was less than 70,000 bushels.

By 1992, Connecticut ranked second in the nation behind Louisiana in production, and the premium price commanded by "Blue Points," as Long Island Sound oysters are known, yielded $44 million for the harvest, an income second to none.

Why the revival? Favorable water and weather conditions, experts here say, but also a tradition of "farming" the bottom that dates to the 1700s. Add to that a willingness to adopt modern-day mechanization, replacing the traditional, labor-intensive oystering techniques still practiced in Maryland.

Aboard the Columbia, an old Coast Guard buoy tender refitted to dredge oysters, John H. Volk spreads out a map of New Haven harbor to show that much of its bottom is carved into private plots. They are the key to Connecticut's booming industry, explains Mr. Volk, the state aquaculture director. "If it's a piece of ground you can call your own, you're willing to maintain it. Without aquaculture, we wouldn't have oysters."

Maryland has never had a strong tradition of aquaculture. Though the state has set aside 10,000 acres of bay bottom for lease to raise oysters, only about 1,000 acres are used. And those private beds have not been spared by MSX and Dermo, the parasites that have ravaged 200,000 acres of public oyster bars.

The Oyster Recovery Partnership, a new nonprofit group seeking to revive the Maryland industry, sees possible lessons in the way Connecticut oyster beds are tended. MSX and Dermo never have gained more than a toehold here.

"This may have applicability to Chesapeake Bay," said Dennis T. Walsh, aquaculture consultant to the group, which brings together watermen, environmentalists, scientists and government officials. Mr. Walsh and others from the Annapolis-based organization visited Connecticut last month.

They found an industry dominated by a single company, Tallmadge Brothers Inc. of Norwalk, which fields a fleet of 22 vessels to tend 20,000 acres of oyster grounds in the sound that the company owns or leases from the state.

Hillard Bloom, the owner of Tallmadge Brothers, has built a small family business into "the Cadillac of the oyster industry," says Terry Backer, known as the "Soundkeeper" because he heads a nonprofit group of that name which fights pollution in Long Island Sound.

Mr. Bloom, son of a plumber, paints himself as more of a survivor than a visionary who has built a shellfish empire worth millions.

"In the 1950s, most of the oyster companies went pretty well out," he recalls. "We jumped into clamming, and it saved us." As the other oyster companies folded, Mr. Bloom bought their docks and oyster grounds. He also mechanized the business, buying and refitting an old ferryboat, the Coast Guard tender and other vessels.

Rich maritime heritage

About 150 miles long and 18 miles at its widest, Long Island Sound is roughly the same size as the Chesapeake but is deeper and colder. Only the western end is estuarine like the bay, with fresh water from rivers diluting the salty influence of the Atlantic Ocean. Oysters grow best in those western waters.

Connecticut has a maritime heritage as rich as Maryland's, and oysters have been an important part of the state's history. Among the first laws passed in the 1700s were restrictions on harvesting oysters from the beaches. Eventually, a fleet of 400 sailing sloops plied the sound's waters harvesting oysters.

By the early 1800s, the beds closest to shore had been wiped out by over-harvesting, and Chesapeake oysters were imported as replacements, especially in the New Haven area. The crisis prompted some Connecticut watermen to experiment; they spread shells on the bottom to catch newly spawned oysters settling down through the water. (Young oysters begin life as tiny swimmers but need to attach to a hard surface to grow their shells.)

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