There's no keeping a good oyster down - or off the market - in Connecticut.
A shellfish restoration program in Connecticut's portion of Long Island Sound has turned a declining industry into a model of economic development and environmental restoration and partnership.
The shellfish industry in Connecticut peaked in the late 1800s, over 100 years ago, when there were an estimated 600 firms employing more than 2,000 people. Nearly two million bushels of oysters were produced annually. By the mid-1930s, the shellfish industry was in decline. In 1989, only about 250,000 bushels a year were harvested.
Today this industry is being turned around. A lot of the credit for this success should go to a Connecticut Department of Agriculture program that is giving the state's oyster industry a fresh start.
Here's how it works: the state purchases cultch, which is planted on public seed beds by volunteers. (Cultch is material, usually oyster shells, that is laid down on oyster grounds to furnish points of attachment for young oysters.) In the summer, oyster larvae naturally settle on the cultch and are harvested by private, licensed individuals in the fall and spring. The seed is sold to harvesters for growth on leased beds. It takes three to four years for an oyster to get planted and grow to market size.
Polluted beds are a problem for most shellfish producing states. Industrial areas are generally the worst, where harvesting is banned. If the water is not too far gone, however, these same areas can be used as seed beds.
"You can really make use of the restricted areas as nurseries and develop them as a shellfish resource," says John Volk, director of the Bureau of Aquaculture for Connecticut. "While these waters may not be safe for harvesting, it's good water for raising oysters. The oyster will purify itself once it is planted in the leased bed. And as time goes on, you see improvements in waste water treatments and cleaning up of shoreline areas and many areas get reopened."
In addition to the positive environmental benefits of this program, the economic benefits are also substantial. In 1995, more than 750,000 bushels of oysters were produced. There were an estimated 450 people directly employed by the oyster industry, and more than 46,000 acres leased for farming. A recent survey shows an expected increase in consumer demand, followed by increased prices.
"We've planted six million bushels of cultch to restore these areas," Volk said. "We've really put Connecticut on the map as an oyster producer."
Each time a bushel of oyster seeds is sold, 10 percent of the sale goes back to the state to purchase more cultch and to manage the program. The transplanting is supervised by the state shellfish control agency. The program is based on the standards of the National Shellfish Sanitation Program administered by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Meanwhile, Connecticut, New York, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have joined forces in a bi-state, multi-million dollar study of effluent and effluent treatment plants along Long Island Sound. As water quality improves, more and more habitat will come on line for shellfish harvesting.
For more information on the restoration program, contact John Volk at 203-874-0696.