Interested in the fate of Connecticut-grown oysters and their many edible cousins?
The state sees shellfish as a crucial part of the environment and the agricultural economy, and is looking for public input on a draft guide to restoring and expanding their growing beds that now approach 100,000 acres in Long Island Sound and adjacent waterways – with the potential to triple that.
“We have these beautiful oyster beds that span from New Haven all the way to Greenwich, and they serve so many ecosystem purposes,” Tessa Getchis, an aquaculture specialist at UConn-based CT Sea Grant, told CT Examiner on Tuesday. “They provide food and jobs and clean water and protect our shoreline from erosion.”
The 122-page draft Connecticut Shellfish Restoration Guide contains an encyclopedic amount of information.
Its maps and surveys depict a grid of established and potential shellfish beds along virtually the state’s entire coastline, as well as how to navigate the state and federal regulatory process to work them.
Those “decision-making tools” are designed to help new or existing shellfish harvesters develop individual plans for restoration and catch, and for the state to identify high-priority projects for potential funding.
Sales of Connecticut shellfish – including hard-shell clams, mussels and the increasingly-popular oyster – are estimated at about $25 million a year and create about 300 jobs. The highest concentration of natural shellfish beds is in the western Sound, off the Fairfield County coast.
Comments should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org regarding information that may be missing in the draft guide, how it may impact specific shellfish-based lines of work or activities, and how the commenter may play a role in the guide’s recommendations.
Part of the plan includes creating a committee of state and federal agencies, academia, and not-for-profit organizations to develop a strategy based on the guide’s final version.
CT Sea Grant is partnering on the project with an array of state and federal agencies, including the state Dept. of Energy and Environmental Protection and the state Dept. of Agriculture, which has a Milford-based unit dedicated to aquaculture that regulates commercial and recreational shellfishing.
David Carey, director of the unit, said the guide is another example of the department’s 15-year collaboration with CT Sea Grant to bolster the state’s shellfish population and associated industries.
According to Carey, the guide “provides a unique opportunity for the shellfish industry and organizations to build a system of continued investment in sustaining and enhancing wild oyster populations to provide additional oyster seed production.”
The guide is being funded by a grant from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
It will help identify where and how the state should target high-priority commercial and recreational restoration projects for future funding.
Bed-restoration work typically involves dredging the mud bottoms with a rake-and-net device attached to a boat that overturns old shell and growing oysters buried in the thick layer of silt.
Small seed oysters and more mature specimens are weeded out, and the old empty shell and some seed oysters are deposited back on the bed floor to attract oyster larvae that will attach to the shell and grow.
Other than their popularity for eating, shellfish also serve as important filters for various toxins that seep into their habitats, such as fertilizer, sewage, and animal waste that are picked up in stormwater runoff.
Those pollutants, according to the draft guide, can fuel the excessive growth of algae which shades the seafloor, resulting in reduced photosynthesis and oxygen and reduced water clarity and quality to support marine life.
Shellfish combat the negative impacts of toxins by consuming microscopic algae and storing nitrogen, effectively removing it from the water.
In a pilot study conducted off Greenwich, researchers estimated that oyster and clam aquaculture provides $2.8–$5.8 million in services that remove excess nitrogen from the water.
An increase in water runoff and ongoing development on the shoreline is also causing more sediment to flow onto the beds, in some cases choking off the growing shellfish.
“Intense precipitation events and development-related hardened impervious surfaces both have resulted in increased stormwater flow,” according to the draft guide. “Some natural beds, considered prime oyster habitat in the past, cannot keep up with the rate of sedimentation and are rapidly being buried.”