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Connecticut's oystermen seek help after Irene

The damaged docks and scattered oysters left after Tropical Storm Irene tore through Long Island Sound this summer reveal only some of the problems Connecticut oystermen face in trying to rebuild their industry along the Mystic River.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The damaged docks and scattered oysters left after Tropical Storm Irene tore through Long Island Sound this summer reveal only some of the problems Connecticut oystermen face in trying to rebuild their industry along the Mystic River.

They worry a shutdown of more than a month will result in a permanent loss of customers and express irritation over what they consider a slow process to get permits for winter harvesting from the river and growing oysters in indoor tanks to extend their season. There's also some frustration at being regulated like fishermen when they consider themselves "growers," akin to farmers and in need of the same kinds of government aid.

Oystermen plant small shellfish in beds to grow and later be harvested. Like farmers, each has his own territory in which to plant.

James Markow, 55, estimated he lost $35,000, or about 20 percent of his annual sales, when he had to close operations for five weeks before, during and after the storm. The extended shutdown resulted from persistent rain that started even before Irene reached the sound, creating runoff and the threat of pollution.

"We've had just a flurry of things that have gone on to keep us closed," Markow said. "The economic hardship is really tough. It's not an easy business. An event like this is going to wipe people out."

Shellfishing, a traditional industry in New England, had largely died out in southeastern Connecticut when a few oystermen began working to revive it about 15 years ago. The industry now adds about $30 million to the state's economy each year and supports more than 300 jobs, according to a recent disaster aid request from the state's congressional delegation.

The federal government has been looking to foster the domestic seafood industry. More than four-fifths of the fish, clams, oysters and other seafood Americans ate in 2009 was imported, according to the latest figures from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

There's room for growth domestically because more upscale supermarkets are featuring shellfish, there's growing demand for locally produced food and the U.S. faces competition for foreign seafood from China and India, which are importing more shellfish to feed their growing middle classes, said Michael Rubino, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Aquaculture Program. Nationally, the shellfish industry generates $1 billion in wholesale sales each year, and it's growing, he said.

Louisiana is the largest producer of shellfish, with major industries on each coast in Washington state and Virginia, Rubino said. In Connecticut, the industry is still relatively small, and recent setbacks have the oystermen worried about hanging on. Most have repaired the damage from the storm, but they worry the restaurants and other customers who found other suppliers during their month-long shutdown won't be back.

"Once a customer gets his oysters from somebody else, it's over," Markow said.

Connecticut's congressional delegation has written a letter to U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, asking that shellfish growers be eligible for federal disaster aid for the storm's victims. Typically, they qualify only for low-interest loans, not grants, unless the shellfish are grown in controlled environments such as wire cages, according to the U.S. Farm Service Agency in Connecticut. Most Connecticut shellfish are grown in riverbeds.

Markow said the oystermen would like to grow more in controlled environments. He and others have asked for state permits for indoor tanks that can serve as an alternative to the river and provide a steady supply of oysters. They're also seeking permission for winter harvesting from the river.

"We'd like to hire more people and grow," he said. "It's tough to do that when all you hear is no."

David Carey, director of the Connecticut Department of Agriculture's aquaculture division, said it's in the final year of a three-year testing period for fecal matter and other contamination from storm runoff. So far, the prospect of winter harvesting "looks very favorable," but the state has to look at all the data, he said.

"We have to go through all the hoops," he said. "If someone gets sick, we're responsible."

Along with the request for disaster aid, Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., one of three New England congressmen on the House Agriculture Committee, is pushing federal legislation that would include shellfish among the specialty crops such as fruits, nuts, berries and flowers that qualify for federal marketing help.

"The fundamental issue is whether shellfish and aquaculture are going to receive parity with other forms of agriculture," Courtney said. "Hurricane Irene has exposed this disparity."

Shellfish growers can apply for federal disaster assistance available for the entire fisheries industry, but Markow said competition among the many segments makes that tough to get.

"We're not really considered farmers. We're not really considered fishermen," Markow said recently as he replaced cages and moved oysters to new beds 6 feet below the surface of the Mystic River. "You get caught in between. Aquaculture is still evolving."