Connecticut’s Shellfishing Industry

July 9, 2010

The summer months are finally upon us. This is the time of year for cookouts and picnics with family and friends. The most important part of these events, besides the weather, is what’s on the menu. Hamburgers, hot dogs, corn-on-the-cob and watermelon are all staples of the warm weather season. For those who enjoy seafood, our region is home to the old fashioned New England clam bake, where people gather throughout the summer and fall to enjoy lobsters, steamers and mussels – with the shellfish oftentimes coming from the waters that make up our state’s coastline.

While Connecticut is in a prime location for fresh shellfish, the shellfish industry as a whole is facing challenges. According to the Connecticut Department of Agriculture (DOAg), negative publicity about the health problems associated with oysters coming from other states has hurt the shellfish market. The oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico is certainly causing greater angst regarding the safety of the shellfish, resulting in less consumption.

Nevertheless, Connecticut oysters continue to be in high demand – some might even say more so with the spill in the Gulf continuing to worsen. The DOAg says that the reason for this is “the reputation for quality and the outstanding safety record that has been established by the Connecticut industry.”

This reputation may be due in part to a 2004 law passed by the General Assembly. PA 04-223 created strong standards for the leasing of shellfish grounds and for the health testing of shellfish in Connecticut. The law also gave local shellfish commissions the authority to use power dredges to restore natural shellfish beds in certain areas.

Today, more than 70,000 acres of underwater land of Long Island Sound are leased by the state’s agriculture agency as well as by local municipal shellfish commissions to farmers through a bidding process. The leasing of these grounds allows farmers to plant, cultivate and harvest their shellfish crops. Because of this, the DOAg says that “through proper care and investment in their leases, the industry has perpetuated, and greatly enhanced, the shellfish resources in the Sound.”

Connecticut’s shellfish industry has been around for generations. While many parts of the industry are doing well here, the same cannot be said for the state’s lobster fishermen. Some have estimated that lobster fishing in Long Island Sound has been around for over 300 years. Today it is struggling. At its height, Connecticut was home to over 1,300 lobstermen. That number has been reduced to nearly a handful.

For over a decade, the number of lobsters in Long Island Sound has been dwindling. According to an August 31, 2009 article in the Connecticut Post, Connecticut lobstermen caught nearly 400,000 pounds of lobster in 2008, which was a 31 percent drop from 2007 and less than one-tenth of the 3.7 million pounds hauled in during the industry’s recorded peak in 1998. There are a number of theories as to why this is the case, from disease, to warmer water temperatures, to illegal dredging of the Sound’s floor. That is why enforcement and monitoring of the waterway is so important.
In 2009, the legislature created the Bi-State Long Island Sound Commission in conjunction with the state of New York that coordinates and recommends laws concerning the body of water. The commission also has the responsibility to “review and consider major environmental, ecological and energy issues that affect the Sound.” This commission will help protect this great resource by enforcing regulations and studying issues that do have an effect on its wildlife.

In recent years, Connecticut has made substantial investments in promoting tourism and attracting people to our state. One of our state’s greatest assets is Long Island Sound and the shellfish that are harvested there is one of the reasons that make it as such. That is why we must to do everything we can to protect our coastlines. In doing so, we can help an industry to survive.